Historian reveals STI epidemic in ’30s Ireland

IRELAND of the 1930s is often viewed as being chaste and straitlaced, with old Pathe newsreel images of the 1932 Eucharistic Congress dominating perceptions of the era.

However, historian Padraig Yeates has discovered that the country, far from being virtuous, was in fact in the grip of a deadly syphilis epidemic centred almost exclusively around Dublin.

The historian also discovered that more women were convicted for being drunken and disorderly than men, lending some truth to the old saying that when it came to drink “the women were worse than the men”.

During the height of the STI (sexually transmitted infection) epidemic in 1935, there were 40,086 attendances for treatment in the city’s four dedicated sexually transmitted disease treatment hospitals.

A figure which is all the more startling owing to the fact that the population of Dublin in the 1930s, was one third of what it is today — it presently stands at 1.2 million.

In the 1930s it is estimated that there were over 3,000 prostitutes plying their trade in Dublin — reflected in the soaring STI rates.

Dublin-born trade unionist and historian, Mr Yeates, who carried out exhaustive research for his new book, A City in Wartime, takes up the intriguing story: “In the 1920s and 1930s in Ireland, lots of people lost their jobs in the Great Depression. Prostitution was a major survival strategy for women and had been as far back as we can think, so STIs began to rise — 1935 was the peak year.

“Most of the treatments were mercury-based and people’s teeth and hair would fall out, so sometimes the treatment was worse than the disease itself. It was a huge public health problem, which tended to be covered up. It was illicit so people did not talk about it — it did not exist.”

To cope with the problem, St Ultan’s located in Charlemont Street, Dr Steeven’s and Patrick Dun’s opened special treatment units.

Prior to that, most of the city’s STI and syphilis victims were treated in the Westmoreland Lock Hospital, Townsend Street, which catered for the city’s prostitutes. The site is now occupied by The Irish Times.

Apart from being licentious, the women appeared to be the more fiercer gender.

Old Dublin Metropolitan Police league tables for drunk and disorderly offences — circa 1911 to 1919 — paint a picture of rough, tough, bawdy women.

In 1916, 392 women were arrested for being drunk and disorderly as opposed to 169 men. A similar pattern is repeated all through the period examined, and appears to have continued right up until the 1930’s:

“The figures suggest that there was some truth — in Dublin at least — in the old maxim that when it came to drink ‘the women were worse than the men’,” added Mr Yeates.

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