Life

Thursday 20 June 2019

Would you bare all on an Irish beach?

Attitudes towards public nudity have thawed slightly but it remains one of Ireland's last taboos and naturists still risk legal backlash.

Thousands of volunteers taking part in Spencer Tunick’s nude photo shoot at Poolbeg in Dublin last summer.
Thousands of volunteers taking part in Spencer Tunick’s nude photo shoot at Poolbeg in Dublin last summer.
Naked bodies lie tight together for photographer Spencer Tunick (not in photo) as he photographs almost 150 nude volunteer models under the Williamsburg Bridge in Manhattan, New York City.
The female section of the 2011 'Dip in the Nip' at Dunmoran Strand, Co. Sligo, in aid of cancer research. Photo: Frances Muldoon / PicSell8

Gabrielle Monaghan

From the outset, Brenda and her husband have a typical Dublin social life. They relax with friends at a city pool twice a month, host parties at their home and, if the weather is fine, they'll have a picnic on the beach. ­Unlike most of their Irish counterparts, though, they do this kind of socialising in the nude.

As a naturist, Brenda has few ­inhibitions about communal nudity - in the right circumstances - and relishes the freedom that comes with a clothing-optional lifestyle.

Thousands of volunteers taking part in Spencer Tunick’s nude photo shoot at Poolbeg in Dublin last summer.
Thousands of volunteers taking part in Spencer Tunick’s nude photo shoot at Poolbeg in Dublin last summer.

She first swam nude as a young woman, off a secluded beach near Brittas Bay, and concluded that ­fiddling about with wet swimsuits was too cumbersome. She and her husband joined Club Aquarius, a Leinster-based naturist club for families and couples, 31 years ago. But she and other members are still wary of telling strangers about their pastime.

"We would have been keeping it a lot quieter then than now," she said. "People would say 'well, what are you doing that for?' I think it was because of the religious attitudes in the country at the time - in some ways, they're still there. Going around naked was 'an occasion of sin'. I didn't see it that way."

Brenda's discretion is understandable. Public nakedness is one of Irish society's final taboos, and naturists risk falling foul of the law on both sides of the border, as two men discovered in Co Down last month. The pair were escaping the sweltering heat by skinny dipping in Belfast Lough. But when they emerged from the sea, they were confronted by police officers.

The police service of Northern ­Ireland threatened to prosecute the two men and place them on the sex offenders register. It said online that they were "treating this kind of behaviour extremely seriously" and that it would be "continuing to take action against anyone who decides to do the same".

In the Republic, nude swimming or sunbathing in a public place is illegal if someone takes offence, according to Pat Gallagher, president of the Irish Naturist Association (INA). Under the Town Improvement Ireland Act of 1854, men, but not women, are prohibited from indecently exposing themselves. The amended Public Order Act of 1935 criminalises nudity in some places if the person intends to offend.

Irish law doesn't distinguish between non-sexual nudity and lewd acts or public urination. However, no member of the 51-year-old INA has ever been prosecuted for naturist activities, mostly because the association seeks out secluded beaches. And these archaic laws hardly deter the growing swathe of people who strip off for charity, to make a political statement, or in the name of art.

Last month, Cork commuters were treated to the sight of naked cyclists biking down Patrick Street to highlight their vulnerability on the roads. The Dip in the Nip encourages hundreds of people to fling themselves into the sea in aid of cancer charities, and hundreds disrobed in Cork and Dublin in 2008 for Spencer Tunick's installations, which use naked bodies to create art. Yet, Ireland is the only country in the EU that doesn't have officially-recognised bathing areas for naturists. Gallagher has been campaigning to local authorities and successive justice ministers for two decades for naturist hotspots to receive an official seal of approval.

"It's a political hot potato," he said.

Naked bodies lie tight together for photographer Spencer Tunick (not in photo) as he photographs almost 150 nude volunteer models under the Williamsburg Bridge in Manhattan, New York City.
Naked bodies lie tight together for photographer Spencer Tunick (not in photo) as he photographs almost 150 nude volunteer models under the Williamsburg Bridge in Manhattan, New York City.

But there are signs that officialdom, like public attitudes, is loosening somewhat. Failte Ireland contacted the INA about drumming up some naturist tourism by holding the International Naturist Congress in Ireland for the first time. It will be held in September at the Lough Allen Spa Hotel in Drumshambo, Co Leitrim. If the hotel is booked out, the naturists can have the entire property to themselves.

The INA expects delegates from naturist associations as far afield as New Zealand and Brazil to attend and 50 out of some 70 rooms are already booked. If the remaining rooms aren't filled, delegates will still have use of the swimming pool and others parts of hotel at certain times.

"I was thinking of using this ­occasion to follow up on our previous submissions with the new minister for justice," Gallagher said. "We are holding this congress in cooperation with the national tourism authority - it sees the potential for naturist tourism in Ireland, otherwise they wouldn't have contacted us. They see that people are going to naturist locations all around Europe."

In the meantime, members of the INA have to contend with organised outings to unofficial naturist beaches, such as Sallymount near Brittas Bay or Trawalua in Co Sligo - pending suitable weather, naturally. But some public representatives are a little concerned about naturists using their local beaches.

Fine Gael councillor Eileen Mannion said last year that she was shocked when she discovered that the INA had recommended off-track locations at two beaches in west Galway - Dog's Bay outside Roundstone and Silver Strand near Barna - for its members.

Mannion said Dog's Bay was "a family destination and it is not a place for nudity. I have been talking to people from the area and they are appalled that it is listed as a place being recommended for people to go nude".

"Some people think that if you are in the nude, you must up to something," said Brenda, who is on the committee of Club Aquarius and has received a handful of calls from men who confuse naturism with sexual activities such as swinging. "We simply say this is the wrong club for you," she said.

Tendencies to automatically associate nudity with sexual behaviour cannot just be explained by the Catholic hierarchy's lingering influence on public morality, according to Ciara Meehan, a history lecturer at the Univ­ersity of Hertfordshire, who specialises in the political and social history of modern Ireland.

"This idea of the naked body and sin being connected is true to a certain extent, but it is too blanket a statement to make. When Victorian values were dying down in Britain, they held on in Ireland, and being dressed appropriately was a sign of proper living.

The female section of the 2011 'Dip in the Nip' at Dunmoran Strand, Co. Sligo, in aid of cancer research. Photo: Frances Muldoon / PicSell8
The female section of the 2011 'Dip in the Nip' at Dunmoran Strand, Co. Sligo, in aid of cancer research. Photo: Frances Muldoon / PicSell8

'The idea of Victorian values really appealed to the Irish when we were setting up the Free State as they sat well with Catholic teachings. After the fall of the Catholic church's domination, consumerism and the media became the dominant voice.

"Nowadays (bashfulness about being naked) is probably more to do with the images projected by glossy magazines. Women are portrayed in those ­magazines as having slender figures and being flawless.

"For more women, their reluctance to strip off is shaped by having to ­conform to this kind of socially acceptable image."

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