Why Cork City has only 3 public toilets
For decades the city and county council in Cork were not really in the business of providing public toilets. Then a pandemic came along.
People in Cork love to talk about toilets. There are threads and comments sections online that run to pages, discussing where and when to go in the city, the best option if you’re with children, as well as advice on how to act as though you’re a hotel guest while sneaking in to use the toilets. The People’s Republic of Cork website even published a guide to the best toilets in the city for “aul dolls.”
Nowhere in these endless conversations does anyone recommend the city’s public toilets, except to either bemoan the condition of them, or to point out the scarcity of them. It’s fair to say there’s no love for public toilets.
Into at least the late 1980s, a decade when most Irish governments lasted about as long as a downpour, when unemployment rates reached 17% and when emigration returned with a vengeance, Cork Corporation was able to maintain 14 public toilets in the city.
Thirty years on, we are down to three public toilets. For the record, and more importantly for those who need to use them, they are located at the New Civic Offices (the glass fronted building between City Hall and Anglesea Street Fire Station), The English Market and Fitzgerald’s Park.
Clearly, people haven’t stopped going to the toilet. Rather the Corporation slipped out the back door, closed our toilets, and left the private sphere to take care of a public health issue.
A very brief history of public toilets
According to American scholar Taunya Lovell Banks, public toilets date back as far as the Roman Empire, when most major Roman cities had public toilets. In the ancient Roman city of Ephesus in modern Turkey dozens of marble-seat toilets were found in the remains of the Scholastica Baths built in 1 A.D. But even back then, access was predicated on money. If you could afford entry to a public bath, you had access to a public toilet. As the Roman Empire spread, so too did the idea of public toilets, but it didn’t take hold everywhere.
From around the mid-19th century on, the connection between public health and sanitation was established and cities set about opening public toilets, albeit mostly for men.
In the 1970s a battle in the US around access to public toilets had a very significant and unintended consequence. Journalist Chelsea Wald takes up the story in her book “Pipe Dreams: The Urgent Global Quest to Transform the Toilet.” A broad coalition of feminists and activists turned their sights on the unequal access to public toilets in America: typically urinals were free, but stalls, or cubicles, were coin-operated, effectively meaning women paid, while men went free. Toilets were effectively sexist.
The Committee to End Pay Toilets in America succeeded in getting bans on pay toilets in many states. Campaigners even had their own quarterly newsletter (the Free Toilet Paper). But as Wald writes, “the banning of pay toilets had an unintended outcome. Instead of free public toilets for all, public toilets pretty much disappeared from American cities, since cities found it expensive and difficult to keep them safe and clean.”
Instead, private businesses became the primary site for spending a penny. Cafes, bars, restaurants, hotels and department stores filled the role instead.
As the sociologists Harvey Molotch and Laura Norén note:
“Instead of a right conferred by government on all citizens, bodily privacy is a purchasable commodity. Even if provided free of charge, the use of the toilet is understood to be the result of an agreement between an individual and a business. It is an awkward, grudging agreement, inflected by judgments of the individual’s social status.”
Around the same time public authorities in the US were abandoning public toilets, a similar retrenchment was going on in Ireland.
What this meant in Cork is that shops, especially department stores such as Roches Stores and then Debenhams, and Cash’s, the forerunner to Brown Thomas on Patrick’s Street, and hotels like The Imperial and The Metropole, as well as bars and cafes effectively became the public’s toilets.
And this agreement lasted for a generation right up until a global pandemic shut down everything. But what happens in a unique event where business and shops stop providing a public service? Where then do you go to the toilet? That’s exactly what the pandemic has laid bare, the complete lack of public toilet infrastructure in Cork (and every other city in Ireland).
If the history of public toilets in Cork is ever written, 1988 will go down as a watershed year. As independent councillor Kieran McCarthy says, that was year the Corporation closed nine of the city’s 14 public toilets.
“We were in the middle of an economic recession,” he says. “Things were also changing, you had shopping centres emerging and you had better toilets there and the council, I suppose, decided not to invest in public toilets. That’s basically what happened.”
Over the past 16 months, Cllr. McCarthy and other councillors have been hearing from constituents about public toilets. Effectively the question boils down to this: where can I go?
The thing is though, as Cllr. McCarthy says, even if we had public toilets they would likely have been closed during the pandemic. But we don’t, well not really, so we didn’t have to close them, so perhaps for now that is a moot point.
What we do have, as of this month, is a policy document that councillors and bureaucrats at City Hall have drafted. (Officially it’s called “Public Toilet Policy -Options Appraisal Document”).
With it, City Hall has a nine-point plan to deliver public toilets. There are no fixed dates given; the plan is divided into short-term, medium-term and long-term “policy actions.”
While “policy actions” may sound like jargon, at least there is a plan now. But even before that plan was unveiled at an all-councillor meeting at the start of May, part of it had already become contentious when some traders in the English Market signalled their objections at plans to turn part of the old Hilser building at the Grand Parade entrance of the Market into public toilets.
“Cork's English Market traders kick up stink over public toilet plans,” The Irish Examiner reported, surprising no-one with their hackneyed headline. But the objections by “aghast” traders goes to the core of a problem which is debated endlessly in the comments section of social media: how long can a public toilet last before it is either vandalised or becomes unusable and unsafe?
The big conundrum questions
With the council’s new public toilets plan, the big question is how much of a signal change is it from what came before.
“I think what the council are banking on, really, is liaising with local business owners. They are toilet facilities for free,” says Cllr. McCarthy.
Public toilets are not cheap. Cllr. McCarthy says he was told by a council executive that a “state of the art toilet, with a number of facilities in it” including a changing room and designed to make it usable for disabled people could cost €500,000 to build, and that doesn’t include maintenance costs.
And even when the council does put in a public toilet what’s to say it won’t go the way of the coin-operated one on Grand Parade, which was installed in 2008, but closed permanently in 2019, in part owing to vandalism and drug use? (“City Hall isn't flush enough to cover the cost of reopening” reported The Echo. There’s a pattern emerging here. The Echo also reported that it cost almost €100,000 to maintain that toilet over a three year period).
“Those are the big conundrum questions,” Cllr. McCarthy says, referring to the city council’s plans for public toilets. “To get it right, it must invest big. It must come up with the four or five hundred thousand and it just doesn’t have that funding.”
“The council is going into recession next year and we are very much dependent on central government to get €40,000 for North Main Street Shopping Centre to open and manage the toilets there.”
Another possibility Cllr. McCarthy floats is that by the time the council has the money to invest in public toilets, the demand for public toilets will have disappeared.
As he points out to me, in his 12-year tenure as city councillor, he never got an email on the issue of public toilets until the business closures of 2020.
The way Cllr. McCarthy sees it, since the 1980s it’s a been a two way separation: the public moved on and away from public toilets (people want comfort and cleanliness), and the council readily obliged; public toilets are costly and a headache to maintain.
“I know a lot of people who have their favourite toilet in town,” he says. “Talk to anyone who shops in town; they have the toilet they go to. They can tell you what time of day to go or where to go in that particular shop to use that toilet, and there are what I call hidden toilets in the back of shops that people use.”
“Let’s say we open public toilets in the morning, I would be very intrigued to see would people chose to move from their secret toilet in the city centre to the council one that actually opened if it isn’t run properly.”
“People do expect that there be an attendant present, that there be security at these toilets.”
But what if we had well-maintained public toilets, toilets to be proud of? Or, as many people in Cork point out, public toilets like the ones in Mahon Point shopping centre?
Policy action number seven on the council’s plan, also known as the “Leeside Leithreas” Sticker Scheme, envisages private businesses keep on doing what they’re already doing. But this time with a sticker.
According to the city council’s proposal:
“Each premise participating in the scheme would display a sticker (“Leeside Leithreas”) on their front door/window which would allow members of the public to access the toilet facilities within the premises. Right of refusal would be at the discretion of management of the premises.
As one business owner told me, this is already what’s being done - minus the sticker part. The business owner spoke on background as he has deals with the council on a number of matters relating to his business.
“Every business in Cork already does this in a discretionary manner, who after all would refuse a pregnant woman or someone with kids or the elderly or tourists?”
But as he also pointed out, allowing the public in officially opens up a very dangerous possibility of anti-social behaviour in your business, staff and patrons being in the way of danger and reputational damage to your business with needles left in the toilets.
Issues like public toilets, public seating or the lack of it, and housing, are part of a wider social jigsaw. He also pointed out that council initiatives “around outdoor seating backfired in that the intended user is intimidated by passed-out drug-users and drinkers who are now the sole users.”
And so, much like divesting itself of public toilets, the council likewise stripped most of the city of benches, or anything that resembles a bench. The new “parklets” offer a very small scale route back, but again their success is dependent on a public-private partnership.
If public toilets are to be used by the public, they need to be safe and clean, and there need to be far more Gardaí patrolling the city centre and a policy of making the entire island of the city a zero-tolerance zone for open drug-taking, the business owner told me.
“The withdrawal and lack of investment in public facilities is because of a surrender to anti-social behaviour ,that is an undeniable fact so why would private businesses then take it on?”
Dignity and human rights
Orla Burke was part ways through explaining how sanitation and access to public toilets is a major public health project in India before she switched the conversation back to Cork where “we don’t have any in the city, in one of the richest countries in the world, in the second city.” And then she interrupted herself with her own laughter.
This tends to happen when people in Ireland talk about housing and health: fairly soon they start laughing. “It’s just, I’m laughing because it’s just ludicrous.”
Burke’s point is that “everybody should have access to a toilet.” It is, as she says, about “dignity and human rights.”
One of the City Council’s short-term policy plans is to increase awareness of public toilet facilities provided by the council. In theory, this should not be hard: there are three in the city centre, one each at Mahon Golf Course, Ballincollig Regional Park and at Tramore Valley Park, and then your best bet after that is a cemetery. That is the list.
Still though, it was interesting to hear the various answers people gave to how many public toilets there are in the city centre. Burke said none, Cllr McCarthy talked of one, a Twitter poll of nearly 100 people showed that the vast majority knew there was less than five public toilets in the city centre. I didn’t know the true answer until I read council’s policy document.
Burke, who describes herself as a “City Centre Mammy” on her Twitter bio, told me she is on Facebook parenting groups and on a weekly basis the same questions are asked: Where can I go to the toilet in the city? I want to get back to the city, is there somewhere I can bring my children?
The other question that’s frequently asked is families inquiring about going for a day out to a public park and wanting to know if there is a toilet nearby. (Currently there are no public toilets at The Lough, Blackrock Harbour, the Lee Fields and Douglas Community Park. The city council’s plan is to work with “local businesses to provide toilet facilities at these key recreational locations.”)
Burke says if we’re looking at why city streets are dying - or to put it another way if we really want to reimagine Cork - “we have to look at all factors.”
“If you can’t spend a penny, you’re not going to spend a euro,” she says.
As an Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) sufferer, Burke has an acute sense of where toilets are located across the city. When her IBD is flaring and if she has to go into the city, she will sometimes take strong medication to prevent her from going to the toilet. But for days after, she is worn out from the medication.
As Burke acknowledged, she doesn’t know how relatable her condition is, but she said it’s important that we hear different voices when it comes to access to public facilities, especially as there is sometimes the tendency to let toilet humour get in the way of toilet policy.
One of the council’s short-term policy actions is to open up the City Library toilets to the public.
Under this policy the Library toilets will be opened up to the general public and will operate extended opening hours during weekdays and at weekends as the entrance is independent from the Library entrance.
Burke told me about an incident a few years ago when she was in the City Library. She was with her one-year-old child and Burke desperately needed to go to the toilet. She asked the staff there where the nearest public toilet was and how much exactly it cost. In her head she was panicking she wouldn’t make it while running through the checklist of things she needed: the exact change and her belongings, all the while trying to fight the pain that was overwhelming her.
“When you’ve got a condition like mine, I would have gone right there in front of them from the pain,” she says.
The library staff, whom Burke said are “lovely, lovely people” could see her discomfort and handed her the key for the kid’s toilet.
“I picked up my kid and picked up my handbag and ran to the toilet I didn’t leave the house again for another 12 months.”
In the medium term
One of the city council’s medium-term policy plans is to redevelop the old Hilser building at the entrance to the English Market and “renovate the ground floor area into a Cork City Council information/public display centre and to install public toilets and public changing facilities that are accessible to all users.”
This would all have to go through a planning process, and given the objections of some of the market traders, its success is far from guaranteed. However, it could be the public toilet that everybody wants to use, incorporating the best aspects of universal design.
When Burke heard about the objections from traders in the Market she wrote a letter to the Irish Examiner, which she forwards to me.
If you are thinking of opposing these actions, I would like you to ask yourself a few questions: Are you for disabled people? Because the lack of toilets in the city disables people. Are you for families and older people visiting the city and your business? Because some people must “go” when they need to go: they can’t wait. Are you for businesses? Because the lack of toilets, coupled with Covid-19 and queueing, means people are planning their trips around not drinking fluids and racing back home to their own toilet. If they can’t “spend a penny” they won’t be spending a cent in your establishment or any others.
The honesty box
In April, Lorna Bogue, an independent councillor for the South East ward, tabled a motion at the city councillors’ monthly meeting to discuss public toilets. Over the phone she tells me how public toilets are part of a bigger concern which fits the State’s reluctance to get involved in anything that begins with the word “public.”
“The council just doesn’t want to get involved in public-owned assets or services,” she says. “To be fair, it’s not coming from the council, it’s coming from the State itself, where we’ve been applying for funding all of the time. There’s this very neoliberal agenda, which is very much against the State actually intervening actively in anything.”
Then Cllr. Bogue does what Orla Burke did: she laughs out loud, not so much at her theory but at the bewildering lack of a basic service.
Cllr. Bogue says the council’s published public toilet poilcy is “quite minimalist really,” but she also acknowledges that some of her fellow councillors are likely to perceive it as quite radical. Perhaps the most radical thing that can be said of the policy document is that it exists at all.
While admitting that Brown Thomas is her toilet of preference, Cllr. Bogue also says we can’t rely on private business for public facilities. Speaking of the “Leeside Leithreas” plan, she points out it’s still up to the individual business, but the initiative would “formalize an informal process.”
“We’ll see if people buy into it, I’m not particularly convinced.”
While she admitted the funding for the council’s new plans will be tight, Cllr. Bogue says it’s up to council to find the money, noting that the rise in property tax is “an additional revenue stream.”
Like Cllr. McCarthy, Cllr. Bogue says she has never seen a response both from the public and even amongst councillors on the issue of public toilet provision, much of it stemming from the pandemic which has forced us to examine what works and what doesn’t in our localities. One important aspect of having the policy drawn up, Cllr. Bogue says, is that when or if funding becomes available, the council have a road map.
One thing the council’s policy plan is clear on is that any new public toilets that are built and operated by the council will not be free. This is, in fact, the first point in the policy document:
As a guiding principal, usage of public toilet facilities should require the user to pay a small fee. The fee proposed is 50c, which is the fee which is in place at present at a number of existing City public toilet facilities. While this charge will go some way towards the operating costs it will not cover the totality of same. However the requirement to make a small payment would limit abuse of toilet facilities across the City.
Cllr Bogue is not convinced on this point, but recognises that politics is the art of compromise. Her own view is that the council should be providing access to public toilets for free “as a matter of course. We shouldn’t be even asking money for access.”
There’s probably only a handful of councillors who would bat for her on this point, which is why she suggested an honesty box principle, whereby people would pay where and when they can. She cited the example of bottled water at Cork and Dublin airports, which operates on a similar principle.
“Ninety two per cent of people pay,” she says. “That’s what I think the approach to take with public toilets or public facilities is. You’d have a suggested contribution, but if people can’t pay, they can’t pay. That’s to provide these facilities so people without homes can actually use them.”
Cllr. Bogue also thinks an honesty box system would be fairer for disabled people, those with who suffer from incontinence and pregnant women, all of whom might have to use the toilet repeatedly.
If the council went down this route, it would make them look “innovative and generous. We’d possibly be the first council in the world that would operate our facilities that way.”
“Any time you try something new, there’s this fear of risk,” Cllr. Bogue says. Separately, one of her hopes for the city council is that they would develop a “beta unit”, which would test and trial new ideas. “The higher the risk, the higher the reward.”
When I brought up the problems of vandalism and anti-social behaviour, she says that while there are problems, together they often become the roadblock to trying anything. “And then the conversation stops,” she says.
The public toilets on my timeline
Prior to moving back to Cork in 2020, I lived in Kyoto, Japan for over a decade. Japan looms large in discussions about high-tech toilets and public toilets too. Partly, it’s because Toto, a Japanese toilet maker, makes some of the most luxurious and confusing toilets in the world. Some of them come with more buttons than you’d find inside the cockpit of a plane. Some of them do things I still can’t explain.
The other aspect is that in general you’ll nearly always find a clean and safe public toilet in Japan. There’s an unwritten rule that you can also use the toilets in the more than 55,000 convenience stores dotted across the country without having to make a purchase. They still have work to go in upgrading the old fashioned squat toilet, or Japanese-style facility as its known.
But from my observations, the system works in Japan because public toilets are maintained and cleaned to a pretty high standard - that costs money - and also incidents of vandalism are lower.
There’s a social contract, an understanding that we all need to use the toilet, it is, not to overdress it, an essential location in our shared humanity. In fact, the condition of a public toilet says a lot about the community it services.
In Cork city, less than a kilometer apart, there are two disused public toilets. The Klondike toilet, outside Bridewell Garda Station, originally built for the women of Cork has been closed for decades. The hoarding obscures some of it, but it’s a captivating building. There’s a stately pride to it, even after all these years. Further down on Grand Parade, the council have gone some ways to disguising the automatic toilet outside City Library by plastering it with an art project, but that toilet is a public policy failure.
Directing blame only at the council is both wrong and useless. If, as is the case with the Grand Parade where the public toilets became a site where addicts were using syringes, then that points to a separate policy failing.
The pandemic, like it has with so much else, has triggered a reset. Nobody wants to go back to the 1980s, but it would be worthwhile bringing back clean, universally accessible and safe public toilets.