Maria Luddy, Prostitution and Irish Society, 1800-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). Xiv+352pp. Illus. ISBN 978-0-521-88241-5 (hardback)/978-0-521-70905-7 (paperback)

This is an extremely impressive work which illuminates our understandings of prostitution as well as the place it occupied in Irish society from the early nineteenth century to the first decades of the Irish Free State. Maria Luddy has conducted detailed research into such surviving sources as are now available (certain significant archives unfortunately remain closed at the present time) and overturns a number of pervasive myths. For example, it would appear that popular narratives about the Magdalen Homes relate to a relatively recent and historically specific period and that in earlier periods these were far more porous and less total institutions than this mythology suggests and that indeed women might have chosen to enter them.

To a great extent the Irish debates around prostitution and the expression of concerns about it by the respectable were doing various kinds of discursive work and making rhetorical claims which did not necessarily relate very closely to the actual lived experience of prostitutes. In many respects the discourses in Ireland replicated those found in other countries and cultures: the prostitute as a contaminating body both morally and as a transmitter of venereal infection, anxieties focussing on undesirable visibility. However, there were certain specific Irish inflections to these concerns. Prostitution was largely defined in terms connecting it to the English colonial presence and in particular British soldiery creating a demand, tempting women into vice, and causing disorderly women to congregate near army camps to the detriment of public order. This association with the problematic body of the British soldier carried over into the stigmatization of 'separation women' during the Great War in receipt of the Government separation allowance paid to wives (and eventually stable cohabiting partners) of serving soldiers. Although there were similar concerns in mainland Britain, leading to the surveillance and policing of women in this situation, in Ireland these intersected with nationalist concerns to engender particularly negative images associating these women with drunkenness, disorderliness, immorality, and violence.

It would appear that from at least the mid-nineteenth century, related to wider changes and reforms within the Catholic Church in Ireland, that the clergy took a leading role in the attack on prostitution, in a number of cases embodied in actual physical violence against individual women. This was, however, within a framework representing the women as dangerous sources of temptation, rather than suggesting that the male buyer of prostitutes' services was also a problem. Although the wider British social purity movement generated by the campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts in the later nineteenth century had some influence in Ireland, those involved in this campaign in Ireland were largely Protestants (mainly, indeed, Quakers): activities by Catholic women tended to maintain a focus on rescue of individuals, rather than critiquing the wider social institutions which generated prostitution. The Irish suffrage movement argued that more general issues about the status of women in society, in particular the effects of female poverty and lack of employment opportunities, were involved, but these were less influential on the terms of debate and impact on policy than on the mainland, and were strongly imbricated with the nationalist discourses on the topic.

The construction of Ireland and Irish womanhood as pure and chaste, only contaminated by outside alien forces, Luddy convincingly demonstrates led to the incorporation of these notions into the nascent Irish state in the period after independence in ways, which she suggests, led to increased intolerance of women who did not conform to these high ideals. This extended not just to the emergence of even more negative attitudes and policies towards the unmarried mother, but towards any women who failed to manifest this chaste yet maternal ideal, for example 'modern girls' who went to dance-halls and wore make-up.

In spite of the problems of the sources, Luddy has managed to recuperate some narratives of the lives of individual prostitutes and groups such as the 'wrens of the Curragh': the women, perceived as particularly degraded, who lived in roughly made 'nests' or shelters in the hedges and ditches of the country around the military camp. She indicates their agency and forms of resistance, and also the extent to which they formed networks of mutual support and assistance. There were even instances in which women took action against male sexual violence. She also examines more generally the engagement of prostitutes with various institutions, either established by concerned philanthropists or created under the poor law system, and reveals that they used these according to patterns of individual need which did not conform to the preconceptions or intentions of those in charge. For example, a prostitute might enter an institution during a period of ill-health or bad business, but did not necessarily remain, although Luddy presents some intriguing evidence that some older women as it were retired to Magdalen institutions when their working days were over. The women in question also fell foul of the legal system through involvement in other criminal activities such as theft. The picture is very much one of women living in extreme poverty deploying a range of survival strategies in the face of adverse circumstances. What we do not get any sense of is the extent to which there was any more discreet and respectable class of prostitute women in Ireland. There is some evidence from England of rescue institutions making special provisions for 'the better class' of fallen woman, and systems of registration in various parts of Continental Europe might sometimes recognise these gradations of status, but this group generally tends to elude the record, being less likely to fall within the purlieu of the various legal and welfare systems through which stories of individual women can be, if only fleetingly, discerned.

Overall, this is an excellent analysis of what is revealed by debates around prostitution in Ireland in specific historical contexts, as well as providing us with some indication of what the lives of the women whom these discussions were apparently about were actually like. Luddy's study will be of significant interest to historians working in a wide range of fields.

Lesley A. Hall, Wellcome Library