An Irishman’s Diary about Dublin’s imported pissoirs

Long-lost modern conveniences

The pissoir on Ormond Quay

The pissoir on Ormond Quay

 

Dublin once had one of the symbols so redolent of Paris in the old days, the Parisian pissoir, a relic of old indecency. Of course, they had a much more elegant official name, vespasiennes, named after the first century Roman emperor Vespasianus, who put a tax on urine collected from public toilets and used for tanning leather.

Paris introduced public urinals in 1830, but an uprising that year put an end to them, as they provided ideal material for barricade building. They weren’t reintroduced until 1841, eventually becoming known as vespasiennes.

At the height of their popularity, in 1914, Paris had 4,000 of them, an instantly recognisable sign of the city. Even in the 1930s, it still had over 1, 200. The old Dublin Corporation decided to get in on the act. Just before the 1932 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, a big clean-up campaign began in the city and the Corpo decided to import several genuine French pissoirs from the manufacturers in France.

‘Gentlemen Only’

dames pipi

While the pissoirs were seen as a sign of Parisian modernity in Dublin, after the Eucharistic Congress ended, it was downhill all the way. In his 2012 autobiography, A Kick Against the Pricks, Senator David Norris said that there was a hugely active gay sexual life in Dublin in the 1950s and 1960s, but centred on public lavatories. He remarked that strangely no-one seemed to think it was odd to have cinema-like queues during the evenings at public conveniences in the city centre, including the aforesaid vespasiennes.

But somehow, the Dublin vespasiennes managed to cling on, becoming useful places for advertising posters. The one on Upper Ormond Quay even had one for the old News of the World, with a most appropriate slogan, “All Human Life is There”.

But the pissoir on Upper Ormond Quay, which was the most fanciful of these cast-iron monsters, was sold in the 1970s by Dublin Corporation to a student for a mere £10. This particular pissoir suffered a bourgeois fate and ended up as a gazebo in a back garden in Sandymount.

The last surviving vespasienne was the one out in Fairview, which staggered on until 1980, when it too was carted away. They had suffered the same fate as all the public air-raid shelters put up in Dublin during the second World War or Emergency, admittedly for an emergency of a different kind.

Public convenience

vespasiennesanisettes

The once respectable 70 or so public toilets in Dublin, such as the ones at Upper O’ Connell Street, St Stephen’s Green and College Street, also closed.

In August last year, an unusual outbreak of sentimentality erupted over a public toilet, when the city council, as part of its works on the river Dodder at Ballsbridge, suddenly demolished the public loos at the foot of Anglesea Road. They had been unused for years and there had been much talk of them being put to other uses, like a Little Museum of Ballsbridge, but in the end, the demolition artists got in first.

While the vespasiennes in Dublin, Paris and many other cities around the world have gone to that great toilet in the sky, at least they are remembered on film.

In the 1967 spoof Bond film Casino Royale, Insp Mathis of the secret police, played by that fine Glaswegian actor Duncan Macrae, introduced himself to Bond, played by Peter Sellers. The inspector is inside a vespasienne and says to Bond; “These are my credentials”; to which Bond replies “All in order” .

Dublin’ s ancient vespasiennes never even got a plaque, unlike the one put up last year in the gents at Kiely’ s pub in Donnybrook, in honour of a certain Ross O’Carroll Kelly, who hit and missed there for years.