The naked truth about naturists
Bad weather, a prudish population and a precarious legal situation - Irish naturists don't have it easy. But is Ireland finally ready to go 'clothing optional'?
IN A RECENT EPISODE of Fáilte Towers, the reality TV show where a dwindling group of celebrities run a hotel together, a party of Dutch naturists sat down for a naked lunch. Eamon and Brenda, a middle-aged Dublin couple, were unimpressed. "You don't eat in the nude," says Brenda dismissively.
It would seem a disappointingly typical response from someone of her demographic, were it not for the fact that Brenda, while she may not dine naked, does swim naked at a Dublin City Council pool on a weekly basis and has just returned from a weekend of nude sunbathing at a naturist beach in Cork.
Eamon and Brenda, who declined to give their surnames, are members the Irish Naturist Association (INA), an organisation that has been promoting the practice of going naked in designated areas for more than 40 years.
They also meet regularly with fellow naturists through Club Aquarius, a Dublin-based organisation which rents time at a council pool. It was a habit in which this Dublin couple were already engaging long before they identified themselves with the word naturist.
"When we were a young couple going out, we'd find a quiet spot on the beach and go for a little skinny dip, but we never put the word naturism on it," says Eamon. "A lot of people wouldn't describe themselves as naturists, even though they enjoy being nude."
As far as he is concerned, it's the most natural thing in the world to wish to divest yourself of the daily encumbrance of clothing. "It's normal to be naked. It's not normal to wear clothes, though it has become normal to wear clothes," says Eamon, before Brenda interrupts with a practical shrug. "You'd have to in this country anyway, because of the weather."
SPEAKING OF THE weather and this summer's particularly inclement conditions, one wonders how naturism ever got off the ground in this country, where the idea is made considerably less appealing when Irish coastal temperatures are taken into account.
"If a person is prepared to strip off and put on a pair of togs, it's warm enough to go swimming naked," says Eamon simply. "We were at the beach four times this year. And if we weren't naturists, we probably would have gone to the beach four times this year."
These beach forays are usually confined to the summer months, when the weekly swimming pool sessions are suspended. During these months, Eamon and Brenda meet with their fellow Club Aquarians at beach outings, and have just returned from a few days on Long Strand beach in Clonakilty Bay in Cork where they got together with people from the Southern Naturist Club, which holds a swim/sauna night in Cahir.
It all may appear innocuous enough, but while the fact that they enjoy a quick skinny dip may not raise too many eyebrows, in doing so on an Irish beach Eamon and Brenda could be accused of a criminal offence.
According to the Irish Naturist Association website there are a number of laws which could, in theory, be used against naturists, including the Vagrancy Act of 1824, the Town Improvement (Ireland) Act of 1854 and the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1935, which refers to acts that "offend modesty or cause scandal or injure to the morals of the community". The Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act from 1994 is also cited on the site, with its references to "offensive conduct".
According to Pat McGonagle, a partner at McGonagle Solicitors on Wellington Quay, nudity must take place in a public place in order for it to be considered an offence under this Public Order Act. "If you walk around the street naked, the question is, is it likely to cause offence to someone?" he asks. "There are some people who are going to be offended, undoubtedly, and if that is the case, you are in breach of the Public Order Act."
As Eamon interprets it, the onus is on those prosecuting a naturist to prove that any offence caused was deliberate. "People who are complaining will have to prove that you intended to offend," he says. There is a flipside to this interpretation, however. "If somebody says they're offended, how do you prove that theyre not?"
Part of the problem is that naturism is not officially recognised under Irish law. "There's nothing outlawing naturism, but there's nothing officially recognising it either," says McGonagle.
As a result, there are no officially-designated naturist beaches in Ireland, although the Irish Naturists Association carries a list of 14 unofficial naturist beaches on its website, www.irishnaturism.org, along with detailed directions for access.
They are scattered throughout the country, with four named in Leinster alone, including a well-known spot in Brittas Bay which has become, according to the website, the most popular naturist beach in the country.
From Donegal's Trawalua Strand to Inch on the Dingle Peninsula, there are plenty of options for those game enough to bathe naked in Ireland's notoriously nippy waters. Yet, despite such spots being unofficially recognised, bathers still strip off at their own risk.
"Unless theyre on a private strip of beach, they are open to prosecution," says McGonagle. "Philosophically, public nudity will still be regarded as offensive conduct in a public place. Thats just the culture were in and the law reflects that."
It is clear that Brenda and Eamon have no desire to offend those who don't approve of their pastime, which is why they try to keep a low profile and look for discreet outdoor locations during the summer months.
"People still have to be secretive about it, not because they think they're doing something wrong, but because they don't want to offend other people," says Brenda.
The precarious legal situation is one of the reasons why Eamon and Brenda often choose to go to beaches with fellow naturists, rather than on their own. "There is safety in numbers," admits Eamon. "If you go along in a group, you're definitely not as easily intimidated."
For Brenda, it's also a way of raising awareness about naturism, and of paving the way for those who wish to skinny dip in peace. "You're more of a presence that way [in a group]," says Brenda. "It's so people can go to the beach and be naked if they want."
In an ideal world, explains Eamon, no special club would be required for naturists, and those who wished to would be entitled to strip off and dive in whenever the mood took them. "We would hope at some stage to make ourselves redundant," he says.
It is clear that Irish attitudes to nudity have changed considerably in recent years, as evidenced by the thousands that turned up to pose naked for the recent Spencer Tunick photoshoots in Dublin and Cork.
"The Spencer Tunick thing could not have taken place 10, 15 years ago," says Eamon. "Attitudes here have been softened up by the INA. Had the INA not existed, it's possible that Spencer Tunick would not have been accepted here."
As far as Eamon is concerned, the very fact that the event took place while gardaí stood by is an argument in favour of amending Irish law. "My argument now would be that all these people were seen in a public place, but they obviously weren't there to offend anyone, so there should be no problem," he says.
YET EVEN IF THE risk of prosecution is slight, why take a chance that some "textile" - as naturists refer to those who keep their clothes on - will take umbrage or legal action? "We enjoy the freedom of it," says Eamon. "It's very pleasant to sunbathe nude and to swim in the nude."
Such simple logic is at odds with the kind of suspicion and conjecture that tends to surround the subject of naturism. Brenda has heard it all before.
"You get things like, 'Sure they must be up to something if they're in the nude'," she says wearily. "If they experience naturism, most people will discover that it's not what they thought it was. It's not an undercover sexual thing."
It all comes back to the birthday suit for Eamon. "Naturists are born," he says, adding that little children are happy to run around naked until they are counselled otherwise.
"It's usually bred out of them when they grow up," he says almost sadly, then breaks into an impish grin. "In my case, my parents didn't succeed in breeding it out of me."
When it came to their own children, Eamon and Brenda tried to do things differently. "They were brought up to know that there's no harm being nude," he says.
For Eamon, all this rumpus about the exposure of rump is a question of misplaced emphasis. "It's more important being a good person than being dressed."
BARE NECESSITIES: NATURIST SPOTS AROUND THE WORLD
Cap d'Agde Village Naturiste, France:A self-contained town where you can shop, bank and dine naked, the Village Naturiste in Cap d'Agde boasts a two-kilometre naturist beach.
Grand Lido Braco, Jamaica:One of the best clothing-optional spots on the Caribbean, this resort boasts 52 rooms on the au naturel side of the property.
Wreck Beach, Vancouver, Canada:Canada's first and largest clothing-optional beach is almost eight kilometres long and attracts half a million visitors annually.
Paradise Beach, Mykonos, Greece:This famous "clothing optional" beach has suffered for its reputation, and is now often crowded in the warmer months, though Mykonos has several other, more secluded options open to naturists.
Black Rock, Brighton, England:Somewhat closer to home, Black Rock beach in Brighton was the first public naturist beach in Britain when it opened in 1980. Since then, 10 other naturist beaches around Britain have been officially designated as such, though Brighton remains the best known.
Lady Jane Beach, Sydney, Australia:One of the best-known clothing-optional spots Down Under, Lady Jane Beach is particularly popular with gay men, although heterosexual men and women also frequent it.