Full steam ahead – An Irishman’s Diary on Turkish baths

  The Turkish baths in Bray, Co Wicklow

The Turkish baths in Bray, Co Wicklow

 

One of the strangest therapeutic fads in Ireland was for Turkish baths; they were comparatively short- lived, although in some cases, their architectural heritage lasted far longer.

The pioneer of Turkish baths in Ireland was a Co Cork doctor, Dr Richard Barter, who had seen the benefits of water- based cures in European alternative medicine. He brought this new style of medicine to his practice in Blarney, Co Cork. Then, after reading a book on Turkish baths, he decided to build one.

He opened a vast edifice, the hydrotherapy baths at Blarney, but soon found that the Turkish- style baths were unsuitable, because the air was so moisture laden. Instead, he went back to the technology of the ancient Romans and created the dry-air systems that they used. The baths at Blarney were comparatively short- lived, but the extensive ruins can still be seen today, even though the richly decorated interior, designed to create an Oriental illusion, no longer exists.

Sackville Street

Barter went on to found Turkish baths in Dublin, in Upper Sackville Street, in 1869, the year before he died. The baths were part of a building called the Hammam Hotel, which lasted until anti-Treaty forces destroyed it in 1922. When the premises were rebuilt, they were called Hammam Buildings, and to this day it houses a tax office of the Revenue Commissioners.

Out of various other Turkish baths in Dublin, undoubtedly the best-known of them all was the one in Lincoln Place, at the back of Trinity College.

It opened in 1860, complete with a large ogee-shaped dome, a towering minaret and separate bath facilities for men and women; it even had stables for patrons who arrived on horseback.

The Turkish style was mimicked in great detail, down to the attendants dressed in scarlet dressing gown-style robes and Turkish slippers, while coffee was served from china cups.

Initially, Dr Barter was closely involved in the running of these baths, but moved on to open his own Turkish baths at the Hamman Hotel. The baths in Lincoln Place proved popular initially; in their first four years, they attracted about 90 bathers a day.

Right next door to the baths was the Café de Paris, the first French-style restaurant in Dublin. It advertised French breakfast, lunch and dinner, and even outdoor catering, a complete novelty for Dublin. This restaurant lasted for 20 years, until 1880, while the baths kept going for much longer, until 1900.

They were unable to compete with the half-dozen other cheaper Turkish baths in the city, including one near the College of Surgeons on St Stephen’s Green.

The old baths at Lincoln Place were subsequently used by many different commercial concerns, until they were demolished in 1970. Their history has been well documented by Malcolm Shifrin and others.

In Ulysses, James Joyce called the Lincoln Place Turkish Baths “the mosque of the baths” , but they couldn’ t have been one of Leopold Bloom’ s first ports of call on June 16th, 1904, because the baths had already been closed for four years. It’s probable that Bloom went to a similar establishment nearby, on Leinster Street.

The short-lived interest in Turkish baths spread far beyond Dublin. Cork city got one, at South Mall, which closed in 1943. What was a passageway in the original baths today leads to the contemporary Jacobs on the Mall restaurant, named after the original managing director of the Turkish baths.

Belfast, Downpatrick, Dungannon, Ennis, Kilkenny, Killarney, Limerick, Sligo, Tipperary, Tramore, Waterford and Youghal also got their own versions of Turkish baths; the ubiquitous Dr Barter was closely involved.

Even that great railway pioneer William Dargan got in on the act. He and others were very involved in turning Bray, Co Wicklow, into the Irish equivalent of an quintessential English seaside town. Dargan funded the building of Bray’ s Turkish baths at Quinsborough Road, which cost £10,000. The baths replicated the Turkish style in every way, including its minarets. They opened in 1859 but lasted less than a decade.

By 1867, the Bray Turkish Baths had become an assembly room for concerts and other events. Eventually, the premises became a cinema in the earlier 20th century, but for many years subsequently, the building was derelict, and was finally demolished in 1980. A plain shopping precinct was built on the site.

The health-giving properties of the so-called Turkish baths, Roman style, in Ireland are little disputed today. These days, every luxury hotel worth its name has a spa, the modern hydrotherapeutic equivalent, but without the glamorous Turkish-style architecture, and with not a minaret in sight.