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The Fallen Angels of Ireland

by Cassandra Liberty West

     In the 1800’s, if a woman’s family lost their land, she might seek employment in a manor or as a charwoman in one of the cities, knowing that her lot in life might never improve, but that it could get considerably worse.
     Medicine was helpless in the face of many diseases. An epidemic of Small pox or Typhoid fever could devastate an entire village, leaving children and women to fend for themselves.
     Most of the women couldn’t read even the most rudimentary newspaper advertisement in order to find employment. They had to walk from village to village, town to town, carrying their possessions in a satchel or wrapped up in a blanket and tied, all while many of them carried babies or held their children’s hands.
     Ireland can be very windy and cold. With no shelter, and no money, and no way to feed their crying babies, some would in desperation turn to selling their bodies to make a little money so they could buy some bread.
     Shockingly, a poor family would occasionally sell their own daughter to a Lord or a wealthy gentleman as a ‘servant,’ knowing full well that she would end up doing more than cleaning his kitchen and doing his laundry.
     She might be used for his pleasure for a year or two until his wife discovered the activities, when the girl would be kicked out of the house with no money or any way to defend herself, and the woman would make certain she was totally helpless by spreading tales of how the girl had ‘seduced’ her poor, innocent husband.
      Surely there were women who migrated into a life of prostitution of their own volition, as there are even today. But most women became prostitutes out of gripping desperation, having no education, no families and no money, and being unable to imagine themselves as nuns.
     If the woman were very lucky, she would meet a true benefactor who would take pity on her and help her to become literate and prosperous in a more respectable business. Those cases were very rare though.
      Not only did women have to become accustomed to the degradation of the lifestyle, but they often had children to tend to, and had the perpetual fear that their children would be taken from them or become hurt in some way.
          There are accounts of prostitutes in some cities openly flaunting their charms or even dancing about nude in an effort to attract the attention of men coming from the docks or going through town.
     Religious people strongly objected to the situation and began campaigns to rid the streets of the ‘doity’ prostitutes- never mentioning the male customers who frequented the brothels the prostitutes worked for.
     Under the Police Clauses Act of 1847, any woman determined to be a Prostitute, a purely subjective judgment in some cases, could be arrested.
     Then, in 1854, the Towns Improvement Acts, any woman accused of ‘offensive behavior,’ could be arrested, along with vagrants, fortune tellers, beggars and drunks.
     There were laws against keeping brothels too, which forced many women to peddle their wares on the streets, placing them in the most hated category of Prostitute and one which people considered the lowest form of human existence.
     In the 1860’s, the Contagious Disease Acts brought even more misery to poor women. The military was concerned about venereal disease, so the act allowed authorities to arrest and inspect any woman they deemed questionable- giving them a physical examination when they might not be prostitutes, but merely a baker’s daughter who had just finished cleaning the bakery and was walking home too late.
     If in fact the woman was infected, her plight was worse; She would be locked up for nine months and registered as a Prostitute- a record of her ‘sin’ a brand on her name forever.
     The Acts Lock created the need for hospitals in Curragh and Cork in 1869. The Acts were repealed in 1886, after hundreds of women had suffered under their weight.
     Any woman could be arrested and jailed on the word of a policeman. If he rightly or mistakenly swore that he saw her soliciting a man, she could go to jail. If she refused to be examined, she could be imprisoned for a month.
     Fortunately, many enlightened people began to question such practices and lobbied to change the laws.

     The Anglican, Quakers, Presbyterians, Wesleyans, Methodists and emerging women of conscience wrote letters, demonstrated and made speeches in order to improve the plight of prostitutes and other people in the poorer classes.
     As photography became more popular, many of the women whom heretofore would have been prostitutes, became models for photographers- Not much of a change to some, but quite a considerable improvement to many, since they often were invited to live with the photographers and would at least be regularly fed.
      It became a more and more harsh life for some though, as wealthy moralists claimed that if women were allowed to parade around in their underwear, they would encourage other people not to work and soon, no one would be willing to take a job as a servant. It was a purely selfish position, and had very little to do with ‘morals’ at all.
     There was no charity in the attitude of most of the public for those women. They had no pity for the assaults, the rapes, the beatings, the diseases or the robberies they endured- even to the point of being stripped of the few rags in their possession and then being arrested for public indecency.

     There were attempts by groups such as the ‘Sisters of Mercy’ to isolate and help the women, and some groups did help. But ultimately, technology improved the lot of such women, because they were able to find work in factories and the like and make a more stable, if not always pleasant living.
     So as the sounds of horse’s hooves clattering against the cobblestones of time worn villages and cities began to give way to the sounds of railroads and motor cars, perhaps the desperate whimpering of the poor women who had to sell their bodies and surrender every shred of their dignity in order to survive a chilly night, will fade into history as a reminder of the saddest of human conditions, and poverty will become a moan from the distant past.


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