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The Ennis Turkish Baths 1869 – 1878
by Peter Beirne

The Ennis Turkish Baths 1869 – 1878


The Victorians believed firmly in the old saying that ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’. At this period, however, most inhabitants of Ennis had no access to bathing facilities whatsoever, apart from the river Fergus. Domestic sanitary facilities were for the very few and were rudimentary at best. Piped water supply was not yet available. Bathing in the river could be dangerous for the young and infirm, and was seasonal. Commenting favourably on the presence of the baths in September 1877, and alluding to the hazards of bathing in the Fergus, the Clare Journal wrote “no lives have been lost by bathing casualties since its establishment amongst us, which was not the case when the young and inexperienced had to trust themselves to the fatal pools of the Fergus to perform the necessary ablutions”.

Along with hygiene, the perceived health benefits of the baths were promoted. Disease of all types was rife in urban areas given the prevalent unsanitary social and housing conditions of the time. The Limerick Chronicle noted the general prevalence of “dirty dwellings, unventilated houses, unwashed clothing, and still more, unwashed bodies”. An 1861 account of Limerick read, “The city of Limerick, containing about 60,000 inhabitants, is sadly off for public water-baths and washhouses. …Fever and small-pox are rife; the city is badly drained; the back streets and lanes are in a filthy, unhealthy state; and there is scarcely any sewerage. The working classes live and die in wretched cellars and garrets, in dirt and poverty”.[1] The baths were seen as a good defence against the spread of diseases such as small pox, and as having beneficial medical effects on those suffering from bronchial and rheumatic complaints.

Turkish baths had been opened in the city of Limerick in 1859 on Military Road (now O’Connell Avenue).[2] Dr Richard Barter, associated with the Limerick baths, addressed interested Ennis investors and promoters in the Town Hall in June 1869, at a meeting chaired by Rev Dean Kenny. Dr Barter was the founder of the celebrated ‘Hydropathic Establishment’ in Blarney, county Cork, first opened in 1843. He worked with the commissioned architect, Maurice Fitzgerald, on the Ennis plans and specifications. By September the fledgling company, duly incorporated as the Ennis Baths Company (Limited) and with Francis Keane as secretary, invited tenders for the erection of Turkish baths in Ennis. The Clare Journal reported in October 1869 that “the directors of the new local company have contracted with Mr William Carroll for the execution of Turkish baths at Millview for the sum of £375”, with works commencing in early November.

Work on the baths proceeded through the winter and into the following spring. In April 1870 the company tendered for a plumbing contractor and in May was recruiting staff. ‘Respectable’ persons were required to serve as male and female attendants (“preference will be given to a man and wife”). Ex-RIC constable John Foy was appointed clerk and manager of the baths with his wife, “the respectable matron of the union workhouse” appointed as female attendant. The baths opened to the public in the middle of September.

Malcolm Shifrin proposes this definition of a Victorian Turkish bath: “A type of bath in which the bather sweats freely in a room which is heated by a continuous flow of hot dry air (or in two or three such rooms at progressively higher temperatures), followed by a full body wash (sometimes preceded by a cold plunge), then by a massage, and finally by a period of relaxation in a cooling-room.”[3] Turkish baths have their origins in the Middle East and such baths were noted by Europeans as early as the time of the Crusades. Combining aspects of Roman plumbing with eastern bathing techniques such as the shampoo, and the massage from Roman baths, they required an adequate and plentiful supply of water and an intricate system of plumbing, ventilation and heating. The shampoo, a novel feature of the bath (a rolling, kneading and pummelling of the bather’s flesh), was described as “a highly invigorating process which materially assists in freeing the pores of the skin”.[4] Typically, there were three chambers or rooms in a suite of Turkish baths. First, the frigidarium (or apodyterium) in which a visitor would disrobe and change into suitable bathing attire and begin to acclimatize to the baths.[5] Second, the caldarium, a chamber in which the visitor would bathe and in which temperatures would routinely be between 120 – 130 °F (48.9 – 54.5°C). The third chamber was the hottest room, the sudatorium (or laconicum), the sweating room with an average temperature between 140 – 160 °F (60.0 – 71.1°C). Elaborate ventilation systems ensured a constant supply of fresh air. Plunge pools and soaking pools with both warm water and cold water were strategically placed between these three chambers along with rest rooms, and there may have been other chambers to accommodate services such as hairdressing or chiropody. Massage and shampoo were available on request and at extra cost from a baths attendant. Typically, a bather might spend up to two hours on his weekly or monthly visit to the Turkish baths. Men and women were segregated and attended at different times.[6

James Joyce gives us a vivid tactile sense of visiting a Turkish bath in his novel Ulysses. Leopold Bloom, Joyce’s Dublin Everyman, ruminates on the “mosque of the baths” in the ‘Lotus Eaters’ episode of the novel.

“Nice smell these soaps have. Time to get a bath around the corner. Hammam. Turkish. Massage. Dirt gets rolled up in your navel. Nicer if a nice girl did it. … Feel fresh then all day. … …He foresaw his pale body reclined in it at full, naked, in a womb of warmth, oiled by scented melting soap, softly laved. He saw his trunk and limbs riprippled over and sustained, buoyed lightly upward, lemonyellow: his navel, bud of flesh: and saw the dark tangled curls of his bush floating, floating hair of the stream around the limp father of thousands, a languid floating flower.”[7]

An anonymous visitor to the Lincoln Place baths in London in 1860, a “moist man”, left us this account of his experience. “I was conducted into a large room around which were arranged little curtained pavilions about the size and shape of a four-poster bedstead. The room was decidedly Turkish in its aspect and appointments, the crescent form being as far as possible given to everything, while ottomans and other matters of oriental furniture were to be seen. The servants wore long scarlet flowing dressing gowns and Turkish slippers, and on stands were arranged trays with china coffee-cups &c. The caldarium was still more ottomanic than the tepidarium, being in dim prismatic twilight, and without windows, unless the little star-shaped scraps of crimson, blue and amethyst-stained glass, artistically inserted in the vaulted roof, could be so-called. Inside the caldarium is another room, some five-and-twenty degrees hotter than that in which we were. Through the heavy curtains which guarded the doorway between both, I could hear the wooden clogs moving about the inner apartment, and ever and anon the curtain was raised, and we were joined by a gentleman literally reeking from those still more torrid regions; for though it is requested that persons will not pass to the hottest place without permission or direction from the attendant, there seemed to be no objection to those who had passed the curtain emerging once more into the less ardent sphere. Every two or three minutes, a man entered with a tray full of glasses of cold water, which he politely handed to us, and which we drank. Thus we passed the melting moments, the attendants walking round us from time to time, and testing our sudorific state by slapping us on the back and shoulders. “You be a very fine subject, saar”, said my dusky friend, the Hindoo, “and need not go into the oder room, this be plenty hot for you”; or, in other words, it appeared there was no necessity for me to take “the third degree”, so far as preparation for shampooing went”.[8]

Interior view of the Turkish Baths at St. Anne’s, Blarney, County Cork
Interior view of the Turkish Baths at St. Anne’s, Blarney, County Cork. A contemporary advertisement announced: “Magnificent Turkish Baths have been erected, and together with Pine and Brine Baths, Electric, Still and Running Sitz, Plunge and ordinary Hot and Cold Water Baths, Compresses, Packs, and other Hydropathic Appliances, have been successfully employed as curative agents for many years. Local electricity in its various forms and Waldenberg’s compressed air apparatus are also applied in suitable cases.”

The Oriental design and furnishings of the baths were typically opulent and graceful. Marble was used extensively throughout and the architectural design often featured turrets, cupolas and minarets. Stained glass and ‘coloured bullions’ added to the luxurious, indulgent experience of the baths which were designed to soothe and quieten the mind (“half-light, quiescence, seclusion from the outside world”) as much as to heal and clean the physical body. At this period, there were Turkish baths in Belfast, Bray, Cork (including the famed baths of Dr Barter in Blarney), Downpatrick, Dublin, Dungannon, Kilkenny, Sligo, Tipperary, Tramore, Waterford and Youghal as well as in Limerick and Ennis.[9] The baths in Bray, again promoted by Richard Barter, opened in 1859. Built at a cost of £10,000, the Bray baths were particularly opulent. The famous Friederichsbad at Baden-Baden, Germany, was built in this same period, 1869 – 1877, coinciding almost exactly with the Ennis baths. Indeed, the baths in Baden-Baden are often referred to as the “Irish-Roman baths” due to the pioneering work and influence of Richard Barter who was an early advocate of hydropathy or water cures.[10] Barter adopted many elements of Roman plumbing and Roman baths in his early designs. The Dictionary of national biography in its entry on Barter notes that he first became interested in water as a therapeutic agent after the cholera epidemic of 1832. At the time of his death in 1870 Dr Barter had been associated with (or had at some stage had ownership interests in) ten baths in Ireland and one in London.

The distinctive Turkish Baths (later Assembly Rooms) in Bray, County Wicklow
The distinctive Turkish Baths (later Assembly Rooms) in Bray, County Wicklow, opened in 1859. Designed by William Dargan, they cost £10,000.

Shareholders at the second annual general meeting of the Ennis Baths Company, held on Monday 3 October 1870, noted “that for the short time the baths were open – only a fortnight – the receipts had exceeded expectations, with daily increasing business”. Shareholders confidently looked forward to a dividend being paid on their investments within another year’s trading. Business was expected to seasonally increase also at the times of the Ennis fair, held in April and September, and at the twice-yearly spring and summer assizes. Patrons of Clare’s famed watering places such as the spas at Lisdoonvarna were also induced to frequent the new baths in Ennis. The Limerick Chronicle told its readers in a report from Ennis in May 1871 that “spas and saltwater cures may be dispensed with” and “equal if not greater advantages” obtained in the new Turkish baths. In similar vein, the Clare Journal wrote in March 1872 “no sea bathing or spa remedies can be so powerful an antidote as the influence of the Turkish bath to preserve the public health”. The “poorer” or “working classes” were encouraged to attend the new facilities. The Clare Journal wrote in January 1871 “a salutary arrangement has been made, whereby a large number of the tradesmen and the working classes have had the benefit of a Turkish bath … The result is stated to be most satisfactory, as considerable numbers attend instead of frequenting public-houses, and thus health, strength and vigour are renovated instead of being impaired. The moral as well physical tendencies of the bath system may be expected to produce useful results in due process of time”.

The Turkish baths sought to establish itself as a going concern in the town in the early years of the 1870s under the management of John Foy. The directors increased the hours of opening to include three evenings a week. They also offered inducements by way of a reduction in charges for evening openings, introducing a “half-price rate” of six pence (to the previous shilling) in March 1872.

Concern was expressed at the fourth annual general meeting of shareholders, held on 25 October 1872, at the high price of coal required to run the baths complex. Recent plant and equipment purchases, including installation of a new hot-water boiler and a “smoke-consuming patent machine” also added to the high overheads, resulting in a trading deficit being recorded in the company’s accounts for the year. It was reported that 2,292 Turkish baths for males and 337 Turkish baths for females had been taken between 17 September 1871 and 20 October 1872, 2,088 plunge baths, 274 cold-shower baths, 128 tepid-shower baths, and 91 reclining baths. Presenting these figures to the meeting, chairman John Petty noted “a falling off in the numbers who avail themselves of the baths”.

Turkish Baths Hours of Admission

In late November 1872, two years after its opening, the directors decided to let the running and management of the Turkish baths “to any private individual who may [wish to] rent it. The high price of coal is the only cause of the change”. The wider social context as regards seasonal unemployment in Ennis and the prevailing weather conditions that winter is illustrated in an appeal for charitable subscriptions to the Ennis Fuel Fund issued in December. “The weather is setting in with the most intense severity, there is scarcity of employment for labour in this town … [and] coals are beyond the reach of even people of respectable incomes”. At the end of December, the directors let the baths to a management triumvirate of George Carson, C. L. Nono and O. Hassett on a lease of five years duration, at a rent of £26 per annum. The new management team set about making ‘useful improvements’ principally in efforts to lower the baths’ high running costs. A year’s use of the full suite of baths was offered at five guineas, whilst use of the reclining, shower and plunge baths (but not the Turkish) was offered for two guineas per annum. In mid January 1873 the Clare Journal wrote that “considerable improvements have been effected in heating and the accommodation has been generally increased”.

The Clare Freeman devoted a leading article to the Turkish baths in May 1873, timing its editorial to coincide with a public lecture given in the Town Hall by Dr Dillon on ‘The Anatomy of Drunkenness’. Outlining the history of such baths in Greece, Rome and the Greek city-state of Sparta, the editorial stressed “that baths, and even hot-air baths like the Turkish, are not modern inventions”. In noting that “the temperance cause so learnedly advocated the other night by Dr Dillon and the baths are intimately associated” (“the one stops the supply of poison to the system, the other will eliminate that which may lurk in it from past dissipation, and both combined with the moral and religious influences within the reach of the people, cannot fail to purify and elevate our population”), the Freeman was echoing almost verbatim the reaction of the local press to the lectures of Captain Claridge on his Irish lecture tour on hydropathy in 1843.[11] More ominously for the new management team at Millview, the Freeman wrote “we have heard a rumour that if our public baths are not better supported they must be closed sooner or later”.

After the next annual general meeting of shareholders held in November, it was agreed that the directors should again tender for proposals for the ‘tenancy and working’ of the Ennis Turkish baths, a new lease to begin in January 1874. The directors, however, were unsuccessful in attracting bids for a new tenancy and the existing lease, held by Messrs Nono, Carson and Hassett, was terminated by the three tenants on 31 December 1873. The continuing high energy costs associated with running the baths together with falling attendances dissuaded prospective parties from taking up a tenancy. The baths did not open for business in January 1874. The Limerick Chronicle announced in late March that the Ennis baths, “closed for the last three months, is now on the market for public sale … It is said that the proprietor of a mineral water establishment in Limerick is in treaty for the premises”. The baths finally re-opened on 9 May 1874, having been totally refurbished. The Clare Freeman noted the baths “have undergone a thorough renovation. The interior has been freshly painted, whitewashed and scrupulously cleaned in every department … the baths wear a most attractive and well furnished aspect. The Turkish bath is kept at a higher and more regular heat than formerly [rising to 145 °F (62.7 °C) from the previous 135 °F (57.2 °C)], and the plunge bath is emptied more frequently. … With the prospect of a very hot season approaching the re-opening of these baths cannot fail to be to the people of Ennis, as well as to tourists passing through to and from our celebrated spas and watering places, what the enterprising and philanthropic company intended them to be, a public boon of great value towards the recovery or preservation of health”. Also in May, the directors leased part of Millview to Mr Julian Cloirec, an ecclesiastical artist and painter from the Hermitage, Ennis, who ran a photographic studio from the premises, paying a rent of five shillings per month. Mr Cloirec, also “well known for his scientific and mechanical abilities” according to the Limerick Chronicle, developed in November 1874 an “important invention” in the area of railway telegraphy enabling train drivers at a distance of up to five miles to communicate with each other, and he put a working model of his invention on display in the yard at Millview. Commenting on his plans, the Clare Freeman dared hope that “in future railway collisions will be all but impossible”.

The shareholders held their sixth annual general meeting in the company’s office at the Causeway, Ennis, on 23 November 1874, the meeting again chaired by John Petty. Reviewing a difficult year for the enterprise, a year in which the baths remained closed for three months, the meeting agreed to a cost-cutting measure whereby the baths would only open on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and on Sunday mornings.

As well as only opening for half a week (with Friday evening opening reserved for women), the directors also introduced in 1875 a discounted season ticket for the baths, valid for a period of six months. This latter measure proved popular initially, the Clare Freeman commenting in March that “under the new arrangements the prospects of this institution look brighter”. The baths required further private subvention, however, and individual shareholders William Stacpoole, Francis Burton Keane and Dublin-based Bagot Blood all had to make significant personal subscriptions to make up for the ongoing trading deficit. The Clare Freeman suggested that there might be merit in transferring the management of the baths to the Ennis Town Commissioners under the Baths and Washhouses Act.[12] On the eve of the shareholders’ next annual general meeting, the Clare Journal devoted a leading article to the Ennis Turkish baths. Along with the usual platitudes (“that an establishment such as our local baths is deserving of the warmest support need not be told to persons who know how to value their health”) and exhortations (“the least that ought therefore be accorded these gentlemen [the baths’ shareholders and directors] is the support necessary to sustain their efforts and to enlarge the facilities which the baths at present offer”), the Journal cut to the heart of the matter: “Yet with all this, our baths barely receive a tithe of the support they deserve. The artisan population never frequent them, though they should be the first to do so”. The shareholders held their seventh annual general meeting at the baths at Millview on Friday 26 November 1875, with John Petty again in the chair. John Foy as company secretary presented the directors’ pithy report to the assembly. “During the first few months of the present year, the receipts were so limited that it was not considered advisable to keep the baths constantly open, and they were accordingly closed during certain days of the week, an arrangement which enabled them to be kept in operation without loss in working. This, however, was not altogether satisfactory and your directors tried the experiment of issuing season tickets available for six months, by which families have the privilege of using each and all of the baths at pleasure. The arrangement met with such support during the first half year that it was decided to continue the system, and the number of subscribers for the current six months is gratifying evidence that the advantages offered are appreciated by the public. The company’s premises have been kept in good repair and the baths continue in a thoroughly efficient condition”. The audited accounts showed turnover at £178 16s 3d for the year ending on 25 October 1875. No dividend was to be paid to investors.

The baths continued trading through 1876. They closed for a short period at the end of August to allow for further refurbishment. “The Ennis Turkish baths have been closed during the past week and they will open again at the end of the current week in an entirely new garb. Even constant and enthusiastic visitors will hardly know the baths then, dressed out as they will be in their new habiliments”, wrote the Clare Journal on 4 September. By December, the baths were only open on two and a half days per week, Fridays, Saturdays and Sunday mornings. On the occasion of the shareholders’ eight annual general meeting at the baths at Millview on 11 December, the Clare Journal, noting the recurrence of the “horrid and fatal disease” of small pox in London and fearing a possible epidemic, once again urged “the ‘great unwashed’ … who seem to have a dread of water in any form” to support the local Ennis baths.

Opening the baths for just three working days was however proving uneconomical. After another brief temporary closure, the directors decided on 12 March 1877 to resume seven-day opening, from six o’clock in the morning until nine o’clock in the evening. The hours from ten till noon were “exclusively for Ladies”. The local press, for its part, continued to alternately hector and cajole the town’s populace, the “great unwashed”, to support the baths. (“It will be a lasting disgrace to the people of Ennis if they allow this excellent institution to fail from want of proper support”.) In leading articles on the baths on 15 March and 14 May 1877, the Clare Journal paid tribute to the long-suffering company secretary and manager of the baths, the “efficient and courteous” John Foy. The baths continued to trade through the summer months. At a meeting of the directors held on Saturday 15 September, a preliminary resolution was adopted to close the baths. The Clare Journal reported: “For a long period of time they [the directors] have struggled against adverse circumstances and did everything in their power to continue the benefit of the institution to the inhabitants of the town, but expenses had been constantly accumulating, and the subscriptions but partially adopted by the public, so that there has been nothing left for the directors but to prevent further accumulation of debt by closing the doors of the establishment”. The baths remained open that autumn and into the winter. The Limerick Chronicle reported on 18 December 1877: “A meeting of the directors of the Ennis Turkish baths was held on Saturday [15 December] … Having maturely considered that the advantages held out to the community by the reduction of charges for the past two years were of no avail, it was unanimously decided that the establishment be sold”. The Clare Freeman reported bluntly: “The directors of the Ennis Turkish baths have decided upon selling the premises owing to want of support”.

The final annual general meeting of the shareholders of the Ennis Baths Company (Limited) was held at Millview on Sunday 3 February 1878. The chairman John Petty presented the directors’ report and statement of accounts for the year. In an elegiac address to his fellow shareholders he recounted the history of the Ennis baths, including the failed attempt to let the management of the baths to an enterprising tenant (Messrs Nono, Carson and Hassett), and the introduction of six-monthly season tickets “which gave admission to the various baths to all the members of a family at the absurdly low rate of £1 for the half year”. The Clare Journal concluded its report: “The meeting having unanimously adopted the directors’ report and statement of accounts resolved itself pursuant to notice into an extraordinary general meeting, for the purpose of considering the advisability of winding up the affairs of the company. This, after some consideration, it was unanimously resolved to do, and John Petty, Esq., C.E. was appointed official liquidator”.

And so the “public boon” that was the Ennis Turkish baths, “the Plunge, the Shower, the Tepid and Reclining Baths, and the Turkish”, was lost to the town. Initial high running costs for energy, followed by continuing poor attendance figures (except for the first year expenses constantly exceeded receipts; receipts in the last year “often amounted to only a few shillings in the week”) ensured the baths’ demise. The patience, philanthropy and deep pockets of the investors were exhausted. Auctioneer Richard Pearson, himself a shareholder in the company, sold the property at Millview at a public sale in March 1878 for £410.[13] The failure of the baths also took a human toll. Writing from Ennis in 1880, English journalist Bernard Becker noted that “the ruined proprietor [of the closed Turkish baths] is now in the lunatic asylum on the road to Ballyalla”.[14]

Shareholders and Directors of the
Ennis Baths Company (Limited), 1869 – 1878

John Barrett
William Bagot Blood JP (Dublin)
Timothy Bunton
William Carroll
George Carson
Pat Considine
James Costelloe
John F. Cullinan
Michael Cullinan
Dr. W. Cullinan
Dr Dillon
P.J. Dillon TC
Rev Philip Dwyer
M. Fitzgerald
John Henry Harvey
O. Hassett
Francis Burton Keane
Francis N. Keane JP
Marcus Keane JP
Thomas Keane JP
James Menzies
J.B. Molony
C.L. Nono
Richard Pearson
John Petty CE (Chairman)
Michael Shannon
John Shaw
David Smith
E. Stack
Captain William Stacpoole MP
W.D. Steven


The author acknowledges the kind and erudite assistance of Malcolm Shifrin in reading and commenting on an earlier draft of this essay.

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