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The ruins of summer

The decline of the country's public baths is a symbol of our lack of interest in common spaces and the common good

Growing up on the Mill Road in the suburb of Corbally in Limerick, I was always intrigued by what I considered to be the remains of an entrance to an ancient Greek temple leading down into the river. A forgotten gathering place bereft of any purpose. Having moved to Dublin I discovered other open-air baths in the sea no longer in use. I learned of their popularity up until the 1960s. With current proposals for Clontarf, Warrenpoint and Dún Laoghaire Baths, are we ready to take the plunge or are they destined to remain seashore antiquities?

Taking the Waters

While swimming in the sea has always exercised atavistic appeal for humans (and dogs), it was during the eighteenth century that sea bathing became particularly popular and  fashionable. Sea bathing was seen as beneficial to  health, in much the same way as taking the waters was at spas in Lisdoonvarna and Mallow. The earliest designated bathing spots were recorded on Rocque’s 1756 map, for men and women, at Salthill near Monkstown as well as a bathhouse on Killiney Beach. The increased popularity of sea-bathing during the eighteenth century saw many towns in Ireland and Britain develop as resort towns frequented by the upper classes during the summer months. While the south coast of Dublin benefited from an impressive sandy expanse, a disadvantage was the shallowness of the shoreline and the fact that at low tide, the water receded for a distance of as much as two miles. Certain locations along the coast, such as the Forty Foot at Sandycove, were prized for the fact that they were largely unaffected by the tides.

The best-known sea-bathing places of today were established by the railway companies to encourage coastal businesses. The construction of the Dublin to Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire) line saw the closure of the baths at Booterstown and Blackrock, as the bathing huts there were now cut off from the sea by the railway, which ran along an embankment across the shallow bay. While the arrival of the railway did spell the end for some bathing spots, it opened up other parts of the coast for bathing. Man-made baths became increasingly popular during the nineteenth century with the earliest sea-bath or ‘lido’ (an Italian word for beach, bespeaking elegance and cosmopolitan excitement) erected in 1833 at Lymington in Hampshire, England. The bathing pools at Clontarf, Sandymount and Dún Laoghaire all followed the style of the Lymington baths.

Significant for their maritime heritage and 20th century maritime recreation tradition.


Blackrock baths, Interprovincial Water Polo Ulster v Leinster 1955, photo: National Library of Ireland. Inset: Blackrock baths: now gone



Bathing in Blackrock

As early as 1754 a proposal was put forward to build a bathing place at Blackrock. When the Dublin and Kingstown railway was opened in 1834 Blackrock was the principal village between the termini. The Blackrock Promenade and Pier Company Ltd decided to establish “a promenade Pier and suitable Bathing Place for the residents in the locality and for the use of the public at a point near Blackrock Railway Station”.  This followed public outcry that access to the sea had been cut off with the building of the Railway line. The baths were completed by 1839 and a special integrated train ticket also permitted entrance to them. In 1887 the baths were rebuilt in concrete with a large gentlemen’s bath and a smaller ladies’ bath to the designs of architect and engineer William Kaye-Parry.

In 1928, the Urban District Council bought the Blackrock baths for £2,000 and readied them for the Tailteann Games, a Celtic Olympics. The baths, with a 50-metre, eight-lane pool, were well known for their swimming galas and water polo and could accommodate up to 1,000 spectators.  They boasted dramatic 10m and 3m springboards, as well as two smaller children’s pools.

The decline in use of the baths started in the late 1950s when indoor heated swimming pools started to appear in hotels and local authority facilities. Dún Laoghaire Corporation closed the Blackrock Baths to the public in 1987. The Leinster branch of the Irish Water Polo Association made private use of the pools, diligently carrying out extensive cleaning and repair work to make the baths usable again after a year of exposure to the sea – but succumbing to the need to withdraw the 10m diving platform from use for safety reasons.

At this point, the estimated running losses for a summer season were £10-30k, depending on admission fees. By 1992, due to lack of maintenance, parts of the baths were dismantled. In 1997 they were sold by Pembroke estates holdings to developers Treasury Holdings who failed to get planning permission for a shopping mall encompassing the baths site and DART station in 2001. An earlier (and greedier) redevelopment proposal  which came from a council ‘ideas’ competition in 1999 comprised 54 apartments and a restaurant with retail and leisure facilities.

In 2013, the baths were demolished due to safety concerns following a routine inspection by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. It was found that the diving platform had been significantly corroded and detached from the pool base. However, the bay in Blackrock is still used for swimming and board sailing.


Dublin and Kingstown Railway companion, drawn and engraved by John Kirkwood, Dublin, 1834



Sandymount Swim

Another massive seawater baths was built at Sandymount, designed by Frederick Morley, and erected as the Merrion Pier, Promenade and Baths in 1863. The baths did not operate all year round but  were usually open from late May until September. Serviced by both tram and rail it became very popular. 33,000 bathers used the facility at its height over the summer of 1890, splashing around in fresh seawater baths and reveling in ancillary pleasures such as music and refreshments. However, frequent ablution was not within the grasp of the unwashed poor. The Irish builder in 1863 noted that the  cost of admittance was well beyond what a labourer could afford, particularly if accompanied by his wife and children. It noted that these bathers ‘were compelled to shelter themselves in a [communal] bathing box close by with the scum of society…and were supplied with ragged garments called “bathing dresses” at one penny per head.’ In other parts of the city, such as at the North Wall, male bathers tended to swim in the nude.

The baths measured approximately 40 by 40 metres, with a 75-metre pier added in 1884. It changed hands towards the end of the nineteenth century, and was owned and operated by a limited company (Merrion promenade, Pier and Baths Co) which fronted for the West Family, until its closure. Having fallen into a dilapidated condition, a motion was placed before the Pembroke Urban District Council in 1912, proposing that the Council purchase the Merrion Pier and baths but it was voted down. Nevertheless the pier featured a bandstand halfway along it and summer concerts were regularly held there for many years.

In 1918 the baths were put up for sale. However, it does not appear that the baths found a new owner and instead remained in the ownership of William West’s widow. By 1920, the pier had deteriorated so much that the seaward wall of the bathing pool collapsed, and it had to be demolished. The baths were dismantled between 1920 and 1922. They formerly consisted of a cast-iron and timber pier which ran from the shore out to the mass concrete bathing pool. The storm damaged concrete baths section, which resembles a small harbour out on the sands, remains.

Battle for Clontarf

Proposed ground floor
plan for Clontarf Baths

Dublin’s bathing was not restricted to southsiders. Clontarf public baths were constructed in 1864 and remodelled in 1886 by Frederick Morley and John S Sloane, an architect and engineer with the Commissioners of Irish Lights. Elliptical in plan, the swimming baths were 120ft by 120ft equally divided for ladies and gentlemen with graduated depths from 9ft down. The sea water is brought from a distance of nearly 600ft out by engine and pump. The baths were emptied and refilled each day to ensure that the bathing water within the swimming baths was pure and clean1. This would have ensured that the water did not become stagnant. Today, modern sea-bathing baths tend not to be emptied on a daily basis, requiring addition of foul chlorine to the water to prevent it stagnating.

On Christmas day every year a race across the baths was also held for those brave enough to swim in the cold. sadly in 1996 the Baths closed. There are plans to rebuild them. Planning permission has been granted to a consortium to redevelop the site. The baths structures are set back c 50m from the Clontarf Road to the north where views of the existing site are obscured by the existing mature landscaping. The bathing area is more open to view via the Clontarf Road approaches and even more so from the coastal pathway.

Many schemes have been put forward for the 5.5 acre coastal stretch since the baths’ closure in the early 1990s. including one proposal in 2001 by former Olympic swimmer Stephen Cullen, of Abbeybeg Ltd. He commissioned McCullough Mulvin Architects to design a two-storey, flat-roofed structure incorporating a cafe and restaurant, craft centre, shop and art gallery. A boardwalk would skirt the perimeter of the site, enclosing a sheltered garden to the rear. The walls of the new structure would be less than two metres higher than the existing walls of the baths, and all trees and shrubs on the site would be retained.

There is currently an application by from the Clontarf Baths and Assembly Rooms Company Ltd, approved by Dublin City Council, awaiting a decision from An Bord Pleanála. The scheme designed by Moran Noonan Architecture consists of:Demolition of the existing derelict one-storey structure on site; the provision of a flood defence wall to protect the baths; the refurbishment and reinstatement of the existing seawater swimming pool area including the refurbishment and upgrading of the existing perimeter swimming pool wall and the provision of changing cubicles; construction of a single-storey lifeguard viewing platform at the existing baths upper level; construction of a pavilion restaurant and café bar  with a covered terrace area.

An Bord Pleanála’s inspector’s report notes that such facilities are commonly used to subsidise the primary recreational facility. The situation in this case would appear to be no different. The applicant has made it clear that the proposed restaurant and café bar is necessary to fund and sustain the maintenance and operation of the seawater baths which is unlikely to happen without this element of the proposal.


Dun Laoghaire baths, then and now



Dún Laoghaire dip

Bath areas in old Dún Laoghaire have been noted in maps dating from the 1790s. sources mention baths in Kingstown being built by the Royal Hotel in 1828. They were probably removed to make way for the construction of the railway in 1836. In 1843 John Croswaite built baths in the corner of Scotman’s bay. Originally known as the Royal Victorian baths, they were only used by those who had the means to afford them. They were extremely popular and Dún Laoghaire became one of the best and most popular places in Ireland to bathe. These were rebuilt in 1864. In 1896 Kingstown Urban District Council purchased the baths site and the firm of Alexander Fraser was engaged to build the new baths on today’s site. This is the site of today’s Dún Laoghaire Baths. Kingstown Urban District Council bought the baths in the late 1890s and renovated them between 1907 and 1908 to the designs of W Kaye Parry. These baths were constructed throughout with Vectis brand cement and granite aggregate. The current derelict Edwardian entrance dates from this time. There was a range of bathing options including sea and fresh water, hot and cold. Children had their own pond and paddling pools and there were medical baths. These included sulphur, seaweed and Russian and hot sea-water. Moderate charges helped to increase their popularity as well as the fact that they were maintained to a high standard. Service was excellent and included the provision of hot towels if required. Crosthwaite also built baths at Seapoint, which were privately owned. During the 1970s heated indoor pools were added as well as a water fun park (Rainbow Rapids). In 1997 the outdoor baths were closed when a proposal was made to develop a huge water complex on the site. This proposal did not come to fruition, due in part to the huge public outcry, but the baths remained closed. In 2005 proposals were made available for members of the public to view regarding the development of the baths.

One of the great features of the site of Dún Laoghaire Baths is that it is on an elevated spot, with great views towards Dún Laoghaire Harbour, Dublin Bay and the Forty Foot.

In recent years a number of redevelopment plans have been put forward including a €140m plan to build an eight-storey building with 180 apartments. These plans fell through leaving us now with a development that will bring together the seafront area from Sandycove to the Pier.


The issue of Dún Laoghaire Baths has been stagnant for many years because of difficulties with a foreshore licence that would allow the Council to carry out the necessary works. This part of south Dublin has the most efficacious of campaigners, particularly the successful Save our Seafront (SOS), supported by local association of An Taisce, whose protest march on 18 September 2005 stopped the eight-storey scheme. They oppose the floating baths proposal to be installed inside the East Pier. Fergal McLoughlin of SOS explained “We are in favour of the limited plans for Dún Laoghaire Baths, particularly as we have been campaigning for years for the restoration of the baths at their original site. We would prefer if the actual baths or a modern version were included in the new plans, which is unfortunately not the case. “We will continue to press for the baths as part of the new development…It is on hold and hopefully will vanish, or sink”.

The project was designed by the multi award winning Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council Architects’ Department. A2 Architects were subsequently appointed by dlr Architects’ Department to bring the design to tender and to manage on site. It is due to be completed by Summer 2018. Under the scheme, estimated to cost €2.5m, the existing Baths Pavilion will be retained and refurbished for use as artist workspaces, a gallery café and for the provision of public toilet facilities. and Existing dilapidated structures to the rear of the pavilion will be removed to permit the creation of a new route and landscaping that will connect the walkway at Newtownsmith to both the East Pier and the People’s Park. It is proposed that the existing saltwater pools will be filled in, creating new enhanced facilities for sea swimming and greater access to the water’s edge by means of a short jetty.

A new jetty and a changing area will be created to provide enhanced access to the water for sea swimmers and to provide a landing point for kayaks and canoes and other small marine craft. This jetty will be linked by new steps to the ‘café terrace’ at the Baths Pavilion and to the pedestrian crossing point leading to the People’s Park. It is also hoped that jet water fountains could be installed in the area next to the pedestrian routes, between the Baths Pavilion and the sea.

Limerick bathing

As with most things Limerick the Corbally Baths is an unusual anomaly. It was built as the municipal swimming pool on the river Shannon and opened in 1947. A City Engineer’s letter dated 13 of March 1946 noted:

“I send you herewith plans and estimate for the proposed construction of a swimming pool at Corbally. The proposals include for the erection of a concrete retaining wall along the foreshore with two wing walls running out into the river 50 yards apart. The ground will be excavated to provide depth of from 3’ to 6’ together with a diving pit at one end of the pool. Concrete terraces will be provided between the surround of the pool and the existing concrete footpath, and dressing shelters will be erected at the rear of the existing footpath. My estimate of the cost of this work would be approximately £4,060”.


Corbally baths


When the baths were built Corbally was open farmland with one avenue of eighteenth-century mansions. Swimming in the mill race was already very popular, and the construction of the baths, provided modern clean facilities. The baths themselves consisted of three terraced concrete steps at the river’s edge, with ladders to ease access into the water. Fifty metres cross the millstream, a platform was constructed on the weir and the distance divided into lanes by ropes and floats. The central area contained the shop, two arms containing the changing facilities and a locker room at the end. Small pools located here were alternately used to wash feet off after swimming, or as children’s paddling pools. Usually the running of the Baths was let to a couple, with the husband looking after the men’s changing and lockers and the wife the women’s. The Corbally baths were massively popular climaxing in the 1950s with galas held continually throughout the summer by swimming clubs from around the city. What remains is the learners’ pool which was added in 1968. The pool relied on the rising and falling tide to change the water. 1960s Corbally was beginning to see its first housing estates, the effect of which was falling water quality as untreated sewerage was pumped directly into the river 1.5 kilometres upstream of the baths. The baths sadly closed in the early 1970s and were torn down around 1980 due to vandalism. 


Warrenpoint baths



The public baths and pier at Warrenpoint were built in 1907 on the north-west shore of Carlingford Lough, connected to Warrenpoint’s elegant seafront. The baths were a popular retreat and enjoyed their heydey during the 1950s and 1960s. The pier was elevated over the swimming areas which were separated into ladies’ and gentlemen’s areas. Apparently the ladies got the best deal with the Southern facing pool. The actual “baths” both “cold, tepid, warm and seaweed” variants were inside the main building. Having been long derelict they were latterly used as an ‘adventure centre’.

Newry, Mourne and Down District Council is behind a development but there has been  criticism that the work might not actually include the reopening of the baths for swimming. The development will see the refurbishment and extension of the existing adventure centre. At ground-floor level the building will also contain a community function room, seaweed baths/spa, and a coffee shop.

Have Baths had their day?

So has our preference for indoor swimming overtaken our love of outdoor baths? Maritime structures such as these seabaths are tangible physical evidence of the popular historic practice of sea-bathing in Dublin. They are exposed to particularly extreme weathering conditions and have to cope with salt-loaded wind and water, the pounding and abrasive action of waves and tides, and constant wetting and drying where they are located within the tidal zone. All of these factors can cause defects in a concrete structure. However, it is remarkable how well some of these structures have stood the ‘test of time’, particularly where they have been subject to minimal maintenance.

The construction and maintenance of these largely public amenities are incredible when one considers the economic climate in which they were conceived, particularly the example of Limerick built just after WW2. Up until recent years local authorities have adopted the ‘ do nothing’ approach. The baths have survived to the present day without any apparent form of maintenance. Plans for Clontarf and Dún Laoghaire are encouraging.

In 1840 the average wage of Dubliners was one hundredth of what it is today.  It is extraordinary that the leisure infrastructure of the capital and of the country in this epoch of leisure and ostensible good taste, have fallen into disuse.  They are symbols of our real priorities. 


Written by Emma Gilleece