Despite much discussion about the need for public toilets in the city — and a commitment in the Draft Dublin City Development Plan 2016-2022 to bring them back — in Smithfield Square, there is a large council-owned bathroom that no one seems to use.
You may have seen that large brutalist grey structure that sits towards the southern end of Smithfield Plaza and wondered what was inside. Part of the structure is a bathroom.
It was built by Dublin City Council at a cost of €132,819 and intended for the use of “service staff” organising events on the square, according to Dublin City Council’s response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
But it doesn’t seem to be used much.
Several event companies, which have put on small or large events on the square, said they had never been offered the use of the Smithfield Square toilet. (None of them wanted to give their names as many of the organisations are dependent on council funding.)
One organiser described the toilets as “disgusting” and insisted that when they didn’t have enough money to rent portaloos, the company was stuck without bathrooms for its public event.
“It’s ridiculous,” one organiser said, “You have this structure you [Dublin City Council] built and nobody can use it!”
The same organiser went on to describe how, upon visiting the bathrooms on another occasion in 2015, the walls were smeared with faeces and there were used syringes on the floor. (It’s unclear how that happened, if it was only open to events staff.) Another organiser said that the bathroom had been “damaged by a past event and never cleaned up”.
Standard practice for events in the square is to employ the use of portaloos around the perimeter of the plaza. That’s what happened during the 1916 centenary celebrations earlier this year.
But that is only a temporary solution. The rest of the time people in the area, which also has a Luas stop adjacent to it, resort to the hospitality of the local businesses around the square.
Kindness of Strangers
On a recent hot afternoon, one parent watched her son as he played in the playground on the south end of Smithfield Square.
She said that the businesses in the area were “very kind” and often allow her and her toddler to use their toilets, particularly Third Space cafe nearby.
But not all local businesses are generous. Some post signs that say “Toilets are for customer use only”, said Elizabeth, who didn’t want to give her full name.
In another nearby playground, in Grangegorman, there is also a shortage of public toilets, she said. “I tend to think of public toilets, where they appear, as permanently closed!”
Terri Murphy, who runs Dublin Vintage Factory on Smithfield Square, says the lack of public bathrooms in the area doesn’t affect their business at all. In fact, Murphy believes that if the public bathroom were to be opened, it would lead to bad behaviour.
“The square itself has a tendency to become a gathering point for a lot of people drinking and on drugs,” he says. “I personally think if there were toilets put outside our store it would be another area to be misused.”
The dilemma around public bathrooms in Dublin city centre has been the same since the 1990s, when a great many were shut and fell into disrepair after they became magnets for antisocial behaviour as heroin use grew in the city.
What’s the Cost?
The problems with public bathrooms are twofold: they are costly to maintain and they often attract antisocial behaviour.
Given that it cost more than €132,000 to install the Smithfield Plaza toilet block — money already spent — it would seem there’s a strong case to use it and keep it in good condition.
It’s unclear how much, if anything, is being spent on upkeep though. “There is no schedule of maintenance costs” for the traders’ toilets, said Dublin City Council in its FOI response. There were no records available that considered how often the toilet was used.
The estimates of what it might cost to run a public bathroom vary depending on who you speak to. Four public loos in Kildare made headlines in 2015 when it turned out they cost the local council €150,000 a year to run.
Dublin City Council did not reply to queries as to whether the bathroom is being put to its best use by being left locked.
Some say it would be wrong to see the public toilet issue as a narrow question of maintenance and money, though. The problem comes down to a much broader issue of public space, says Social Democrat Councillor Gary Gannon.
“That bathroom is a victim of a lot of the things that the city centre in general is a victim of at the moment, where the prevalence of drug users around the city impacts on public infrastructure,” he said.
He believes that there’s “a system we don’t talk about”, whereby hundreds of drug users congregate in the city every day with nowhere to shoot up. So they use public spaces.
“It comes down to a broader argument about safe-injection facilities,” he says. “If we had safe-injection facilities we’d be able to open these public places up again and allow them to be used by the public in a very civic-minded kind of way. But until that happens these areas are not going to be able to be used by the public.”