The third and final volume of the memoirs of Mrs Margaret Leeson, Dublin’s leading brothel keeper at the end of the 1700s, closes with a cry of despair.
“While I write I feel a gradual decline, from a broken heart and a destroyed constitution! Destroyed alas! near the last moments of my life; and in the most shameful barbarous manner,” it reads.
“Good Heaven! my fingers refuse to do their office:—Oh! I am sick at heart,—my very brain wonders,—I fear it is dooms day with me! The Lord God of mercy, take compassion on me, oh! oh!…………..”
Leeson was dying of venereal disease, contracted when she, and her last amanuensis Marie Edmonds – who had already passed away as a result – were gang raped.
Dublin had approximately 150,000 inhabitants at the time. It was, as now, a city of great divides – of the most ostentatious opulence and the most dire oppression, side by side.
Dublin was second only to London in wealth and importance within the British empire of the time – an empire still with well over a century of rapine and expansion to come, despite the late defeat in America and the now permanent war-footing against revolutionary France.
Throughout these prosperous-for-some and pre-Act of Union decades, the Irish capital buzzed with the activity of exploitation on a grand scale. Dublin was the nerve centre of a busy, self-assured ruling class made up of indigenous “Anglo-Irish” landlords, merchants, bankers, and native Protestant hierarchy alongside the upper layers of the colonial British military and civilian administration.
These were the customer base for the higher class of prostitute, such as were housed in Margaret Leeson’s “nunnery”, as she refers to it, on the street then called Pitt, now the site of the Westbury Hotel.
The above cry of woe, issued after Leeson’s retirement from the trade, and after taking of the path of Christian repentance – which may well be an affectation to win sympathy from readers – refers most plaintively to the €90,000 in today’s money that the noble customers owed and refused to pay her for sex, champagne, and opium.
Indeed, many of these rich men’s own wives ended up working for Leeson and other brothel keepers – brothels were numerous and served all tastes and budgets – after their husbands had thrown them out or had drunk or gambled away the family fortune or had passed away leaving no other means behind.
A harsh and ironic truth presents itself over and over in these memoirs: that the salvation of women in an economic sense, given that prostitution saved them from the workhouse and starvation, was also their damnation in a political sense, given that their prostitution meant subjugation to others’ whims and desires, and secession of control over their own destiny, as well as eventual death from an STD, or starvation anyway when clients moved on.
Leeson’s own life story is a prime example. Born to a comfortable farming family in Tipperary, she was left in the care of her brutal older brother Christopher following her mother’s death and her kind father’s disability.
Christopher was of a murderously sadistic type that would come to dominate so much of Irish life in the 20th century in the guise of “Christian Brothers” and the like – he beat two of Leeson’s younger siblings to death and nearly killed her on several barbaric occasions, one of which resulted in a miscarriage.
Leeson ran away at the age of 14, or 16, or 18. There are no precise dates or ages in this early part of the narrative. She encounters the expected chain of use and abuse, as well as a certain amount of luck, during affairs with several “men of property” over the next few years, before eventually entering the world of upper-crust prostitution, and soon after sets up her own highly profitable and perennially popular operation.
Here, a lot of fun could be had by paying customers – and these included the highest-ranking politicians, generals, churchmen, and merchants of the day.
The descriptions of the higher class of brothel-keeping here are reminiscent of the carefree but ultimately self-destructive decadence of ’70s rock and rollers, of the characters of Francis Scott Fitzgerald, of the cocaine-loving high-flyers of the Celtic Tiger: endless partying indoors and out, masquerades and escapades galore, excursions and holidays every few weeks, never-ending supplies of opium, brandy, and the haute cuisines of the time, sex, sex, and more sex, every which way and anyway you fancy it.
Taken in isolation, the attitude towards sex is amazingly positive and very far from what it became in the darkest days of the Free State. Prostitution, far from being illegal or even condemned, was very much an accepted part of the social fabric of the day, and the higher class of sex workers lived relatively privileged lives in comparison to many others, as well as being under the protection of the powerful men they serviced.
When, in and around 1780, a visiting Italian impresario, Signor Carnavalli, made the mistake of trying to prevent such “ladies” as Peg Leeson from attending Smock Alley on the nights of his opera productions, she used her influence to have him and his bouncers thrown in jail.
Leeson’s past Ireland is a different one to the past Irelands we usually remember – the misery of the 19th century, the Milesian mystics of pre-history, the martyrs of 1916, the ascetic genius monks of the monastic period. None of these periods or their chief representative populations were known for their debauchery.
These memoirs contain little besides upper-class debauchery, and are reminiscent in content, if very different in tone and style, to the contemporaneous writings of the Marquis de Sade. De Sade was no doubt a far deeper thinker, and never pretended repentance, but Leeson is a finer writer, as fine a writer as Ireland produced in the 1700s, after Oliver Goldsmith and Jonathan Swift.
This is a hugely recommended book which will expand anyone’s sense of the Irish past and of our literary heritage.
Thanks are due to the scholar Mary Ryan, who unburied the memoirs, of which there are only two extant physical copies in the world, despite it being a bestseller of the time, and issued a scholarly edition in 1995 with Lilliput Press, now out of stock with them but available second-hand – and an out-of-copyright version is online, too.
It may take a little while to acquire a taste for Leeson’s 18th-century diction, but it’s worth the effort for what you learn about the humans of Dublin back in the day.