The First Kilkenny Baths
Edward J Law (2013)
The first purpose built baths in the city of Kilkenny were not the leisure, entertainment or sports facilities which we would recognise at the present day, they were not swimming baths. Those who looked for entertainment in the water would have made for the river, as some youngsters still do despite the discouragement of the health authorities and the provision of top class facilities in the city. However, public bathing was looked upon with indignation by some sections of the general public, as in 1840 when bathing in the Nore at Dukes Meadow was denounced as an outrage upon public decency.
When in 1872 the Corporation decided to proceed with the erection of public baths, they were seen as successors to the ancient sweat houses of Ireland, which were stated to have fallen into disuse in comparatively recent times.The facilities were to comprise a Turkish bath, a plunge, and reclining and shower baths, which were to be built on a plot of ground at John’s Quay at the foot of the lane leading from Michael Street. Provision was also to be made for the accomodation of the attendant with the plans including self-contained apartments. The Marquess of Ormonde supported the project wholeheartedly, and donated half the cost, a sum exceeding £400.
The hot chamber of the Turkish bath was of a size to accomodate twelve persons. Water for the hot water system was to be supplied from a clear spring beside the building. That for the plunge bath, which would flow through it in a constant stream, would be piped from the river above Greens Bridge, and could be filtered before entering the building, if necessary. There were discussions with millowners on the Nore to reassure them that when water was scarce not a pint would be abstracted from the river. The first superintendent of the baths was Mr Hutchinson from Dublin who was paid £1 per week and had accomodation in the integral apartments.
The baths were officially opened at the end of June 1873 when emphasis was laid on their curative and sanitary properties. It was further noted that those who had baths prescribed by their medical advisers would be saved the journey to Waterford, Dublin or Limerick. It was intended that an additional wing would be erected at a future date to accomodate females, but until that time two days a week were to be set aside for their sole use. Later in the year William Robertson, the noted Kilkenny architect, was engaged to draw up plans and specifications for the female wing.
At the opening of the baths Dr Comerford spoke of their use in assuaging suffering and Kilkenny’s leading cabinet-maker, Thomas Chaplin, attested to the relief they had given him in his gout and rheumatic pains. The Mayor expressed the hope that Saturday evenings would see working men hastening to the baths rather than to public houses, so that there would be both sanitary and moral benefits. A pious hope which contrasted rather with the adjournment, after the completion of the opening ceremony, to the Mayor’s residence, where “success to the Public Baths of Kilkenny” was toasted in champagne.
Figures of usage were published regularly in the local newspapers. It was reported that up to the end of August the baths were paying their way. However, it seems that the novelty soon wore off and early in 1874 the expenses, principally the Superintendent’s wages and coal for heating the water, were running at double the receipts. If the facility did not provide the financial returns which the civic fathers had hoped for, they must have felt it to be worthwhile from its contribution to the health and cleanliness of the citizens, as it continued to operate for the remainder of the 19th century.