In 1776, a letter written to the Hibernian Journal complained that there were seventy-four brothels in Dublin. Even then, it was felt that this figure was substantially underestimated.
Between the Castle and the Liffey, the backstreets were bursting with bawdy houses, City life created clients: college students; 'celibate' apprentices; inky clerks, soldiers and Lords - all teeming with testosterone searching for a slut to squeeze.
The women came to the trade from a variety of avenues. Country girls were often tricked into the business by Madams offering them jobs as domesticss. Some dancing masters turned out to be pimps, and for a while there was an anxiety that boarding schools were being used to recruit girls.
Most women turned to prostitution as a way of keeping the wolf from the door. As the eighteenth century progressed, many of the female-specific professions - such as midwifery, stay-making, wig-making and teaching - were overtaken by men. Women were forced to find new ways to keep those ends meeting. It was claimed that Dublin had at least twenty-thousand woman who were either beggars or prostitutes
. The poorer sorts worked along the quays, only emerging after dark when their tattered clothes were not so easily seen. The more upmarket 'impures' travelled about in open carriages bejewelled and bedecked in the finest of wares. Obviously Peg favoured the latter category.
Her first brothel was in Drogheda Street, just beneath the, newly fashionable Sackville Street. She and her great friend, Sally Hayes, held open house every evening. However, despite being at the good end of town, not all of her customers were gentlemen.
At that time, there was a group called the Pinking Dindies - a gang of upperclass rabble who, wishing to supplement their income, decided mugging was the way. Their preferred weapon was the small sword which they would use on their victims 'pinking' those whom they stripped of their belongings. They rampaged through the streets, dressed to the nines, tossing people into the Liffey for fun. Peg writes of them
They ran drunk through the streets, knocking down whoever they met; attacked, beat, and cut the watch; and with great valour, broke open the habitations of unfortunate girls, demolished the furniture of their rooms, and treated the unhappy sufferers with a barbarity and savageness, at which, a gang of drunken coal-porters would have blushed. In February 1779 they attempted to gain entrance to Peg and Sally's establishment. The leader of the gang, a thug called Richard Crosbie, ordered his men to smash the windows and break down the front door. Once inside, they shattered the furniture and attacked the women. Peg was heavily pregnant. Three weeks later, she delivered her baby:
a dead child, with one of its legs broke, in consequence of the injuries I had received
If this was not tragic enough, another child of hers (her last remaining living child) who was upstairs at the time of the attack and
was so frightened that she took a fit of screeching, and never recovered of her terror, but died in consequence of the fright.
Peg reported the lot of them to the city Sheriff and began proceedings to have them prosecuted. When Richard Crosbie heard of this he threatened to shoot her. She retaliated by saying she would blow his brains out if he approached her. Crosbie was arrested, refused bail and held in Newgate Prison. Peg wanted to charge him with the murder of her two children, but was forced to reduce the charges to the destruction of her house. She received compensation.
Six years later Richard Crosbie was once more in the news. This time as Ireland's first balloonist. 35,000 people came to to Ranelagh Gardens to watch him attempt flight. Peg showed her face and even shook his hand in congratulation. Knowing Peg this was more an exercise in public relations rather than forgiveness, because for the rest of her working life, she refused to entertain any student from Trinity College.
There is a statue commemorating Crosbie in what is left of Ranelagh Gardens. An accolade for a man who hurt many people, killed two children and was, frankly, a rather poor balloonist.
As yet, there is no celebration of Peg's life. What would be most fitting? A statue seems too conventional, too confined. Perhaps a fund to empower others.... or an annual free carnival.... or a reopening of the Pleasure Gardens...
I shall tell you about Pleasure Gardens next time.