21-degree seawater, blue sky above: A glorious swim in Clontarf Baths, now open to all

Rosita Boland takes a dip in the beautiful seawater pool, previously accessible only to club members

Clontarf baths in Dublin

After expensive renovations, a kerfuffle about the lack of public access, and barneying about whether the Baths at Clontarf was really an exclusive folly of a pool attached to a restaurant, the saltwater pool at the edge of Dublin Bay is finally open. Open, that is, to people like me, who are not members of any swimming club. You previously had to be one to gain access to the baths.

Since the beginning of August, members of the general public have been able to book either of two two-hour slots. For this month, from Monday to Friday, you can choose to swim from 10am to noon, or from 2pm to 4pm. It’s €10 a session, and you can stay for the whole two hours if you wish, but booking online is essential.

My weather app shows 24 degrees when I turn up at the baths at 3pm on Thursday, swimsuit in bag. “The water temperature is 21.5 degrees right now,” says Bobby Nolan, the pool’s operations manager.

Both the pool and the Baths restaurant, on Clontarf Road in north Dublin, are owned by David Cullen and family, but Nolan is keen to stress that they are separate entities.


Nolan, whose grandfather and father swam in the old baths, and who is a well-known swimmer himself, previously worked as a lifeguard here. He knows the bones of this place of old, and is hugely enthusiastic about it, and how it has been given new life.

“What do you think of that?” he asks, indicating the asymmetrical pool below. I think it looks pretty fantastic. Public open-air swimming pools, at least in Britain, are usually known as lidos, but “baths” is what seems to have stuck in the Irish vernacular. The Blackrock Baths, the Dún Laoghaire Baths, the Clontarf Baths.

These baths-lido-pool are big. Nice and big: 900sq m of pool, up to 40m wide, and almost 2m deep at its deepest point. It’s filled with seawater, minus jellyfish, and has a chlorinated rubber insulation. The tide is out at Clontarf when I am there, but it’s permanently in at the Clontarf Baths.

There are a few sheltered cabana-type structures, and a few picnic tables scattered about, but most people are just sitting on the towels they brought with them, on the concrete. It is very low key. No parasols. You can’t really stick a parasol into a piece of concrete. This is not the beach, after all.

Nolan tells me that the capacity for a session is 158, and that 107 people are currently on site. That sounds like a lot of people, but not all of them are in the water. It doesn’t seem at all crowded, because the baths are properly big. A large section is cordoned off for people swimming lanes (from really quite slowly to human-dolphin speed); the rest is for everyone not swimming lanes.

Of course I have to try it out. My office is temporarily the pool. Or the baths. I keep forgetting the formal name and calling it a pool. I change in one of the six changing rooms; there are also toilets and two outdoor showers. Everything is clean and fresh, which can’t be easy with so many people going through the facilities in this weather.

There are five lifeguards on site; the head lifeguard is Aoife Drum, whom you will swiftly identify if you go there. Drum must have about 200 eyes, as she sees everything. She calls out every transgression: jumping in backwards, horsing around in the swimming lanes, not using the handrail to access the water. I am sure the parent of every child there is grateful for her vigilance.

I get into the 21.5-degree seawater, and it is glorious. It’s the oddest sensation to be in saltwater yet not be looking out at a horizon of ocean. I love my swim. And it is a proper swim, no bumping into anyone, and the blue, blue sky above.

I ask Nolan if there is a clock on site, so swimmers can know when their two hours are coming to an end. “There’s a big clock down there,” he says. There is indeed a big clock poolside, but Nolan mustn’t have looked at it for some time, because it’s definitely not working.

It is with the utmost reluctance that I get out of the water, feeling revived and cooled, and delighted with the whole experience. This month’s opening of the pool to the general public is a trial. Nolan says they now hope to “push it out to September”. The slots are booked out this week, and for a couple of days next week, but there is still lots of availability.

And next year, Nolan says, they are hopeful they may have these “public sessions” from May through September.

Rosita Boland

Rosita Boland

Rosita Boland is Senior Features Writer with The Irish Times. She was named NewsBrands Ireland Journalist of the Year for 2018