With the reopening of the Dún Laoghaire Baths (without the baths, but that's another story) on December 13th, after renovations by Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council Architects’ Department and A2 Architects, it seemed timely to look at a little-known open-air baths in the suburbs of Limerick city. The construction of these public amenities was incredible when one considers the economic climate in which they were conceived, not long after the Emergency.

It was during the eighteenth century that sea bathing became particularly popular and fashionable, lauded for its health benefits on a par with the spas in Lisdoonvarna and Mallow. The earliest designated bathing spots were recorded on Rocque’s 1756 map, for men and women, at Salthill near Monkstown, as well as a bathhouse on Killiney Beach.

The best-known sea-bathing places of today were established by the railway companies to encourage coastal businesses – Booterstown, Blackrock (and let us not forget the loss of Blackrock Baths in Co. Louth). The earliest sea bath or 'lido' (an Italian word for beach, bespeaking elegance and cosmopolitan excitement) was erected in 1833 at Lymington in Hampshire, England. The bathing pools at Clontarf, Sandymount and Dun Laoghaire all followed the style of the Lymington baths.

Aerial view of the Corbally Baths site
courtesy of Dr Paul O'Brien, History Department, MIC

On the mighty River Shannon there remains a forgotten gathering place, now bereft of any purpose. What appears to a child’s imagination like the entrance of a ruined Greek temple leading down to the river is the Corbally Baths.

This ruin was built as the municipal swimming pool on the River Shannon and opened in 1947. A walking route (locally known as the Red Path for its colour) from the end of the Mill Road along the river to Athlunkard Bridge (Pain Brothers, 1830) created access to this new amenity and a footbridge near the WW2 pill box.

A City Engineer’s letter dated 13 March 1946 noted;

‘I send you herewith plans and estimate for the proposed construction of a swimming pool at Corbally. The proposals include for the erection of a concrete retaining wall along the foreshore with two wing walls running out into the river 50 yards apart. The ground will be excavated to provide depth of from 3’ to 6’ together with a diving pit at one end of the pool. Concrete terraces will be provided between the surround of the pool and the existing concrete footpath and dressing shelters will be erected at the rear of the existing footpath. My estimate of the cost of this work would be approximately £4,060’.

When the baths were built, Corbally was open farmland, with one avenue of eighteenth-century villas. Swimming in the mill race was already very popular, but the construction of the baths provided modern, clean facilities. The baths themselves consisted of three terraced concrete steps at the river’s edge, with ladders for access to the water. Fifty metres across the millstream, a platform was construction on the weir which had ropes and floats connecting to it from the other side of the river creating swimming lanes. The central area contained the shop, with two arms containing the changing facilities and a locker room at the end. Small pools located here were alternately used to wash feet after swimming or as children’s paddling pools.

Usually, the running of the Baths was left to a couple, with the husband looking after the men’s changing and lockers and the wife the women. The popularity of Corbally Baths peaked in the 1950s, with galas held frequently throughout the summer. All that now remains is the learners’ pool, which was added in 1968. The pool relied on the rising and falling tide to change the water. Through the 1960s, Corbally saw its first housing estates, the effect of which was falling water quality as untreated sewage was pumped directly into the river 1.5 kilometres upstream of the baths. The baths sadly closed in the early 1970s and were torn down around 1980 due to vandalism.

Aerial view of the Corbally Baths site
courtesy of Dr Paul O'Brien, History Department, MIC

One of the few positives from the COVID-19 lockdown was the uptake of sea swimming which has brought us back into proximity with maritime architecture such as open water baths. Constant exposure to water causes defects over time in the concrete used. However, it is remarkable how well the Corbally Baths have stood the test of time, especially when they have had minimal maintenance.

The baths, during the big freeze of 1963 (Pic: Randel Hodkinson)

There is a local campaign by the Limerick Narwhals to reinstate the Corbally Baths, with local boy Peter Carroll, of the A2 Architects, advising. Their dereliction speaks of our current priorities, perhaps, but with some local pressure and political will they might still return to life.