Night on the Town – An Irishman’s Diary about James Joyce, Monto, and the Magdalene laundries

James Joyce

James Joyce

 

In the Circe episode of Ulysses, a guilty Leopold Bloom pays a visit to “Nighttown” (aka Monto, Dublin’s red light district circa 1904), and imagines running into an old flame, Mrs Breen, who also happens to know his wife.  

She exults in his discomfort: “Mr Bloom! You down here in the haunts of sin! I caught you nicely!” So slipping into emergency small-talk mode, he agrees it doesn’t look good, while also entering a defence: “Short cut home here. Interesting quarter. Rescue of fallen women. Magdalen Asylum. I am the secretary.”

This is broadly plausible.  

The Magdalen asylum (aka Gloucester Street Laundry) was a well-established institution in the area, run by nuns for the reform of former prostitutes in the then most notorious area of its kind in Europe.

If he had indeed been secretary of the charity, Bloom might well have been on the way home from a meeting.

He wasn’t, on either score.  

But as the chapter unfolds, he does prove to be on a rescue mission of sorts. His target is not “fallen women”. It’s his fallen friend, Stephen (a model for the real-life Joyce), who does indeed take a tumble in Nighttown, albeit only after getting punched by a British soldier.

Like some visitors to Monto, that f-word led a double life in Edwardian times, and soldiers were involved in both parts. If you were a “fallen” man then, it meant you were dead, honourably, in the service of king and country. If a fallen women, by contrast, you were still alive, but sometimes institutionalised for the rest of your days, at the end of which you would be buried quietly, without honours, military or otherwise.

The most recent British war then had been the Second Boer (1899 - 1901), some of the Irish fallen in which still have their names inscribed on the entrance to Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green.

But of those who made it home safely, many would celebrate by consorting with the other kind of fallen, contributing to a postwar boom in Monto. Or so it was popularly assumed.  

In a 1901 edition of the magazine Irish Society, there appeared a piece of verse that could have been written by a patriotic imperialist, until you looked closer. It began: “The Gallant Irish Yeoman/Home from the war has come/Each victory gained o’er foeman/Why should our bards be dumb?/How shall we sing their praises/Or Glory in their deeds?/Renowned their worth amazes/Empire their prowess needs.”

And so it continued, with increasing preposterousness, to the closing line: “Yeomen, in women’s hearts you hold the place”. By which time, an expanding network of readers was noticing that the first letter of each line spelled the sentence: “The whores will be busy”.

The magazine sold well, while a list of suspects for the real “JRS of Knocklong” (the bylined author) began and ended with Oliver St John Gogarty, the future “stately plump Buck Mulligan” himself.

By the time Ulysses was published, two decades later, the British army was on its way out of Dublin and so was Monto.  

This was not a coincidence, although independence and the decline of the city’s garrison status might not in themselves have closed the area down.

It required Frank Duff, the Legion of Mary, and slum clearances to complete the job.

The Gloucester (now Seán MacDermott) Street Laundry survived until the 1990s, by then housing young women who had done nothing more than become pregnant outside marriage, or sometimes not even that. But it too is now gone, although the bitter legacy of the Magdalen laundries is still very much with us.

One of the most controversial chapters of the laundries’ existence was the 1993 exhumation, cremation, and reburial in a mass Glasnevin grave of former inmates from an institution in Drumcondra.  

In Imelda Murphy’s fine blog, jamesjoyce1904.com, to which I owe much of the foregoing, it suggests this was done “almost in the dead of night”, which was not (I think) literally the case.  

Her point is that it was done very quietly, with no media coverage until much later.  

But I was struck by that “dead of night” because 1993 was when I started working for this newspaper. And among the shifts freelances often got then was the late one, which ran until 3.30am. It involved monitoring news wires, ringing around emergency services, and otherwise covering any breaking stories. As in other places where people work late, it was called the “graveyard shift”. But the journalistic term, which is where Joyce got the idea, was “Nighttown”.

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