Scrubbed up like an emperor

From its Refridarium to its Sudatorium, the Roman-Irish bath experience is a tradition that is long overdue a resurgence here

From its Refridarium to its Sudatorium, the Roman-Irish bath experience is a tradition that is long overdue a resurgence here

FOR THE sake of our recession-tired minds and aching bones, there is an Irish tradition that desperately needs reviving: the Roman-Irish bath. In 19th-century Ireland, an afternoon spent sweating out all your worries in a heated air bath was a regular occurrence. There were baths for women, baths for men, baths for the poor and for the rich, the sick and the mad. There were even baths specifically built for horses.

One would enter into an elegantly decorated dressing room, the Refridarium, where you would change into robes and wooden clogs. You would then be led through a series of heated rooms where you would sit, relax and let your body temperature rise; the final room, the Sudatorium, being heated to 95 degrees. A professional shampooer would then thoroughly scrub you from head to toe. All impurities washed away, you would plunge into a pool of cool water and then emerge to be massaged and finally led to a relaxation room to lie back and contemplate your good fortune.

I discovered this woefully abandoned Irish pastime while in the German spa town of Baden-Baden. The healthiest town in Europe was chosen by my cousin for her marriage, undoubtedly to counteract our family’s proclivity to party like there’s no tomorrow.


For more than 2,000 years, emperors, queens, tsars, composers and philosophers have flocked to this town to bathe in its curative thermal waters. As a town built on the philosophy of health, they have perfected the art of pampering. Decadent hotels provide impeccable service. Shop windows are filled with sparkling designer goods and there are numerous clinics providing for every sort of unhealthy niggle.

This is a town where retired couples, in pressed white linen and pearls, sport gold-topped canes and walk dachshunds on handmade leather leads. Everywhere there is an air of well groomed opulence. As an antidote to the madness of an Irish wedding, how could we go wrong?

As I wandered through the cobbled streets on our first morning, I noticed a sign for the Friedrichsbad, which described itself as providing a combination of the Roman and Irish bathing traditions. “Irish?” I thought. “What do the body-shy Irish have to do with Roman baths?” As I discovered, a lot.

The first Victorian-Turkish baths in western Europe, or Roman-Irish as they are also known, were built and perfected by an Irish doctor in Blarney, Co Cork. Dr Richard Barter developed the Roman-Irish bath not, as one might expect, to pander to the frivolous leisure pursuits of the rich, but to fight the rampant cholera epidemic of 1832. This pandemic claimed almost 50,000 Irish lives in little over a year.

When the first of Dr Barter’s patients began to die that April he made a discovery that would save hundreds. The medical thinking of the day was that cholera patients should not be given water to drink. In opposition to this, Dr Barter took his patients to a clinic near his home in Blarney and fed them copious amounts of water from his own well. Many of his patients survived. Dr Barter became convinced of the curative power of water.

Violent outbreaks of typhus, typhoid, smallpox, scarlet fever and influenza were also common in 19th- century Ireland. Drugs were as yet unavailable to treat these diseases and alternative remedies were desperately needed. Taking his discovery further, Dr Barter studied the eccentric travel book of a Scottish diplomat, David Urquhart, who extolled the virtues of the Turkish baths as a form of therapeutic hydrotherapy.

As Urquhart brilliantly explained: “Our body is a fountain of impurities, to which man is more subject that the beast . . . we must have a standard of cleanliness as well as of truth – this standard is the bath.”

Together, on a hill overlooking Blarney, in 1856 Urquhart and Dr Barter built the first “Roman-Irish” or “Improved Turkish” baths in western Europe. St Ann’s Hydropathic Establishment became a world renowned hotel and health centre, attracting thousands of patients from all over Europe. The main entrance was flanked by tall Romanesque pillars beyond which were sun rooms, reading rooms, tennis courts, a theatre, an American bowling alley, elegant dining halls and manicured gardens.

St Ann’s Hydro inspired the building of Roman-Irish baths in New York, Stockholm, Toronto, Cape Town and hundreds of places in between. There were more than 600 of these baths in Britain and Ireland alone. They were built in hospitals, asylums, work houses, hotels, members clubs and private homes.

There were even baths built for ailing pigs, cattle and horses. As James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, a patron of Dr Barter’s bathing establishments in Dublin, explains: “Nice smell these soaps have. Time to get a bath round the corner. Hammam. Turkish. Massage. Dirt gets rolled up in your navel. Nicer if a girl did it.”

The difference between these baths and other forms of hot-air baths, such as Swedish saunas, was that the air was dry. Dr Barter found that patients could withstand higher temperatures in dry air than wet. The higher temperatures, he believed, brought out more of the causes of the diseases. As he explained, “Like sweeping your streets, you must go to a greater depth than the surface, the shores and sewers must be flushed”.

Dr Barter believed that sweating out all the impurities in the body and replacing them with fresh water was the best way of fighting these diseases. His prescription, for almost everything, was the purging of the skin.

Baden-Baden’s Friedrichsbad offers a similar treatment. Three luxurious hours are spent in hot-air baths, warm showers, steam rooms, Jacuzzis, cold plunge pools while being shampooed, scrubbed and moisturised.

The brochures claim that the process can help with skin problems, asthma, bronchitis, arthritis, fibromyalgia, high blood pressure, as well as muscle and soft tissue injuries. It is also helpful in treating the symptoms of too much dancing and not a lot of sleep.

The Friedrichsbad brings you through 17 stages of relaxation each one in a state of complete nakedness. In Dr Barter’s Victorian Ireland, nakedness in the baths was a highly contentious issue with critics extolling it as an evil that should be suppressed with the utmost severity. To provide for this, the baths of Ireland, unlike the continental kind, supplied special bathing costumes, separate entrances and bathing areas for women and men.

During the Great War, St Ann’s Hydro was used as a military hospital, and the Roman-Irish baths were closed due to a lack of coal. This seemed to be a trend for hundreds of baths worldwide.

Though the establishment was used for various other activities, the baths were never opened again and the Hydro was finally shut down in 1956. Roman-Irish baths that were commonplace in Victorian Ireland have now drifted into distant memory. I don’t know precisely why they fell out of fashion but they did and one by one they closed.

It is possible that the improvement in home sanitation meant that it was no longer necessary to go to a “bath” as you could do it at home. I could find no evidence of any in Ireland that now use the hot dry air methods pioneered by Dr Barter. To experience the delights of our bathing heritage, you will have to travel to England or, of course, to Baden-Baden.

Recently, I visited the remains of St Ann’s Hydro. Its elegant grandeur is now buried under a field of golden barley. One faceless clock tower stands among rumble overrun with briars, the only testament to what was once the greatest hydrotherapy centre in western Europe and an Irish tradition worthy of resurrection.


Dublin, Upper O'Connell Street:Though the baths were destroyed in 1922 the building now in its place is called the Hammam Buildings.

Bray, Quinsborough Road:This spectacular Moorish style building was demolished in 1980.

Dublin, Lincoln Place, Leinster Street:These baths were called "the mosque of the baths" by Leopold Bloom in Ulysses. They were demolished in the 1970s.

Cork, South Mall:These baths were closed in 1943 and the building is now the premises of Jacobs on the Mall restaurant.

For more information on the Victorian-Turkish or Roman-Irish baths, see Malcolm Shifrin's fascinating website


  • Baden-Baden, the Friedrichsbad:One of the most famous spa experiences in Europe. A three-and-half-hour Roman-Irish bath at this 125-year-old establishment, including soap and brush massage, will cost you €31. (HRB, Baden-Baden 1560, Germany. 00-49-72212759, email:
  • London, Westminster, the Porchester Spa:As well as hot-air baths, this spa offers Russian steam rooms, Finnish log saunas, cold plunge pools and a swimming pool. Admission price for a non-memberis £22.10 (€25). (The Porchester Centre, Queensway, W2 5HS, London. 00-44-207-7922919,
  • Swindon, Health Hydro:These baths seem to be run by the local council and provide all the traditional quirks of a Turkish bath for only £8.20 (€9.20),(Euclid Street, Swindon, SN1 2JH, London. 00-44-179-3445500 e-mail: ).
  • L ondon, Tower Hamlets, Spa London:For a meagre £22.50 (€25.20), you will be priovided with bath robes, fresh fruit and infused water; you will have use of a Hammam, various Roman-Irish baths, aroma steam rooms, monsoon showers, an ice fountain, a plunge pool and a kneipp hose (to cool the extremities starting at the feet and hands working over the body if desired!). (York Hall Leisure Centre, Old Ford Road, E2 9PJ, London. 00-44-208-7095845, e-mail: