Opinion: who would have thought that the operation of public toilets was so confounding for our local authorities?

By Iris MaherMonash University and James Cuffe, UCC

At a time when public spaces are a vector for disease transmission, the dearth of public toilets in our capital city has become apparent. With pubs and restaurants still under restrictions and the gradual closure of our public toilets, where, and how, to spend a penny is an important aspect to reopening urban spaces in a controlled and hygienic manner. With Dublin City Council addressing the issue by installing temporary public toilets at two city-centre locations, it is worth considering the impact such amenities hold within the urban landscape.

The idea of public spaces might generate visions of beautiful parks, enticing playgrounds and grand plazas in beautiful city centres. Toilets do not often form a part of that vision and within Irish public governance still do not despite the need. Yet public toilets carry incredible cultural power and make visible the juxtaposition of social hierarchies and inequalities at work in a public space.

The public toilet defines genders, identifies bodies, embodies identities, grants access and denies entry. It's a cultural space negotiating and manifesting our animal core. Besides hiding our ablutions, the public toilet is also a site for transgression, and not just everyday social norms but particular cultural taboos such as prostitution, drug-taking, vandalism and violence. A public toilet tells a lot about the community within which it's found. Experiencing the differences in public toilets abroad are often a marker that we have indeed left our own cultural norms; we have left the comfort of how we usually negotiate our base needs.

Whether consciously or not, public spaces reflect who is considered to be part of the public. Public spaces in Ireland are not particularly well designed for the elderly, the differently-abled, the young or the marginalised. Public spaces are not even always open to the public. Their name is deceptive, as those occupying a public space without reason are deemed to be loitering.

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From RTÉ Radio 1, a discussion on the public toilets at Busáras in Dublin

These spaces are often designed to exclude and marginalise. This is evident in the retractable spikes that are placed in shop fronts to prevent shelter to those who might seek it at night, or park and bus benches with iron armrests order to discourage people from lying down. While not suggesting that our homeless should have to reside in public spaces, we certainly should not incorporate our existing social inequalities into public space design. Having to pay for a public toilet can be an insurmountable barrier for some, both in terms of accessing a toilet and being part of the public.

Ireland has suffered from a radical decrease in availability of public toilets forcing Irish citizens and tourists alike to make unwanted purchases in the nearest toilet-hosting establishment, or worse, asking demurely if one might use a toilet with no purchase at all! The horrors of doing one’s business in Irish public spaces might amuse, but deficient or non-existent facilities for releasing bodily wastes is a problem. Irish broadsheets receive letters from a tourists, and there are regular calls from campaigners for more accessibility.

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From RTÉ Archives, Philip Kampff reports for the Gay Byrne Show on the arrival of three new space age public toilets in Wexford in 1987 

Some counties maintain facilities yet public toilets are framed as a failure if not profitable or cost effective. Cork County Council famously lost up to €16.50 every time someone used the loo in Carrigaline, while Cork City council spent nearly €100,000 over a three year period trying to maintain - in vain - a public toilet on Grand Parade. Dublin city centre lost its last public toilets 21 years ago. Who would have thought the operation of public toilets was so confounding? Or does it have more to do with our inability to accept what our public toilets say about us?

Taking China as a comparison, public toilets there are widely available and freely accessible with an abundance found on practically every street in the city centres. They differ in design, mobility, hygiene and availability. Toilets in China have both squatting and sitting toilets, with options for both in most shopping centres and on-street facilities. The hygiene standard of public toilets in China varies radically depending on where you might be. Some are without doors or have just a partial partition between cubicles to allow eye-contact and conversation between neighbours. Others may have automated washing and drying facilities or sometimes none.

What does it say about China to have such inclusive and widespread availability of public toilets?

One small barrier for the unsuspecting tourist is the need in some locations to pay for toilet paper through mobile payment which requires some Chinese language ability. Not a problem for the Chinese of course but potentially a major inconvenience for the soon-to-be embarrassed tourist. 

Still prevalent in China are squatting toilets particularly in older parts of cities and rural areas. Once you are accustomed to them, they are very hygienic, as you squat down without the need to touch anything other than the ground your feet stand on. Although you may not have a great deal of privacy as often there is only small partition between the cubicles and no doors, as a result there is no need to touch any surface or handle  The squatting toilet’s design, while challenging for those with weaker leg muscles (and those more accustomed to sitting toilets), can pose difficulties. Prior to development of appropriate muscle tone there may be some dangerous wobbling for beginners. 

Unfamiliar public toilets can be a rite de passage for the participant as they gain a new appreciation of enculturating the animal within. At the societal level, what does it say about China to have such inclusive and widespread availability of public toilets? How strange an experience it is for the Irish. In turn, what does it say about Ireland to have so few? What a strange experience for the Chinese!

Iris Maher is an anthropologist and PhD candidate at the Emerging Technologies Lab at Monash University. Dr James Cuffe is a lecturer and anthropologist with a research focus on social control and the social effects of technology with the Department of Sociology & Criminology at UCC

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ