The Holy Ground – Songs, Sailors, and Women of Easy Virtue

I am every fond of the Irish sea song “Holy Ground”.  The song is about a sailor bound for sea, leaving his lady love and hoping to return. “And still I live in hope to see the Holy Ground once more..” It is also known as the “Cobh shanty”, and indeed the “Holy Ground” is a neighborhood in the Irish port of Cobh.

This brought to mind the notorious area neighborhood in colonial New York, known for its high class brothels, also known as the “Holy Ground”.   It made me wonder whether there was more to the “Holy Ground” than one might first imagine.

The Wikipedia entry for the  Irish “Holy Ground” notes: “The name is ironic, the piece of ground known as the Holy Ground was once the town’s red-light district in the 19th century when the town, then known as Queenstown, was a major stopping point for ships crossing the Atlantic and had a large throughput of seafarers.”

And regarding the New York “Holy Ground”, From City of Eros:

“The most prominent prostitution district after 1770 and into the early nineteenth century was the famed “Holy Ground.”  In the two blocks along Church, Vesey, and Barclay streets, the city’s most expensive “houses of debauchery” prospered on land owned by the Episcopal church and adjacent to King’s College (later Columbia University). On the eve of the Revolution, one observer remarked that over five hundred “ladies of pleasure [kept] lodgings contiguous within the consecrated liberties of Sr. Paul’s [Chapel].”  

There is nothing surprising that prostitutes and sailors might frequent the same neighborhoods.  I have long thought that the claim that prostitution is the “oldest profession” is obviously wrong.  After all how could the ladies practice their profession without a pre-existing sailor?  Sort a chicken and egg problem involving who gets laid, so to speak. (Sorry.)

But what of the “holy ground”? Is it a coincidence that the Cobh “holy ground” and the New York “holy ground” were both red-light districts?  Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang suggests that the “holy ground” was slang for a red light district at least as early as the 19th century.   Brewer’s Britain & Ireland identifies it as 18th century slang for a criminal slum or red-light district.

It also references a tie to the church.  The “holy ground” could also refer to “an area within church jurisdiction in which villains or persecuted people could gain sanctuary. The slums and criminal ghettos were often impervious to the law.”    The Routledge Dictionary of Historical Slang  mentions a pre-1819 chant, “For we are the boys of the ‘holy ground’, and we’ll dance upon nothing, and turn us around.”   The “holy ground” or “holy land” could also be a reference to a Jewish slum.  The “holy ground” was apparently a place for outcasts. No wonder sailors felt at home.

There might also be a course double-entendre in the “holy ground”.  In Liverpool slang a “holesaler” is a brothel keeper.  Holey ground, perhaps?

The primary Biblical reference to the “holy ground” is in the story of Moses and the burning bush in Exodus 3-2,5:

“And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed…. And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.” 

Returning to the musical, there are numerous Christian songs of the same or similar names.  One “praise song” This is Holy Ground includes the lyrics “These are holy hands” and “These are holy lips”.  Sounds remarkably like they might be referring, if unintentionally, to the sailor’s “holy ground.”

Here is a link to the Dubliners performing the Holy Ground.

Fare thee well, my lovely Dinah, a thousand times adieu.
We are bound away from the Holy Ground and the girls we love so true.
We’ll sail the salt seas over and we’ll return once more,
And still I live in hope to see the Holy Ground once more.





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