Public Bathing in Dublin

Thickened with sewage, the Liffey sent malodorous vapours into the city air, as did the horse manure on the streets, the tenement cesspits and the unwashed citizens. There was, according to one 19th century visitor to Dublin, no city more in need of baths and wash houses in Europe. And, another visitor adjoined, he never did know what the beggars of London did with their rags - until he saw the beggars of Dublin.

Increased urbanisation, chronically bad housing conditions, filthy streets and extreme poverty meant dirt, disease, death and neglect were endemic. Thomas Grimshaw, Register General, concluded in 1885 that half the city’s population lived in grossly unsanitary conditions and lacked the most basic bathing and laundry facilities.

Liverpool city had opened a public wash house as early as 1828 and London followed in 1847. Privately owned bathhouses in Dublin, offering luxurious hot and cold baths, were popular amongst those with means, but firmly closed in the dirty faces of the poor. The Merrion Promenade Pier and Bath Company, near the Martello Tower in Sandymount offered fresh seawater baths. With additional pleasantries such as music and refreshments, daily, weekly or even monthly, ablutions were not within the grasp of the unwashed poor. 

Following yet another outbreak of cholera in 1866, Dublin Corporation established a Public Health Commission. The Report of the Medical Officer of Health in 1880 was another step on the road to a health policy and increased awareness of the importance of personal hygiene. On April 17th, 1884 the Right Honourable William Meagher, Lord Mayor of Dublin, opened the newly laid Tara Street to Butt Bridge. At the same time he laid the foundation stone for the city’s first municipal baths. The baths opened in May 1885, built at a cost of £14,000. Hot and cold reclining baths were offered to men and women. There was also a first class swimming pool of 17 by 10 metres and a second class one, measuring 19 by 8 metres. The laundry facility had 40 tubs and a drying area.

The baths were used to a greater extent by men than women. For some, the 6 penny first class warm bath was still an unaffordable luxury and a penny bath was introduced. In 1897, to accommodate the Jewish women of Dublin in taking their obligatory monthly mikvah, plunge baths were added. Their regular dip was held up to other women as an example - Jewish women were, it seemed, healthier than their non-Jewish sister and they produced sturdier children. Even when the Tara Street Baths closed due to a water shortage in 1914, the plunge baths remained open.

As late as 1949 the laundry facilities were still in weekly use though the swimming facilities were described as ‘miserable’ and yet were one of only two indoor pools in Dublin. The Tara Street Baths were demolished in 1986 and replaced with the The Markievicz Swimming Pool and Leisure Centre.

by Annette Black, Wicklow
Published on 10th September 2013