The Vexed Problem of Public Toilets

A city inconvenienced by lack of suitable conveniences

By Ray MacAodhagain

When nature calls we all share a common objective – to get rid of waste substances from the body. While we may not use this particular phrase, nevertheless, access to a toilet is a basic need, especially in a city with an expanding population. When this service is diminished every citizen is affected, not only in the obvious biological way, but also because of the possible embarrassment element; for example, being refused the use of toilets in restaurants and bars.

Toilets for Customers Only 

I find myself acting suspiciously by evading hotel/restaurant staff or asking for a key code, but not always receiving it. Apart from that I may feel obliged to buy an object that I don’t want or need to gain access. Bars are particularly cautious about giving males access to toilets, indeed businesses in general are unhappy with people coming in off the streets. This is why people rely, if possible, on libraries, leisure centres, train stations, McDonalds etc. Local facilities including Irishtown Stadium or the Bus Building, National College of Ireland at 6 Hanover Quay. 

This is a small inconvenience for a fit and healthy man in his 40s like myself. However, if you take account of older people, those with disabilities, mobility issues, small children with parents, pregnant women who can suffer bladder and bowel issues, it is quite a serious matter. 

Public Toilets a historical overview 

How did Dublin end up with so few public toilets one may ask? Firstly, it owes much to a  perception of modernisation in which public toilets were observed to be old fashioned and obsolete. Though their decline could also be attributed to neglect, mismanagement or finance. In the 1930s, for instance, Dublin City not only had public toilets but pissoirs – French urinals that were perhaps installed at the time of the Eucharistic Congress in 1932.  Sadly they slowly disappeared and were all but gone by the 1950s. 

In the 1960s and 1970s, access to lavatories was generally good with more than sixty available  and they were still being proposed in the late 1970s. In 1979  a scheme was proposed to begin a pavilion to service Ringsend Park; as well as construction of toilets at Shelly Banks on the Great South Wall. Many of these projects did not come to fruition. Nor was it a model scheme, as far back as the 1950s, for instance, The Irish House Wives Association warned about the general lack of hygiene at the facilities. In the 1970s a shortage of facilities was again noted, the ones functioning were said to be in a ‘deplorable condition.’ Nor were toilets balanced in regards to gender. With 24 dual toilets, 12 all male and only two all female. This is still an issue. 

Many Dubliners at this time felt that their toilets were being left to degenerate. The 1980s recession, along with neglect and anti-social behaviour signalled the end of the public loo. The staff needed to man such facilities just wasn’t available, a casualty of the economic downturn. However, the final demise came in the 1990s when the artefacts of bygone age – the last nine public lavatories were withdrawn on a Garda recommendation, for reasons quoting drug taking, prostitution and disorderly conduct.

Pissoir once stood on the quays, opposite the Ormond Hotel

The public toilets of the future: The two-thousands

Yet the ‘two-thousands’ brought new emphasis on public amenities. Unaware of economic problems, Dublin City Council in 2008 proposed modern public toilets with shower facilities. They were to be built on state land and to be self financed through advertising and sponsorship. The washing facilities were perhaps an imitation of a French model that gave preference to the most marginalised in society. Something that might serve Dublin today with so many people residing in tents. Another interesting observation is that the responsibility for offering toilets was not laid firmly at the doors of restaurants or hostelries. This indicates a more optimistic attitude towards outdoor socialising and how it might be facilitated. 

However, the financial crash arrived and that was that. 

By 2011 public toilets ‘for men’ were installed in an effort to reduce public urination. This was done in a haphazard way. A visitor from Washington DC in  2011 who sunbathed at Stephen’s Green warned visitors on Trip Adviser to, “Keep in mind that the closest bathroom [the park] is in the mall across the street (there are many signs pointing to it once you get inside) and it’s not free.” He perhaps did not realise how convenient that location was compared to the city at large. 

In 2018 it was claimed that the closed public toilets on Kevin Street could be made into a cafe (without a public toilet no doubt!) In any event, it was not until the Covid-19 pandemic that efforts were made to facilitate a living city. For example, in 2021 Councillor Rebecca Moynihan reiterated the need for outdoor socialising,

 ‘we need to make Dublin a world leader like other European cities, one where people can socialise safely and comfortably outdoors. This situation has highlighted the stark difference between Dublin, which is a European capital city, and other cities where there are public facilities. We seem to want to punish people for wanting to socialise, but we must realise that people want to socialise and be with their friends. We need to provide them with safe facilities in order to do so.’ 

This European model of outdoor living contrasts with Irish attitudes, as young people who gather in areas for recreation were traditionally seen to be loitering and could be asked to move on. A change in attitude appeared that year and temporary outdoor seating was provided on O’Connell Street and at other locations. Alongside the installation of portaloos across the city (150 in total and costing a hefty €11.000 a day). They were removed and it was said that in their place more permanent lavatories would be installed at strategic locations.

Coffee Dock Operators

As the vexed question of public toilets continued the council responded through tendered businesses to run coffee docks that could be opened on city council land with toilets attached (upkeep the trader’s duty). The proposed incentives, however, proved inadequate for the businesses and it failed to materialise in a meaningful way. Including the public toilets at Sean Moore Park.

Anti-Social Behaviour

Dublin City Council’s concern about managing antisocial behaviour and vandalism in toilets is legitimate. Though anti-social behaviour is only caused by a small minority of toilet users and the majority should not be made to suffer. The toilets I feel need to be staffed. I think it is time when the words of the philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham are endorsed, that the moral quality of our action should be considered through its consequences on human happiness. In that line he says we should aim at “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.”

Today, the only fully designated facility in the centre is to be found at St Stephen’s Green and, according to figures, it is costing close to €400,000 a year to run. It came about during Covid when restaurants, cafes etc were closed. It is expensive but it is also a requirement. Take Paris, for instance, it has a public toilet at an estimated 17 restrooms per square mile. This might be worth looking at in greater detail. In the meantime, should you find yourself in need the website offers a definitive list of available toilets.

With local elections around the corner council candidates should take note: lack of conveniences city wide is causing citizens a great inconvenience!