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Dublin: 11 °C Friday 24 October, 2014

Hidden Ireland: Supplying ‘a long-felt want’ – Dublin’s public toilets

What has happened to Dublin city’s public loos?

Update 13 August 2014: Since this article was published, one of the public toilets in Dublin has been demolished. Read more here.

EVERY SINGLE ONE of them stands locked and empty now, but just a few decades ago Dublin’s public toilets – or, to give them their official name, public conveniences – were an integral part of the city’s landscape.

If you have visited Dublin even once, you have probably walked past one. You may not have noticed the wrought iron gate; the steps that lead below ground; the once-gleaming white and blue tiles.

With some, the piles of discarded drinks bottles and urban detritus would catch your eye before the beautifully-curved walls do. Others, with their neat redbrick walls, blend in perfectly with their surroundings.

These once-busy facilities may as well be invisible, for all the attention they receive from passers-by.

The underground toilet at Kevin St, just off New Street South. Pic: Aoife Barry/TheJournal.ie

Public Convenience

The buildings stretch from Harolds Cross to Howth, including areas like Mountjoy Square, Glasnevin, Sandymount, Terenure, Dolphin’s Barn, and Infirmary Road. The O’Connell St facility was demolished when the street was redeveloped. These are relics of a different time, a different Ireland.

Hugh Coughlan, who works for Dublin City Council, told TheJournal.ie that the capital’s public toilets have a long history. Their journey from use to disuse reflects how Irish society has evolved over the past 100 years.

In the Ireland of the late 19th century, not every home had an indoor loo – or even a toilet at all. Cars were not as widely available, and people walked or cycled around the city. It took longer, therefore, to go from one part of the city to another. Add to this the smaller number of restaurants and cafés, the absence of yet-to-be-imagined supermarkets, and you can see why public conveniences needed to be, well, so convenient.

As time moved on, particularly in the mid-20th century, the use of public toilets began to change. More businesses opened that offered facilities to customers; more people began to use cars; the use of public conveniences began to fall to fewer groups of people.

Staff

Each toilet block required staff – at one stage there were up to 400  people working as toilet attendants in the capital – and they, of course, needed to be paid. But by the 1980s, Ireland was in the grip of a recession, and Dublin City Council was looking at ways of tightening its belt. Such buildings, which had begun to attract drug users and other antisocial behaviour, were a drain on resources.

Said Coughlan:

There were at least – approximately – 70 toilets in the 50s and 60s, and then it started to flip from the 70s onwards, as restaurants and bars and the shopping centre model started to emerge. They started to be less utilised, particularly on the outskirts of the city.

The gateway into the public convenience on Kevin St. Pic: Aoife Barry/TheJournal.ie

“In the late 70s and early 80s, finances were quite tight,” said Coughlan of the council. “We were in real recessionary times. The [employment] moratoriums were introduced as well.”

It became apparent that a lot of these were difficult to manage and also expensive to manage. There were issues raised with gardaí in terms of the facilities. Some of them didn’t necessarily lend themselves to personal safety.

It seemed to make sense, for all of these reasons, to close these toilets. The doors of Victorian and Edwardian buildings, once used by large numbers of now long-dead men and women, were locked. Some became used as storerooms, but the majority lie empty.

“People tend to jump on the anti social side, but that is one element of it,” said Coughlan of the closures. “There was the changing dynamic of the city as well.”

As recently as 1990, there were still 33 staff working as public toilet attendants, and a number of higher-profile facilities remained open for part of the 90s, such as those on O’Connell St and Stephen’s Green. But these too were eventually closed.

Ballsbridge public toilets. Photo: Infomatique/Flickr

Bye Laws and construction

The Dublin City Council Bye Laws on Public Conveniences from 1899 under the Public Health (Ireland) Act 1878 give a look at what was allowed in these conveniences.

People could be fined up to £5 in court for committing one of a number of offences while using the facilities. These included:

  • Indecent/disorderly conduct
  • Obscene/abusive language
  • Causing a disturbance
  • Misconduct
  • Entering a compartment already occupied, or interfering with the privacy of another person
  • Entering before someone who has paid before you
  • Defiling, polluting, deface or writing on a part of the premises

Males aged over five were not allowed into the women’s toilets, while females of any age were not allowed to enter the men’s toilets.

A look at the minutes of the Municipal Council of the City of Dublin from 1900 gives a glimpse into how these toilets came to be constructed. The Public Health Committee was the group responsible for organising the construction, and in the case of the Parkgate St and Sherrard St toilets, for example, they submitted a report on putting out the tenders for the buildings.

The toilets were to be underground, and the tenders specified that preference would be given to contractors undertaking to use Irish material in the construction. They received four tenders for the sanitary work, ranging from £392 to £513, and went for the cheapest, which was tendered by John L Smallman.

For the building work, they received just one tender, from William Gray (£1,645), who had previously worked on the Berkeley Road underground convenience, and, said the report, “turning out an excellent class of work”.

Spencer Harty was the city engineer and surveyor in 1900. The committee specified to both men whose tenders were accepted that they should only employ ‘legitimate labour, and pay not less than the minimum standard rate of wages’. Smallman wrote back, on 10 April 1900, from his premises on 48 Lower Sackville St (O’Connell St), while WM Gray wrote from his base in Drumcondra on 9 April 1900. Both accepted the job.

A urinal on Ormond Quay, 1969. Copyright National Library of Ireland

In the 1899 minutes of the Municipal Council of Dublin City, the Public Health Committee said that “urgent representations” had been made to them about the “necessity of providing sanitary accommodation for the use of the public on the North Circular Road, in the neighbourhood of Sherrard St”.

Alderman Doyle and Sir Charles Cameron inspected the locality and recommended that an underground convenience be constructed at the intersection by the Upper and Lower Sherrard St, ‘Belvidere’ (sic) Place and ‘Belvidere’ (sic) Avenue.

They decided on this “after mature consideration”, and were “satisfied that the construction of an underground convenience at this place will supply a long-felt want”. This was only to be for males only, and they anticipated it “will prove a big success”.

On 24 May 1899, it was decided that the two WCs, four urinal stalls and two washhand basins, as well as the attendants’ room, would cost an estimated £750. According to P Dowd, the chairman, the average weekly revenue from the underground conveniences already established in the city was £685, which was sufficient “to defray the cost of attendance and maintain the urinals and lavatories in proper order and, in addition, leaves a small balance to credit”.

The minutes of the Municipal Council in March 1900 show that a planned underground convenience for New Street, similar to the one on College St, would cost an estimated £870 to construct. Spencer Harty recommended that it had to be kept 4ft above the level of the street, as otherwise it would be flooded.

When the Public Health Committee put out a tender for urinals in 1865, they estimated it would cost £200. They received five tenders, two from Glasgow companies and one from a Kirkintillock company, the others from Dublin.

They received a letter from the Glasgow company, emphasising that their quote was the lowest, that the “class of work we supply is inferior to none” and that they employ “a very large number of Irishman in our works”, so the “goods will be of Irish manufacture”.

Another report from the Public Health Commiteee in the 1860s concerned the sketch plans of a ‘chalet de nécessité’, which included ‘a kiosque for the sale of newspapers’. The committee recommended permission be given, as they “are of the opinion that it will encourage the use of the chalets for the general public”. It appears that people’s bathroom reading habits perhaps haven’t changed much in the past 150 years…

The future

A side view of the underground toilets at Kevin St. Pic: Aoife Barry/TheJournal.ie

Could any of the public conveniences be opened again in the future? Never say never. The toilet at Stephen’s Green is owned by the Office of Public Works, but could potentially be opened to the public if the City Council take another licence agreement on it.

The Lansdowne toilet is just used as a storeroom, while the College Green toilet has been used for air noise monitoring, and there were “advanced” plans to build an overground structure. But due to the Luas interconnector line, those plans were scrapped. Still, there remains the possibility that it could be used as a café, with a number of interested groups having contacted the City Council about it in the past, and “advanced discussions” having taken place. At one stage, it was even used as a site for an art exhibition by Dorothy Cross.

When the last of the buildings were closed down, the council put automated public conveniences in place. They were initially seen as a cost-effective solution, with no staff needed. But the jury is out as to whether they really were as cost-effective as envisaged.

The one on O’Connell Bridge, for example, had to be removed due to “serious issues”, including drug use.

What next?

The side of the Kevin St underground convenience. Pic: Aoife Barry/TheJournal.ie

Because of the lack of public facilities in the city, the council has developed a policy document outlining three measures. These are:

  • The longterm development of a small number of permanent facilities in the city centre
  • Continuing to provide temporary facilities
  • Introducing a community initiative, where businesses allow their facilities to be used by the general public. This would be managed in partnership with Dublin City Council

With the latter, the council has already been in touch with around 10 interested parties, and is hoping to run a pilot scheme. The users of such public toilets today would mainly be tourists, people visiting rather than living in Dublin.

There are no firm plans, but the council does get expressions of interest about some of the public toilet buildings from time to time. The doors are shut, but it seems the options are certainly open.

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