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  • Prostitution and Irish Society: 1800-1940
  • Margaret Preston
Prostitution and Irish Society: 1800–1940, by Maria Luddy, pp. 352. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. $80 (cloth); $22. 99 (paper).

Maria Luddy surprises readers by stating that even as she began to write this book, some still did not believe that Ireland has or ever had a prostitution problem. Ireland's history of emigration, economic crisis, and endemic poverty notwithstanding, throughout the twentieth century many had convinced themselves that Ireland, the land of saints, had very few sinners. This book shows that, clearly, it did.

Looking at the oldest profession can be quite a research challenge. Luddy relies on police records, pamphlets, newspapers, and other primary sources that bring together a flawed picture; these sources all have their weaknesses including inflated figures and exaggerated or inaccurate accounts. In addition, scandals in the late twentieth century have led to the closing of certain archival sources to researchers. She begins with an overview of nineteenth-century prostitution and the hit-and-miss efforts by both police and priests to control or undermine the activity. The applicable laws were vague and generally depended on the vigilance of local authorities. Prostitution occurred throughout Ireland, but it was clearly most rampant in the capital city by as early as the latter half of the nineteenth century; there, it was generally geographically confined to certain areas of the city.

Irish prostitutes during the nineteenth century were generally between twenty and thirty, though it does not appear there was ever an extensive child prostitution problem. These women, most of whom were illiterate, usually chose prostitution out of economic need, and Luddy contends that these women were thus, in some sense, actors in their own fate, engaging in forms of resistance that the state sought to control. She offers a detailed look at the "Wrens" of Curragh, a longstanding feature near the famous barracks. Despite an horrific existence, the women who were the Wrens appear to have acted as a community, and in some ways created a support network that Luddy implies may have been stronger than was available in the surrounding vicinity.

The nineteenth century was an age of religious philanthropy, and the souls of wayward girls became the focus of the women and men who sought to save them from a life of sin. Luddy details the class dynamic that underpinned societal [End Page 148] attitudes toward prostitution,which suggested it was an occupation chosen by impoverished young women already inclined to sin. Importantly, she reiterates evidence that shows that, whether they went to the workhouse or a private charity, the women were not confined; many prostitutes used such places as temporary shelters until the weather improved or a fair in a nearby town provided an opportunity to ply their trade. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, neither the state nor private charity sought to control the prostitute's freedom of movement; while they certainly sought to change her behavior, they did not do so by jailing her in any way. Luddy compares both lay and religious asylums and discusses the strengths and weaknesses of each system; interestingly, prior to independence, the state actively inspected Magdalen laundries—a practice that independent Ireland discontinued. A chapter on "rescue work" outlines clearly that, over time, Irish society shifted its focus from the prostitute to the unmarried mother, a figure who would become the center of attention for the state and moral reformers alike.

It is in Luddy's discussion of venereal disease that we begin to see hints of the "architecture of containment"—to use James Smith's recent, much-adapted concept—that she implies did not exist within nineteenth and early twentieth century lay or religious asylums. "Lock hospitals" were both controlling and confining; they could require women to cut their hair,monitor correspondence, expect the inmates to perform unpaid work and refuse women re-admittance if they left prior to a physicians' permission. Society came to see the prostitute herself as the source of contagion, with the corollary that stopping her would diminish its spread. Once again, we find a pattern of societal condemnation of the prostitute, but not of the man who sought...


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