“I’m 40 years recording the history of Monto,” says Terry Fagan, a local historian with the North Inner City Folklore Project. “There’s very little of it left when you walk around today, but there’s still stories.”
Standing outside The LAB Gallery on Foley Street, he points toward the ground: “All that’s left is the cobblestones you see on the streets here and there’s one last house remaining.”
Foley Street was originally Montgomery Street, which is how the Monto got its name. And The LAB was once Phil Shanahan’s pub, a notorious IRA meeting place frequented by Michael Collins during the war of independence.
“And a lot of people don’t know that the national anthem was written in the Monto,” says Fagan.
Though evidence of the area’s colourful history isn’t seen on today’s streets, Fagan does his best to bring it to the fore.
A Home for History
At the moment, Fagan is patiently searching for a place to house his archive, which features photos, books and artefacts dating back to the 1800s. He wants a space in the North Inner City that the public can access.
To date, he’s responsible for the black-and-white photos adorning Foley Street, which show what it looked like in a previous life. Over the years, the North Inner City Folklore Project has also erected plaques highlighting local people who played significant roles in the city’s history.
Fagan tries to bring the area’s history to life with his walking tour, which focuses on the area’s past as a well-known red-light district.
Requested by both tourists and locals in the summer months, the tour normally takes two hours. Cate Blanchett even went along in preparation for her role in Veronica Guerin.
But on this frosty Friday afternoon, we take a couple of shortcuts.
The Monto stretched from the end of Talbot Street toward Connolly Station, says Fagan, and it took in the surrounding streets.
Smaller than a square mile, in its heyday there were more than 1,600 prostitutes working in the area. It was one of the biggest red-light districts in the world then, says Fagan.
Over the years, he uncovered much of the history himself. He interviewed locals who remembered the women in charge of the brothels – the madams of Monto – who were around until 1925.
And before they were knocked down, he explored the tunnels underneath the brothels, which were often in grand Georgian houses. He documented his trips and collected some artefacts, mostly old coins and dockers’ buttons.
“Some of the tunnels were really massive,” he says. “You could actually drive a carriage through them.”
Take Me Up to Monto
“The women were gorgeous when they first came into the Monto,” says Fagan, referencing the many interviews he conducted. “You’d see them then with no teeth, black eyes, broken arms . . .”
He tells the stories as if he was there himself.
He’s eager to highlight the role played by ordinary people in the area and stresses that not everybody in the Monto was involved in prostitution.
One sad thing is that prostitutes were considered useless if they became pregnant, he says. They’d end up sleeping in doorways.
“The only people that looked after them were the ordinary, decent women of Monto . . . They would bring them down some tea in what was called the ‘tenement china’ – which was a jam jar,” he smiles.
When it came to having the baby, the local women often brought the prostitutes into their homes. And sometimes, the mother would abandon her child there.
“They became known as the Monto babies,” says Fagan. “Up until 1995, there was still about a dozen of them left living around the area.” He recorded some of their stories.
Making a Historian
Born in Corporation Buildings, which was once a feature of the Monto, Fagan was always interested in history, from hearing people’s tales about the old days.
Then when the regeneration of the area began and buildings were being demolished, he realised the local history was disappearing as well.
At that time, in the 1970s, he documented what he could. But it wasn’t until he got involved in a Meals on Wheels service in the 1980s that his passion for local history took off.
Local tenements were packed with elderly people and it dawned on him that they had tales to share.
“Some of them would have been through the 1913 Lockout, some of them were members of the Irish Citizen Army and fought in 1916. But here they were now, sitting alone in rundown tenements on their own,” says Fagan.
He found the people he brought meals for often didn’t want him to leave. “It was an awful thing to see,” he says. He began to record their stories and that’s how he came to collect the Monto’s hidden history.
Taking part in a jobs initiative called the North Inner City Folklore Project allowed Fagan to put all his time into recording the history. The project published books on the Monto and Dublin tenement life.
Originally the scheme involved around 25 people. But now, more than 30 years later, Fagan is the last man involved.
He’s working on a book about Ireland’s industrial schools. He spent time in one. As did his brother, who eventually escaped and spent two years disguised as a girl.
The book will tell their stories, as well as that of a docker who was known as Dublin’s Oskar Schindler, because he secretly rescued children from industrial schools.
In a Boarded-Up Flat . . .
Passing by the eerie Magdalene laundry, we make our way to St Mary’s Mansions. Here, Dublin City Council gave Fagan a boarded-up flat to store his collection. All three rooms are stuffed full.
On display in a yellow-walled room are all the artefacts donated by local people or found by Fagan in the tunnels of Monto. There are coins and furniture, gas lamps and irons.
He also has objects stashed in the attics of supportive locals around the area.
“We’ve a great treasure trove of letters,” he says, pulling out a box. It was recently saved from a skip and contains hundreds of letters and photographs dating from 1910 to 1916.
Belonging to a dancer called Mary, the letters describe Dublin at the start of the century and also tell a story of her heartbreak, which culminates with two ripped-up theatre tickets and an angry letter. “She tore it to shreds, but then decided to keep it,” says Fagan.
He hasn’t decided what to do with the letters yet. Should they go on display? Would a relative want them? “This woman’s life was just taken from an empty house and thrown into a skip,” he says, looking sorrowful.
The Biggest Lessons
In recent months, Fagan has been busy transferring the recordings he collected nearly 40 years ago from cassette tapes to digital files. They include stories of tenement life, the 1913 Lockout, the Easter Rising, the war of independence, the civil war, industrial schools and, of course, the Monto.
Fagan is still waiting for the collection to be housed in a museum, despite support from various politicians over the decades. Among them are councillors Christy Burke and Nial Ring, the late Tony Gregory, and TDs Maureen O’Sullivan and Joe Costello, he says.
Ideally he’d love a tenement museum that preserves some of the North Inner City’s working-class history, he says. It doesn’t need to be a huge building.
Though it looks like a tenement museum is set for Henrietta Street, Fagan doesn’t want the archive go there. He wants it to stay in this area.
He’s eager to secure a place for the archive, but he’s also conscious that there is a housing crisis and acknowledges that that is the priority.
“I’ve waited this long. I can wait a bit longer until the housing situation is sorted out,” he says. “I know that somewhere down the line, Dublin City Council or somebody else might be gracious enough to give us a place in the area.”
He appreciates all the help the council has given him over the years, but is frustrated that there hasn’t been more support for the preservation of working-class history at a national level. Often, the biggest lessons are learned from working-class history, says Fagan.
He’s bemused by the new tourist trail for the North Side, which was launched last week. “I laughed when I saw it. It’s a really selective tourist trail,” he says. “It skirts on the outskirts of the real history .
He has no problem with the attractions listed, like Croke Park and the James Joyce Centre. But he asks where the history for the working-class people is.
The state doesn’t invest in it, he says. And as a result, it slowly disappears. As he sees it, the people of the North Inner City are proud of their history and should be encouraged to share it.
This year should be his last with the North Inner City Folklore Project, as he reaches retirement age. But there’s nobody to take his place, so he’ll continue.
“I’ll still be doing the history,” he says. “No matter what comes or goes.”