The third & final volume of the memoirs of Mrs Margaret Leeson, Dublin’s leading brothel keeper at the end of the 1700s, ends 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. 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 during a gang rape of her & her last amanuensis Marie Edmonds, who had already passed away as a result. Dublin had 150000 inhabitants at the time, & was as now a city of great divides, of the most ostentatious opulence & the direst oppression side by side. Dublin was second only to London in terms of wealth & importance within the British Empire of the time, an empire still with a century of rapine & expansion to come despite the late defeat in America & the now permanent war footing against revolutionary France.
Throughout these prosperous-for-some & 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, & native protestant hierarchy alongside the upper layers of the colonial British military & civilian administration. These were the customer base for the higher class of prostitute, such as were housed in Margaret Lesson’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 (& taking of the path of christian repentance!), refers most plaintively to the 90000 euro in today’s money that the noble customers between them owed & refused paying Leeson for sex, champagne, & opium.
Indeed many of these rich men’s own wives ended up working for Lesson & other brothel-keepers – brothels were numerous & served all tastes & budgets – after their husbands had thrown them out or had drank or gambled away the family fortune or had passed away leaving no other means behind. A harsh & ironic truth presents itself over & over in these memoirs – that the salvation of women in an economic sense, given that prostitution saved them from the workhouse & starvation, was also their damnation in a political sense, given that prostitution means subjugation to others whims & desires, & secession of control over one’s own destiny, as well as eventual death from 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 & her kind father’s disability. Christopher was a 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’ & the like – he beat two of Leeson’s younger siblings to death & nearly killed her on several barbaric occasions, one of which resulted in a miscarriage. Lesson ran away at the age of 14, or 16, or 18 – there are no precise dates or ages in this early p[art of the narrative, & encounters the expected chain of use & abuse, as well as a certain amount of luck, during affairs with several ‘men of property’ in the next few years, before eventually entering the world of upper crust prostitution, & soon after setting up her own highly profitable & perennially popular operation.
In association with which a lot of fun could be had by all involved – and those involved included the very highest ranking politicians, generals, churchmen & 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 F Scott Fitzgerald, of the cocaine-loving high-flyers of the Celtic Tiger – endless partying indoors & out, masquerades & escapades galore, excursions & holidays every few weeks, never-ending supplies of opium, brandy, & haute cuisine of the time, sex, sex, & more sex, every which way & anyway you fancy it.
Taken in isolation, the attitude towards sex is amazingly positive & 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 & the higher class of prostitutes lived lush & privileged lives in comparison to many others, as well as being under the protection of the powerful men they serviced. When, in & 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 him and his bouncers thrown in jail.
So Lesson’s past Ireland, where both abortion & prostitution were legal, is a very different one to the past ireland’s we usually remember – the misery of the 19th Century, the Milesian mystics of pre-history, the martyrs of 16’, 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 & style, to the contemporaneous writings of the Marquis De Sade. De Sade was no doubt a far deeper thinker, & never repented, but Leeson is a finer writer, as fine a writer as Ireland produced in the 1700s, after Goldsmith & Swift.
This is a hugely recommended book which will expand anyone’s sense of the Irish past & of our literary heritage. Many 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. The link below is for a free version at exclassics.com. 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, as this extract hopefully shows:
“One day in the month of July, 1791, Groves, O’Brien, Beresford, Burnet, old Mrs. Sterling, Mrs. Bennis, a few more of the first rate impures and I, attended by our Aid-de-Camp Squire C——e, took an excursion to Rathfarnham, to view the charming retreat of Captain Southwell, the little Dargle, and after very minutely examining all the beauties of that enchanting spot, adjourned to Laughlin’s tavern, on the ponds, where we dined and spent the remainder of the day; by accident the company of Printers and Booksellers, amounting to upwards of fifty persons, happened to be there also. After we had finished our dinner and drank half a dozen of choice Champagne, we ordered wine, tea, &c. into the garden, and were regaling ourselves very merrily when we were waited upon by a deputation of six of that respectable body, who hearing we were there, sent to compliment us; in consequence of which I ordered more wine, and after finishing two or three coopers, the lads of the Frisket insisted on treating us, which I peremptorily refused, telling them, if they could drink a hogshead in my company on such an occasion, they should not pay a “farthing, and accordingly more wine being brought in, my Typographers began to grow fine and mellow, particularly the son of my poor friend Bartle C——n the Hibernian Poet Laureate, who made some amorous advances towards me, which fired the blood of my hero C——e between whom and young C——n a battle royal ensued in presence of the whole company in the garden. In the course of the scuffle C—— pulled off Type’s wig and threw it to Fanny Beresford, who instantly went aside, and filled the brown-bob with the briny produce of her luscious fountain, after which she returned it to C—e, who not dreaming of its consecration, thrust it in its inundated state into his Nankeen breeches, which caused a vast deal of merriment, as notwithstanding the heat of Fanny’s constitution, poor C—found his privities extremely chilled, which caused him in a paroxysm of rage to throw the well sluiced peruke into a running brook at the bottom of the garden, from whence it was carried off never to be recovered by the heir of old Bartle; who was obliged to return to town with a handkerchief tied about his bald pericranium, to the no small diversion of the company.—A select party of these gentlemen did me the honour of supping at my house that evening, and generously laid down a guinea each for their entertainment, my friends Jack S——e and P—— W—— by their lively wit and singularity of humour, keeping the table[…]”