‘The Wages of Sin is a Month in the Locke’: Irish Modernism and the Politics of Venereal Disease

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the medieval to the modern. This week’s posting comes to us from Lloyd Houston, who has recently completed a M.St. in English Studies (1900-Present) at Brasenose College, Oxford.

In the midst of the psycho-sexual phantasmagoria of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus’ visit to Bella Cohen’s Mecklenburg Street brothel in the “Circe” episode of Ulysses (1922), the prostitute Kitty Ricketts presents an affectingly stark account of the occupational hazards facing women in her profession:

Mary Shortall was in the lock with the pox she got from Jimmy Pidgeon in the blue caps had a child off him that couldn’t swallow and was smothered with convulsions in the mattress and we all subscribed for the funeral’ (U 15.2578-81).[1]

The ‘lock’ in question was Dublin’s Westmoreland Lock Hospital, which, since its establishment in 1755, had served as the capital’s dedicated centre for the treatment of venereal disease.[2]


The Westmoreland Lock Hospital, 21 Townsend Street, Dublin, photographed shortly before its demolition in 1955. Source: The Skibbereen Eagle.

Brought under British military administration by the 1864 Contagious Diseases Act, Lock hospitals served as emblems of a gendered colonial double-standard which licensed the sexual conduct of British soldiers at the expense of the liberty of Irish women even as they tangibly belied nationalist efforts to figure Ireland as physically and culturally ‘pure’.[3] This paper offers a brief account of the ways in which Joyce’s novel registers and responds to this paradox and explores the political and aesthetic ends to which references to Ireland’s Lock hospitals and the discourses of sexual hygiene with which they were enmeshed could be deployed by authors such as Joyce in the first decades of the twentieth-century.

Although only a brief vignette in the novel’s most voluminous episode, Joyce’s description of Mary Shortall’s infection, institutionalisation, and bereavement potently condenses a range of contemporary debates over gender, colonialism, and national identity. The most obvious of these concerns the pathological co-dependence of British militarism and Irish prostitution. Kitty’s reference to ‘the blue caps’ identifies the pox-ridden Pidgeon as a member of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, a predominately Irish regiment whose distinctive uniform Bloom collocates with venereal disease in the novel’s “Lotus Eaters” episode (U 5.66-68). [4] The syphilitic symbiosis of British garrisons and Irish brothels was an acknowledged fact of contemporary Dublin life. An 1854 Select Committee on Dublin Hospitals reported that of the 6,550 unmarried women admitted to medical institutions in the city with venereal disease in 1850, at least half were believed to have been infected by soldiers. [5] Joyce’s sometime friend Oliver StJohn Gogarty playfully drew attention to the issue in ‘The Irish Yeoman’s Return’, a poetic Trojan horse smuggled into the June 1901 issue of the staunchly Unionist Irish Society under the suggestive pseudonym ‘J.R.S. of Knocklong’. While at first blush an apparently straight-faced ode of welcome for an Irish regiment returning from the Boer War, on closer inspection Gogarty’s poem proves to be an acrostic in which the first letter of each line combines to declare that ‘THE WHORES WILL BE BUSY’. [6] The British military’s response to the astonishing rates of sexually transmitted infection to which such situations gave rise was a string of Contagious Diseases Acts which mandated the inspection, hospitalisation, and incarceration without consent of any woman accused of prostitution in the vicinity of a garrison. [7] Oliver Gogarty pithily summarises the logic of these Acts in his 1917 tenement comedy Blight when a young prostitute, piously reminded that the ‘wages of sin is death’, retorts that the ‘wages of sin is a month in the Locke [sic]’. [8] As contemporary feminist activists such as Josephine Butler emphasised, this legislation punished financially and physically vulnerable women for the sexual misconduct of men who were left free to spread the infection with impunity. Thus, by having Kitty insist that it is Jimmy Pidgeon who has infected Mary Shortall with syphilis, and not the reverse, Joyce subverts a dominant narrative of British social hygiene policy in order to register the very real impact of British soldiers as a vector for venereal disease in Ireland.

Contained within this indictment of British militarism is a repudiation of the models of racial and sexual difference through which British rule in Ireland was justified in the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-centuries. As Marjorie Howes and Susan Canon Harris have noted, Matthew Arnold’s influential account of the ‘Celt’ as ‘feminine’, ‘sentimental’, and fundamentally ‘undisciplinable’ constructed Irishness as a state of hysterical and self-destructive femininity which could only be redeemed through ‘vital union’ with the rational, masculine ‘Anglo-Saxon’. [9]

In the masculinist logic of contemporary degeneration theory, this pathologised femininity was synonymous with the dysgenic impact of syphilis and its hereditary manifestations. The degenerative effects of syphilis were an abiding concern for British


L0038208 Illustration of baby diseased with hereditary Syphilis Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

colonial administrators such as Lord Landsdowne, Viceroy of India, who in 1891 expressed his concern that ‘infected men’ would return home from overseas service ‘to spread the contagion among the civil population of Great Britain’ and ‘transmit a heritage of misery to posterity’.[10] As Joyce’s description of the new-born’s dysphagia, ‘convulsions’, and suffocation makes clear, Mary Shortall’s child is the victim of congenital syphilis, and, as such, an apparent manifestation of the eschatological process which Fournier and Landsdowne outline. However, as has already been emphasised, the source of this dysgenic taint is not Mary Shortall, but Jimmy Pidgeon. As such, far from offering salvation from a hereditary state of sexually-pathologised irrationality, in Joyce’s rendering the ‘vital union’ of an archetype of Irish femininity with an avatar of British martial authority serves only to deprive the Irishwoman of her health, her liberty, and her child, whose death may be read as a symbol of Ireland’s thwarted political futurity.

As this example illustrates, while Joyce repudiated Sinn Féin and its supporters for their overuse of ‘the “venereal excess” cry’ as an explanatory metaphor through which to replicate the movement’s call for linguistic, cultural, and economic autarchy at the microcosmic level of the individual Irish body, he nevertheless recognised the ways in which references to institutions such as the Westmoreland Lock could be used to register and critique the pathological impact of colonialism in Ireland.[11] In this sense, an examination of the ways in which Lock hospitals are depicted in Irish culture in the first decades of the twentieth-century renders it possible to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the political role which images of fertility and its pathological other, venereal disease, were made to serve at a crucial period in the nation’s history.

[1] James Joyce, Ulysses: The Corrected Text, eds. Hans Walter Gabler, Wolfhard Steppe, and Claus Melchior (New York:Vintage, 1986). Cited parenthetically by episode and line number.

[2] For an account of the hospital’s origins, architecture, and administration see: Laurence M. Geary, ‘“The Wages of Sin is Death”: Lock Hospitals, Venereal Disease, and Gender in Pre-Famine Ireland’ in Gender and Medicine in Ireland, 1700-1950, eds. Margaret H. Preston and Margaret Ó hÓgartaigh (New York: Syracuse University Press, 2012), 154-68. Gary A. Boyd, Dublin 1745-1922: Hospitals, Spectacle & Vice (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2006).

[3] Despite consistent lobbying on the part of the city’s military and medical authorities, Dublin was in fact never brought under the jurisdiction of the Contagious Diseases Acts, which applied only to the military and naval garrisons at Cork, Cobh, and the Curragh (Queenstown). Nevertheless, British militarism, Irish prostitution, and the Lock hospitals remained strongly associated in the popular imagination and in Sinn Féin and Inghinidhe na hÉireann anti-enlistment propaganda. See: Maria Luddy, Prostitution and Irish Society, 1800-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), Chapter 4.

[4] Major Arthur Mainwaring, Crown and Country: The Historical Records of the 2nd Batt. Royal Dublin Fusiliers, formerly the 1st Bombay European Regiment, 1662-1911 (London: Arthur L. Humphreys, 1911), p. 294

[5] Report of the Select Committee on Dublin Hospitals, 1854, Q. 39. Quoted in Luddy, Prostitution and Irish Society, p. 138.

[6] J.R.S. of Knocklong (Oliver StJohn Gogarty), ‘The Irish Yeoman’s Return, or Love is Lord of All’, Irish Society (June 1901).

[7] For a discussion of the relationship between these Acts and British colonialism, see: Philippa Levine, Prostitution, Race & Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire (New York: Routledge, 2003)

[8] Alpha and Omega (Oliver StJohn Gogarty), Blight, the Tragedy of Dublin: An Exposition in Three Acts (Dublin: Talbot Press, 1917), p. 15.

[9] Matthew Arnold, The Study of Celtic Literature (London: Smith, Elder & Co, 1867), 108-09, xii. Marjorie Howes, Yeats’s Nations: Gender, Class, and Irishness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), Chapter 1. Susan Canon Harris, Gender and Modern Irish Drama (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), Chapter 1.

[10] Lord Landsdowne (Viceroy of India) to India Secretary, Lord Cross, 4 February 1891. Quoted in Levine, Prostitution, Race & Politics, p. 44.

[11] Richard Ellmann, ed. The Letters of James Joyce: Volume II (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), p. 192.


PoP_LloydLloyd Houston has recently completed an M.St. in English Studies (1900-Present) at Brasenose College, Oxford. His work examines the political and aesthetic roles which venereal disease and discourses of sexual hygiene played in the emergence of Irish modernism. Other research interests include postcolonial literature and the law, and the institutional construction of literary obscenity. His recent publications include a short history of the Bodleian’s restricted ‘Phi Collection’, and a reception study of Joyce’s Ulysses in Britain’s copyright libraries.


Follow him on Twitter: @Dipthefal, Academia.edu: https://oxford.academia.edu/LEJHouston,

or his personal site: https://branded.me/lejhouston.


One thought on “‘The Wages of Sin is a Month in the Locke’: Irish Modernism and the Politics of Venereal Disease

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol. #34 | Whewell's Ghost

Join the conversation! Comments are moderated.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s