Tuesday 22 January 2019

'This is no ordinary pool... we need people to give us a little more time' - Clontarf Sea Baths reopens

As Clontarf Baths reopens, Nuala Woulfe looks at Ireland's rich history of outdoor pools and other open swimming spots

Labour of love: Rita Barcoe at Clontarf Baths
Labour of love: Rita Barcoe at Clontarf Baths
Soak up the views: Outdoor swimming at Arvagh, Garty Lough

Now that the cold snap is finally - hopefully - at an end, what better way to celebrate the eventual arrival of spring than by taking a swim in an open water pool?

With the opening of the Clontarf Sea Baths this spring, it seems the Irish are being inspired by the UK's lidos and are taking to outdoor pools. However, this isn't so much a new trend as a return to the past: Ireland has had many much-loved outdoor pools in decades gone by, from the iconic Blackrock Baths in Dublin to Cork's Lee Field Baths - demolished in the late 80s.

Nostalgia is partly the reason why the Cullen brothers were driven to acquire and open the refurbished Clontarf Baths, according to Rita Barcoe, Operations Director for the Cullen family.

"It's 25 years since we bought the Baths - Stephen Cullen swam there as a child. This is more than just a project, this is a labour of love," she says.

"Stephen built the new pool himself over two solid years. We want the community to embrace it - we want to be part of the community."

The local community want to be part of the sea baths too, but according to Clontarf Residents' Association they're concerned about exclusion.

"We're happy it's been cleaned up, but we're hearing it's only opening to clubs. The condition of the planning is that it has to open to the public," insists chairperson Deirdre Tobin.

The entire Clontarf development encompassing pool, restaurant and bar will cost over €3m when it's finished, €1m being the cost of the pool and the tidal wall alone and Barcoe says they've calculated the cost of running the pool between late April, when it will open, through the summer months at €400,000.

"It's going to be hard to have it pay for itself. One way is to open it up to clubs initially - clubs have their own insurance and lifeguards," she explains. "We still need to figure out what clubs need and we need the broader community to understand that this is not an ordinary pool and to give us a little more time."

Clontarf pool won't be heated when it first opens - Barcoe says they've been quoted up to €20,000 a month just for heating.

"We've looked at lidos in Scotland, but our pool is quite unique. If we could heat it, it'd be busier, but if you were letting out heated water into Dublin Port, there'd be repercussions."

Whether Clontarf is heated or not, it'll be a novelty, especially in Dublin with the decision to fill in Victorian pools at Dun Laoghaire, though a Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council spokesperson says the building of a new jetty and changing area will allow swimmers "to access the water's edge".

Soak up the views: Outdoor swimming at Arvagh, Garty Lough
Soak up the views: Outdoor swimming at Arvagh, Garty Lough

However, existing outdoor pools nationwide, of which there are quite a few, remain popular as more and more people opt to swim outside. In places where these outdoor summer baths operate, the community say their life-guarded pools are a major social amenity and tourist attraction.

One such pool in Ballina, Co Tipperary, alongside the River Shannon banks, was threatened with demolition to make a car park in the mid 90s, but locals got on board to fight for its future.

"The pool was built in 1973, but in 1995 we took it over," says local Paddy Collins. "We got good funding over the years and we got a grant to get the pool heated." The pool attracts lots of families and tourists who swim in all weather. "People don't care about the rain," says Collins.

On a good day, Ballina could have 400 visitors, explains Nenagh Pool Manager, Tom Mackey, who tests the chlorinated water every day. "The local shop comes down with a portable freezer filled with ice creams and there's a real holiday feel about the place," he says.

In Cavan, Helen O'Hara is one of the local volunteers who runs the Arvagh outdoor pool which is situated alongside Garty Lough. Although it's unheated, Helen says on a nice summer's day their pool is "like the Costa del Sol" with queues forming to gain access.

"Swimming outdoors is just a different sensation. People drive from Dublin and Meath, passing several indoor pools just to get here," she says. Growing up as London Irish, Helen says a lido was just across her street and she spent hours every day there as a child.

"It was freezing cold but we didn't care. When we moved to Ireland I was delighted to find an outdoor pool again. When we've teenagers in the Arvagh pool we put on music for them to make it more enjoyable. Some people like to swim outside and, for them, the pool is safer than swimming in the lake. I'm sure lots of Irish people don't even know Ireland has outside pools - even people locally are sometimes surprised."

The love of outdoor pools is often rooted in childhood. Mary Foster is on the committee which runs the outdoor pool in Bagenalstown, Co Carlow, but she learnt to swim as a child in the famous Blackrock Baths in the mid-60s when she'd visit her Dublin aunt.

"Blackrock was amazing - they'd run water polo there, it had diving boards and everything. I brought my son there before it closed down," she recalls.

The Bagenalstown pool, adjacent to the River Barrow, is heated by solar panels and overnight electricity, and is covered at night for heat retention. Regardless of weather, Mary Foster says as with other outdoor pools, people come from "Dublin and all over just to swim". In Cork, Siobhán Ní Laocha is part of a community-run pool in Coolea, near Macroom.

Their air-to-water heat pump was paid for by Airtricity and the pool now buy electricity from the grid, which has made for very affordable heating. "The pool's so popular and has such great community support," she says.

"At Christmas we do 'Dip na Nollaig' to fundraise and that covers any shortfalls."

Marketing Manager of University of Limerick Activity Centre, Andree Walkin, says outdoor pools, particularly if they're unheated, can be a way for people interested in wild swimming to become less nervous about open water.

"The shock factor of getting into cold water is also great for recovery - a lot of athletes make use of it," she says. Veteran wild swimmer Ned Denison from Sandycove Swimmers in Cork, says a large pool like Clontarf will definitely attract seasoned wild swimmers as well as those who find the sea too rough.

"The last time I swam in a UK lido, it was 0.5 degrees in winter," he recalls. "Personally I don't mind what temperature the water is in any outdoor pool."

For a full list of the 22 community and council outdoor pools around the country search iws.ie and click on Lifeguarded Waterways and Other Bathing Areas.

Irish Independent

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