Anne Maree Barry’s new short film, Leisure with Dignity, has three or four characters, depending on how you count: three women – and the Monto neighbourhood in the heart of Dublin.
Part documentary and part fiction, it is a story told by three women with different experiences: Kitty D, Countess Aldborough, and the formidable Madame May Oblong.
Countess Aldborough and Madame May were both real women. Kitty is an amalgamation of Barry’s own research and imagination. “Ultimately, I’m not digging into archives,” says Barry, “I’m creating my own world.”
The film runs on a 23-minute loop and is installed on the first floor on the LAB Gallery on Foley Street, in Monto. The exhibition space also contains a set from the film.
The opening of Barry’s exhibition fell on 16 June, to mark Bloomsday in one of the areas central to the novel.
Monto was the nickname of Dublin’s one-time red-light district, visited by Ulysses protagonists Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. These days, pretty much only the cobblestones, and one house, are left from that time.
The film opens with a study of Dublin’s Custom House, painting a story of architectural curiosities and secret passages to seedier climes. A dulcet-toned narrator begins the tale of Dublin’s dark underbelly.
Aldborough House is visible from where Barry works at the Fire Station Artists’ Studios. When she discovered that Countess Aldborough had a household journal and did experiments, it piqued her interest.
“I thought I had discovered the equivalent of Ada Lovelace,” says Barry. “She’s not like the women of Monto, but she’s based here, and I tuned into that.”
Kitty D, played by Katie Freeney in the film, is a prostitute in the higher tier. “She moves up to Dublin, and gets coerced into prostitution because it was seen as if you had independence. It would have been kind of exciting, but those things turn around, and then it just turns into horror,” says Barry.
In her monologue, Kitty describes the division of labour – on the balance of youth and looks – and relates the terror of ending up in a hospital, riddled with venereal disease, where nurses would summarily suffocate the hopeless cases.
Barry can relate to Kitty’s transition from country to city, being from outside Dublin herself, but she says the development of Madame May, played by Niamh McCann, was more difficult.
“She did actually wear furs, and she went around in a horse-drawn carriage. She had a knife on her all the time, and she would cut her girls if they weren’t doing what she wanted,” says Barry.
“She wears my grandmother’s furs, and the coat, coincidentally, fitted the actor but doesn’t fit me. So, then I thought: she’s perfect for this role.”
May was a character in that part of town, says Barry, who found it helpful to write her script phonetically in a Dublin accent.
“I’d go in there anyway, but I’d go in to Supervalu on Talbot Street and listen to peoples’ accents. I felt that because I live in the area I’m able to tune in and feel it,” she said.
“If you were a single woman in Dublin in those times, and you lived in a house with some others, it was presumed you were a prostitute. So, you couldn’t be a single woman, without people questioning it.”
Keen-eyed viewers may notice a cameo by the director.
Editing and writing can be isolating, says Barry. “I can get quite emotional during an edit, and it’s just really nice to be out of that other side now, and actually be able to enjoy the work and the finished piece, and be talking about it.”
Barry is from Cork, but she has spent a lot of time in Helsinki, and lived in Toronto for a year on a residency. Her first film was a story about her father, and her second, Rialto Twirlers, was a crowd-pleaser, she says.
Now, Barry is coming to the final months of a residency in Dublin’s Fire Station Artists’ Studios – right in the heart of Monto. From her window, she can see the crumbling Aldborough House, and the imposing posterior wall of a Magdalene Laundry.
“There were strange things happening nature-wise, and I felt like the area was trying to tell me something, and I didn’t really know what that was. Then I started buying books, and everything started to make sense.
“A lot of people find my work quite dark, and I’m quite soft-spoken, but it’s an energy or force that I want to get out,” she says.
The laundry and the area are inextricably linked; it’s where “fallen women” were sent when Monto was shut down in the ’20s.
“It’s a privilege to give forgotten people a voice. There was this emphasis put on women to become Mother Eire after Ireland became the Republic, and to have no sexual identity, and to be mothers and have no independence either,” she says.
This has been touched on in other works, but perhaps there’s another generation less aware of the extent of it, she says. “I still think that there’s more to be referenced about women in Ireland at a particular time. I’m fascinated by stories that are so unreal-sounding, like, ‘That couldn’t have happened.’”
Despite her insights, Barry is concerned that she’s a “bad” feminist. “I did used to listen to a lot of hip-hop, some dancehall and it one day it dawned on me, ‘Why am I listening to this?’”
She sees the current climate as a kind of awakening, with the Repeal the 8th marches, where men were marching too. “It was quite incredible,” she says.
Barry says she already has some ideas for the future, and she wants to return to the story of the women in Monto.
Leisure with Dignity is open to the public from 10am to 6pm, Monday to Friday, and 10am to 5pm Saturday and Sunday, until 20 August. Admission is free.