Page last updated at 07:06 GMT, Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Belfast's 'dirty girls' exposed

A prostitute
Prostitution in Belfast is among the themes explored in a new book

The Lisburn Road area of south Belfast was once notorious for being home to the city's prostitutes, a new book has revealed.

In a chapter titled 'Dirty Girls and Bad Houses', Dr Leanne McCormick has written about a previously neglected part of the Belfast's social history.

The University of Ulster lecturer spent 10 years delving into the archives to produce the book which examines female sexuality in NI from 1900 to 1960.

It will be launched on Wednesday.

Dr McCormick, who is lecturer in Modern Irish Social History at the university, has accessed new and "underused" historical records to product her book, "Regulating Sexuality - Women in Twentieth Century Northern Ireland'.

The politics and political violence in 20th century Northern Ireland overshadowed its social history in general and women's history in particular
Dr Leanne McCormick


It explores a wide range of local women's experiences and examines the social, political and economic forces which contributed to changing attitudes towards female sexuality.

It documents the fortunes of prostitutes, specifically those who entered the Belfast Union workhouse, who the author said were either destitute or obviously struggling economically.

"The dread of having to go 'up the Lisburn Road' - where the workhouse was located - hung over the poor and the stigma of pauperism was something to be avoided," the author said.

The book also looks at the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases and the anxieties generated by the behaviour of girls and young women in general, particularly with the arrival of troops during World War II.

The author said: "The politics and political violence in 20th century Northern Ireland overshadowed its social history in general and women's history in particular."

'Ideal woman'

She also looks at the influence of the churches on social perceptions of women and how morality was judged by dress codes in both pre- and post-partition Ireland.

Dr McCormick explained: "The image of the ideal Irish woman, a morally pure homemaker and mother, was used to help develop the image of what the Irish nation should be - pure and morally upright, particularly in comparison to its secular and immoral English neighbour.

"In the years that followed partition, both Protestant and Catholic leaders were vocal in their exhortations that young women should dress modestly, not frequent dance halls or cinemas and behave in a morally upright manner."

But she also claims that Northern Ireland's industrial society was not as upstanding as the rhetoric suggested.

"Belfast had a high proportion of women in the workforce and a wider variety of jobs available than simply domestic work yet women were still entering prostitution.

"It is difficult to identify the reasons for this given the restricted available material."

The book joins a growing body of work on the history of sexuality in Ireland.

Earlier this year the Dublin-based historian Diarmaid Ferriter published "Occasions of Sin" a study of sex and society in Ireland in the 20th century.

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