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Life for the poor in 18th- and 19th-century Ireland was hard and, for many women, prostitution was the only option. But the bawdy houses were rife with disease and police did little to protect women from violent customers. Philip Reilley, a constable, and his wife Catherine were tried and convicted on October 12th, for keeping a bawdy house in White Lion Court in Strand Street, Dublin.
Reilly was sentenced to three months in jail and on the following day his wife was to be whipped from Newgate Prison to Trinity College. The Daily Gazetteer for October reported that Reilly was so loving a husband that he earnestly begged the court that he should be punished in place of his wife, but his request was denied. The case was unusual in that most of the brothels in Dublin were run by women, although there is evidence of other couples running similar bawdy houses.
The quaysides were particularly notorious for brothels serving the seamen coming off the boats on the River Liffey. She was convicted of brothel-keeping and sentenced to be carried in a cart through the street but, because she was so popular and the police were so corrupt, she was allowed to hide in the floor of the cart to hide her from public view. Most of what we know about prostitution in Dublin in the 18th century comes from newspaper accounts, which tell us that life could be dangerous: Catherine Halfpenny of Marshall Alley, Fishamble Street was targeted by rioters in ; Miss Keenan in Frederick Street North in had all of her furniture removed from her house and burned in street by a mob.
While such reports are useful and provide an idea of the public reaction to, and problems inherent in, prostitution, relatively little is known about the real extent of prostitution in Ireland, as few other records survive.
Further information can be gleaned from court descriptions, the Magdalene Asylum records and from later police accounts. Those involved in the legal process — judge, barristers, court officials, jurors and staff of the court apart from the cleaner — were all men. Brothel-keepers could be charged under the Disorderly House Act of , which recognised that:. The multitude of places of entertainment for the lower sort of people is another great cause of thefts and robberies, as they are thereby tempted to spend their small substance in riotous pleasures, and in consequence are put on unlawful methods of supplying their wants and renewing their pleasures.