Whenever Kay Fox and her friends were on a health-kick, they’d pack into her white Škoda Octavia and drive to Marian College swimming pool in Ballsbridge.
Prior to the pandemic, they swam there on and off for almost five years, she says.
The pool, on the grounds of Marian College secondary school suited them, she says. She felt comfortable there and could access the facilities with ease — which was important for the group, who all have arthritis.
“The staff down by the pool were great too, they’d always make you laugh,” she says energetically, over the phone from her home in City Quay last Friday.
The day before, Thursday 25 February, Fox had read a Facebook post indicating that the pool was closing down for good.
“I was shocked when I heard. I don’t understand why it’s closing,” she says.
In a statement last Thursday, Marian College’s board of management said that the “Covid-19 pandemic, restrictions and related costs have had a significant impact on the long-term viability of the swimming pool.”
In recent years, the council and a local community-gain fund have given big chunks of money for upgrades and to keep it open.
“Save Marian College Swimming Pool”
“Almost everybody in this area has used this pool at one time or another,” says Shay Connolly, a community activist in Ringsend.
During normal times, the 22-metre indoor pool was open to the public seven days a week, the pool’s website once said. (It’s recently been taken down.)
But due to the changing nature of Covid-19 rules, the facilities at Marian College were restricted or closed for most of 2020.
Prior to that, the pool offered swimming classes, aqua aerobics, scuba-diving lessons and a range of holistic treatments.
While it had different membership options, it was largely open to the public on a pay-as-you-go basis.
The school’s board of management and secretary – made up of Marist Brothers, parents and teachers and the principal – was responsible for running the pool, according to the school website.
Connolly says there’s widespread confusion in the community about the closure. “The statement by the board of management is very vague.”
Sinn Féin TD Chris Andrews said: “There are a lot of questions that need to be answered.”
Andrews says he was made aware of an Uplift campaign called “Save Marian College Swimming Pool” circulating online late last year, months before the official closure was announced.
The petition was addressed to Dublin City Council, Swim Ireland, Sports Ireland and Minister for Sport Catherine Martin.
“We would like to be assured that there is a plan in place to re-open in the not too distant future. Our entire community is in danger of losing the swimming pool forever, if nothing is done,” it reads.
Andrews said he contacted the board and asked if this was true.
The board told him in October last year that the closure of the pool was temporary and related to Covid-19 and that they would be looking for funding in the future, he says.
“They said it was running at a loss. They didn’t ask for any assistance. They didn’t seem to be overly concerned by it,” Andrews says.
“In the email, I said if you need any assistance don’t hesitate to contact me but I never heard from them. It’s very odd,” he says.
The board of management for Marian College refused a request for an interview, but offered a short statement.
“The Board of Management are keenly aware that this is a difficult time for all connected to Marian College Swimming Pool, particularly the staff and local community who supported the pool for many years,” it said.
“Closing a swimming pool like this is absolutely 100 percent the wrong policy,” says Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey.
“The local community has pumped money into this over the years,” says Lacey.
The pool has received “a huge amount of fundraising and support”, from the Aviva Stadium community fund and the Covanta fund, he says.
Lacey sits on the Dublin Waste to Energy Community Gain Fund, a scheme financed by Covanta, the company which built the Poolbeg incinerator, and which gives money to projects in Irishtown, Ringsend and Sandymount.
In 2017, the fund granted €100,000 to Marian College, according to the fund’s annual report. Of that, €75,000 was for “relining and refurbishment” of the pool, a fund spokesperson said.
A public post on the pool’s Facebook page shows the refurbishment of the pool was completed in January 2020.
Meanwhile, the council was also giving money for the pool.
In 2017, it gave a €30,000 operational grant, according to a council spokesperson. The council gives money to private pools to open to the public in parts of the city where it doesn’t own one.
In 2018, it gave even more: €44,625, according to the spokesperson. In 2019, the council gave the €30,000 operational grant plus a €45,000 “contribution to works”.
In 2020, the council gave an operational grant of €30,000 again, the spokesperson said.
And the council agreed at its last budget meeting to increase the operational fund for the pool by 100 percent to €60,000 a year in its 2021 budget, says the spokesperson.
“The board are aware of this and funding is available in the event that circumstances may allow the board to reconsider closing the pool,” says the spokesperson.
The pool was successful with another grant of €10,148 in 2020, this time from Sport Ireland, a statutory authority that oversees the development of sports within Ireland.
The grant was administered by Ireland Active, a leisure advocacy group and supported by Swim Ireland in response to the difficulties faced by swimming pools during Covid-19.
The second installment of the Ireland Active grant was to be administered in February 2021, a spokesperson for Ireland Active says. The organisation is “actively engaging with Marian College Board of Management in relation to its allocations under the scheme”.
A spokesperson from Swim Ireland said it has reached out to offer support to the pool and “are very disappointed that the decision has now been made to close, especially given the opportunities it offered to the local community”.
“It’s wrong that a private body, accountable to no one can make these kinds of decisions,” says Lacey, the Labour councillor.
“It brings into question again that notion of public facilities being controlled by public bodies,” he says.
On 2 March, an all-party emergency motion to save the swimming pool was passed at a sitting of the full Dublin City Council, says Fine Gael Councillor James Geoghegan.
The motion called for the “much-loved public facility” to be transferred into public ownership.
“If the college board or the swimming board have trouble maintaining it should be transferred to some other public body,” says Lacey.
Says Geoghegan: “The manager said he would engage with the principal of Marian College and he’ll come back to us.”
“The point he is saying is it’s a revenue issue and not a capital issue. In other words, they are not getting enough money in the door to keep it running,” he said.
“That’s the excuse that’s always given for public pools in our city, I don’t think it’s good enough,” he says.
“When the pandemic lifts we don’t want people coming back to a shut-down public swimming pool, I think we can do a lot better,” he says.
Meanwhile, Kay Fox says she doesn’t know what she or her friends will do if the pool is closed permanently.
She’s had bad experiences with hotel pools, she says, and most other facilities in the area are members-only or run very limited public hours.
“For the area, I think it’s an awful shame, there’s nowhere really for the kids in the area to go swimming now,” she says.