Generations of Dubliners have swum in the Royal and Grand Canals — which together constitute the Naller — despite the disapproval of their betters, pursuit by the police, prosecution by the Grand Canal Company and even the risk of drowning.
I suspect that more people have swum in the canals than have used them for any other form of recreation, although Waterways Ireland, which “has responsibility for the management, maintenance, development and restoration of inland navigable waterways principally for recreational purposes,” doesn’t list swimming amongst the activities available on the waterways. (It does list walking, although relatively few people have been successful in walking on water.)
Swimming in the Naller has always been like that: enjoyed by many, including some spectators, but unofficial, deprecated, subversive, disrespectful, dangerous. No national association with blazered officials organises it; no government agency funds it; until recently no company made money from it. It has no organisation, no scheduled events, no officers, no budget, no records. All it needs is a fine day.
That makes it difficult to write about the activity, so I am grateful to The Irish Times Limited for permission to draw on the Irish Times archive in compiling an account of swimming in the canals in Dublin. However, the interpretation of the original reports, and any comments thereon, are my own.
In June 1867 the Irish Times published this letter:
Sir: Permit me to ask a small space in your valuable journal, the great medium of having grievances redressed, to a circumstance I witnessed yesterday. At half past 5 o’clock, on my way to Westland row station, my attention was attracted to a crowd of people on Baggot street bridge, and of course I went to see the object. Judge of my disgust on beholding a young man, sometimes at one end of the arch and then at the other, swimming, and making himself in every way as disgusting as he could. Were I to put my poor brute of a dog into the canal in all probability I would be summoned; yet a brute of a human being gets off scot free. I looked around in every direction, and the oft-repeated remark rose to my mind: “Where are the police?” Not one was to be seen. I am, sir, your obedient servant. W.F.
There are, alas, no details of the disgusting behaviour. Perhaps W F was disturbed by the very fact that someone was swimming in the Grand Canal: it supplied drinking water to the city via the basins at James’s Street (up to 1869) and Portobello (to 1870), as did the Royal on the north side via a basin at Blessington Street, seemingly at least until the 1890s. Six years earlier, when the Dublin Waterworks Bill was being discussed by a Select Committee of the House of Commons, a list of the disadvantages of the canal water supply included dung and bilge water from boats and the use of the canal for swimming by both dogs and “persons”.
Or perhaps the swimmer was naked: for many years (male) canal swimmers swam unclothed. In May 1910 Scrutator (who should perhaps have averted his gaze) complained to the editor:
Sir: In returning from Divine Service today I was very much astonished to see a number of young men and boys bathing and swimming at what is, I think, called Charlemont Bridge, perfectly naked. On the bridge there was a crowd of men, some thirty or forty, looking on. I went round and spoke to one of the bathers, to tell him it was not only indecent, but that they could be arrested for it, and he was most abusive. I went up on the bridge, and told some of the men they ought to go down and stop it, but they did not mind. I went back to Harcourt street to try to find a policeman, but there was no one in view. These fellows, I suppose, know their hours, and take advantage of them: and no one would like better than myself that the Dublin police should have a quiet time on Sunday, as they have so little rest, night or day.
There were numbers of young women, coming from their various places of devotion, passing along.
As a swimmer and bather myself, I think the use of the canal might be permitted to the great unwashed, and if places of a rough nature were erected along the canal banks for undressing, and men, boys and girls were permitted to go in there, with bathing dress of a simple kind, it would be an agreeable enjoyment and would tend to the health of the city. I would be much pleased to act on any committee that would further such use of our dormant waters. As the Irish Times does so much for the benefit of the city, it is not necessary to ask its interest — to name the want means it will be supplied. Yours etc SCRUTATOR
W F, though, was right about the dog: in 1865 the Irish Times reported that a dog-owner had been summoned to court, reprimanded severely and ordered to pay costs for swimming dogs in the canal near Portobello Basin. And in 1866, Dublin Metropolitan Police Constable William Lyons fought a heroic battle against a group of men who had been swimming their dogs in the canal at Rialto Bridge. He asked the group of 20–30 men to desist but one of them, John Yorke, threw another stick for his dog. The dog refused to fetch it, so Yorke threw the dog in. Constable Lyons asked Yorke to accompany him to the police station, but Yorke refused to go. Thomas Toole tried to throw Constable Lyons in, but Lyons tripped him and Toole went in instead. Yorke then grappled with Lyons, but he too ended up in the canal. Eventually Constable Lyons got five of his opponents into the canal “by degrees”; he himself stayed dry, but his helmet did go in. When Sergeant Ennis arrived, all the men ran off except Yorke and Toole, who were still in the canal and were detained. At the bail hearing, Mr McDermott said
It is the bounden duty of the police to prevent people swimming dogs in the canals, which are impure enough at present.
Baths and bathing
Happily, a more liberal view was taken by 1929, when Quidnunc reported in “An Irishman’s Diary” on the widespread use of the canal, banks and water, for exercising dogs. But Quidnunc was concerned for humans too: he campaigned for years to get the authorities to make some provision for those who wanted to swim in Dublin.
As far back as 1878 the Irish Times had argued that Dublin needed a swimming bath: it pointed out that Dublin was “much behind other people in the rites of detergency”. Some time previously a proposal to have a bath on each side of the city, and to admit the lower classes for a penny each, had fallen through because it was feared that the low charge would “attract them in such numbers to the locality as to make the neighbourhood disreputable and injure property in it.” A charge of sixpence or ninepence would solve that problem, and sites were available, the most attractive suggestion being for a floating glass-roofed bath in the Liffey.
Bathing was possible for anyone who lived by the sea or who was able to get there easily. J W de Courcy cites evidence of bathing places from 1744 onwards and says that commercially-owned hot and cold baths were being built from the end of the eighteenth century: he lists six extant in 1818 and another six built later in the nineteenth century. There were baths elsewhere in the city, but the first public swimming baths were the Tara Street Baths, opened in 1886.
Tara Street itself was new: the thoroughfare was named and the foundation stone for the baths was laid in April 1884. The opening ceremony was held in July 1886: it seems that the Lord Mayor and the Town Clerk stripped off and held a swimming race, which the Lord Mayor won. The baths themselves were very splendid. There were two swimming pools, a first-class (60 feet by 33 feet) and a second-class (65 feet by 23 feet). Both had dressing-boxes (changing cubicles), footbaths, towel-rooms and “sanitary arrangements of the most approved description”. The bath-houses had galleries containing “reclining baths”: that is, ordinary domestic baths, with hot and cold water, which were available to the public. There was also a laundry, wherein citizens could wash their clothes.
In an address to the Lord Mayor, the Chairman of the Public Health Committee set out the need for the baths:
Compared with other cities, Dublin is favourably situated as regards the natural advantages it presents, by its position and surroundings, for fresh and salt water bathing. But the distances which separate the recognised suburban bathing resorts from the poorer and more crowded centres of the population render them practically beyond the reach of any save a small proportion of the artisan and labouring classes of the city. A want, therefore, obviously existed in Dublin for the creation of cheap and commodious swimming baths, conveniently placed, and available for all.
The Chairman expressed the hope that the Tara Street baths would be the first of many:
To partially supply this want this institution has as a tentative measure been established, and we venture to express the hope that ere long we will be enabled to supplement it by the erection of baths of a kindred character, in suitable districts in the city.
The Chairman did not, alas, get his wish. The next public baths to be built in Dublin were the Iveagh Baths in Bride Street, opened in 1905 as part of Lord Iveagh’s major redevelopment of the area near St Patrick’s Cathedral. And that was it. It was not until 1969 that a new public pool was opened, the Markievicz pool in Townsend Street, just around the corner from Tara Street.
It wasn’t as if nobody was pointing out the need for swimming pools. Quidnunc conducted a sustained campaign in “An Irishman’s Diary” in the Irish Times. He drew attention to the fact that people (mostly boys and young men) were swimming in the canals; he didn’t see why they should be pestered by the Gardaí for doing so; he argued that people wanted to swim in hot weather and that provision should be made for them; he suggested relatively inexpensive solutions — none of which were taken up.
It was the custom of the boys and young men to swim naked. If a Garda approached, the look-out would cry “Nix!” and the swimmers would leave the water, grab their clothes and run off, still naked, to find somewhere that they could dress undisturbed. For example, Quidnunc wrote this in July 1929:
Yesterday was the hottest day of the year in Dublin, and the youths of the city, not to be thwarted despite the lack of suitable bathing facilities in Dublin, took to the canals. No swimming gala ever attracted a larger “gallery” than that which gathered on Baggot street Bridge last night to watch the antics of a number of boys on the muddy waters of the Grand Canal. The arrival of a policeman resulted in a hasty exit from the water, and the swimmers, with their clothes tucked under their arms, scampered off along the canal banks.
Other correspondents reported on swimming elsewhere in the city during that month. Tara Street Baths were full on hot days; 1235 people (only 63 of them female) swam there on one Saturday. (This was, incidentally, at a time when about a quarter of the city’s population lived in single-room tenements.)
At the North Wall the gamins of the streets have been swimming in their hundreds, as they have done for generations. Stripping on barges and stony steps slimy with seaweed, they were vigorously disporting themselves in the not altogether pellucid Liffey. […] Others of their kind have discovered the strategical advantages of the Ballybough Canal Bridge. A railway line and certain natural defences combine to delay the advance of the occasional policeman, scandalised by their lack of bathing costume. The urchins have thus time to scoop up their clothes and flee in all directions, dressing again at their leisure in the far distance.
Quidnunc pointed out that both Belfast and London made provision for open-air swimmers, but that
[…] in Dublin small boys must resort to the various branches of the two canals, to be chased by the police at intervals, and to run naked with their clothes under their arms until the policeman is out of distance. It must be perfectly obvious that Olympic swimmers will not be discovered and trained in this way, and so some facilities for swimming, at the cheapest rates, should be provided as soon as possible.
Ten years later, nothing had been done, and Quidnunc was ‘disgusted’ to find a barbed wire fence under Emmet Bridge (Harold’s Cross), where it would endanger the swimmers. He pointed out that the two public baths, both ‘lamentably out of date’, were packed every summer and that it was therefore unfair to stop children swimming in a canal ‘which is useful for little else’:
Instead of hunting them away, why not have a Guard stationed there during the day to see that there are no accidents? I suppose that it would be ridiculous to suggest that the Guard might even teach the lads how to swim?
Quidnunc and others had several suggestions for cheap open-air swimming pools. One favourite was the Dog Pond in the Phoenix Park. This was not as odd as it might seem: the swimming competitions of the 1924 Tailteann Games (a sort of Celtic Olympics) were held in a lake in Dublin Zoo, which the government had taken over for four days. Quidnunc also suggested the use of the eastern end of the pond in St Stephen’s Green and the shallow pond in Herbert Park.
But the suggestion most frequently made was that one or more parts of the Grand Canal should be used (Quidnunc seemed to have little contact with the north side of the city, although he did point out that there was no swimming pool on that side). In 1930 and 1931 he suggested that the bays along the Grand be enclosed, provided with a ‘shelter for bathers’ and used for swimming. These bays included Huband Harbour at Dolphin’s Barn, which had been built in 1805 to accommodate idle boats; the Society of Friends (Quakers) bought the excavated material for their Cork Street burial ground. Portobello Harbour and Harold’s Cross were other candidates for enclosure.
Other people also made suggestions. An unidentified correspondent pointed out in 1929 that ‘naked urchins from adjoining slum districts’ swam regularly at ‘the gut‘, a narrow section on the old main line to James’s St Harbour. This correspondent pointed out that the disused City Basin would make an ideal swimming-pool: it was already walled off and it needed only dressing-rooms and diving-boards. This suggestion was made again in 1961 by John Manning, in a letter to the editor, in which he pointed out that the Basin was in a central location, with plenty of space for baths, buildings and parking, ‘with a pleasant row of trees along the western side’. Éamonn MacThomáis attended the nearby school: its May processions were held at the Basin and his First Holy Communion class photograph was taken there too.
In 1933 Dublin Corporation was creating a park along the abandoned Broadstone Branch of the Royal Canal; the Irish Times reporter wrote that
[…] as part of the scheme, the Corporation authorities hope to be able to acquire the old Canal Chambers [dry docks], which were once used for boat-repairing work, and convert them into swimming pools for children. They provide ready-made pools, and the only difficulty — and not a serious one, will be the grading of the depths to meet the requirements of swimmers, non-swimmers, and learners.
In the same year William Findlater suggested to Quidnunc that the innermost portion of the Grand Canal Docks, between Grand Canal St and the railway line, which was full of weeds and abandoned barges, would be ‘an ideal site for an open-air swimming bath’. Quidnunc repeated the suggestion in 1943 but, like the rest of his suggestions, it was ignored, and that section of the canal was filled in during the 1950s to accommodate an abattoir, producing frozen meat, and a railway siding from which cattle could be unloaded.
Baths out of action
The swimmers’ lot worsened during the Emergency (World War 2). In September 1939 Dublin Corporation gave notice that Tara Street Baths would close at sundown each day. Later, with its ‘boilers working on emergency fuel’, Tara Street ‘was forced to close down for months at a time for overhaul’.
Then the lack of fuel caused the closure of the Iveagh Baths, which were later taken over by Dublin Corporation ‘as an added service to aid them in their fight against septic scabies, which is very prevalent in Dublin at the moment’. In the following year 378 families were examined for scabies; 2117 people were found to be infected and 114 to be free of the disease. Clair Wills points out, however, that the British government had instituted medical checks at Holyhead for Irish workers seeking jobs in British factories: they were responding to outbreaks of typhus and typhoid in Ireland in 1942, as well as to reports that Irish workers were lice-ridden and had to be accommodated separately. The embarrassed Irish government instituted its own checks: would-be emigrants who were free of scabies, lice or other infections were issued with Health Embarkation Certificates, while those who were not were hosed down and disinfected at the Iveagh Baths.
And just in case that reduction in provision for swimming wasn’t enough, the Grand Canal Company summoned Richard Cummings of Pearse Street for swimming in Ringsend Basin ‘for the purpose of reminding the public that it is an offence to bathe in the canal’. He was given probation.
James Dillon talks sense
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s TDs, Councillors and citizens continued to call in vain for additional swimming pools in Dublin. The City Manager, in 1951, listed difficulties with many proposed solutions and suggested the formation of a committee. Two and a half years later, the Irish Times pointed out that Tara Street and Iveagh Baths could not accommodate even a small proportion of the teenagers who wanted to learn to swim; that had resulted in drownings in canals and rivers and at the seaside.
Dublin Corporation’s Baths Sub-committee was still working away, hoping to buy the site of the Locke Hospital in Townsend Street and to build a swimming pool in Rathmines, first proposed thirty years earlier when Rathmines had its own local authority. In October 1953, the Minister for Local Government rejected the Townsend Street plan. In the Dáil on 19 November 1953 James Dillon TD (Fine Gael) said
Now, when I was a child we used to go swimming in Tara Street Baths on Monday, sometimes on Tuesday, but by Wednesday one could not see the bottom of the bath and so, on Wednesday, one went up to the Iveagh Baths because they changed the water there on Wednesday morning. One did one’s swimming there on Wednesday and Thursday. Then on Friday one went back to Tara Street and, if they were not in good humour, the water was like pea soup and one gave up swimming for the rest of the week; but if they were in good humour and the water had got too bad, they changed it on Thursday night. I learned to swim in the Tara Street Baths and the Iveagh Baths. The Iveagh Baths are much better than the municipal baths. During the war these baths were taken over for the examination of the migrants.
I remember, when we were in office, I agitated for years to get the Iveagh Baths reopened and I think my colleagues, both of whom were Ministers for Local Government in succession, Deputies Murphy and Keyes, one after the other agitated energetically to get the local authority in Dublin to reopen the Iveagh Baths. You would think you were trying to break down the gates of the Sacred City of Mecca. It could not be done; it would cost too much; the liability would be too great; if it were undertaken it would take years to achieve it. But, hopping and trotting, they got the Iveagh Baths reopened at last.
Every Deputy who knows the City of Dublin realises that there is probably no city of its size in the world in which more inadequate provision is made for swimming facilities than is made in the City of Dublin.
[…] This is my modest proposal: there is a good rule in logic that where there is a proximate explanation it is illogical to look for a remote explanation. It is a good rule in pragmatic politics that where there is a ready solution to hand you should not refuse to avail of it because you have grandiose plans that some day will be given effect to. When I walk down the canal from the month of May to the month of October, I see half the children of the city swimming in the canal because, being common-sensible children, when they see a canal they peel off their duds and jump in, because they say: “What we want is some place to swim and there is water in the canal and, therefore, as two and two make four, if you want to swim and there is water in the canal, and there is no one to stop you, take off your duds and get into the canal.” But, unfortunately, the condition of the canal is gravely unhygienic. It would not tax the ingenuity of the city engineer and the whole bag of tricks above in the City Hall to clean the canal from Crumlin down to Ringsend.
[…] I am not suggesting for a single moment that I consider the rehabilitation of the canal is likely to provide ideal permanent swimming facilities for the citizens of Dublin but, if the children are going to swim in the canal whether we like it or not — and that they are certainly going to do, more power to their elbows — we have two courses open if the conditions in the canal are unhygienic. One is to line the canal with Civic Guards from the city boundary to Ringsend to prevent the children going into the canal and the other is to go into the canal ourselves and remove the unhygienic element in the canal and its contents so that the children may hereafter plunge into it and disport themselves without danger to their health.
Eight years later, Deputy Dillon spoke again:
I have been listening all my life to schemes for providing swimming pools in this city of Dublin. All my life I have walked along the banks of the canal and it has always struck me that if ever there was an ideal swimming pool available, it is the canal, if it were properly maintained. But instead of its being maintained for that purpose, I see it being filled in. There is a stretch of canal running from beyond Mountjoy Jail up to the Basin. I walked along that all the days of my youth, and it then became superfluous. If that had been taken in hand and turned into a clean, properly maintained swimming pool, it would provide a gala ground for thousands of children in the city. All you had to do was line it with a bit of cement and employ some elderly gentleman to look after it, or two elderly gentlemen, retired pensioners, chlorinate the water, empty and fill it at regular intervals, and it would have been a great luxury. But, instead of that, for the past 30 or 40 years, the children of the city have been “lepping” in and out of the canal, dead dogs, dead donkeys, and all, because there was nowhere else for them to go. I have seen them plunge into it up at Rathmines Bridge, where the old flyboats used to stop— all the way down from Portobello along the various stretches of the canal. They would put the heart across you. How they do not all die of appalling diseases, I cannot imagine.
I cannot see why, at this time, we cannot take stretches of the canal and make them fit for the children to swim in. I do not think they want elaborate baths. I believe the vast majority of them would be delighted with the canals, if they were fit for them to go into. I heard Deputy Sherwin say — Deputy Sherwin is a person for whose sagacity I have considerable respect; at present I am confining my admiration to his sagacity — that children frequently get drowned in the canal. That causes me some anxiety. But I am bound to say this: no matter how careful you are, unless you put children in cotton wool, they will meet with accidents if they live a normal life. If you had stretches of the canal properly prepared to serve as public swimming places for children, you could take precautions and provide some kind of life saving service in periods when large numbers of children use the canal. But that will not avoid the occasional circumstances of children going to bathe or swim at a time when nobody expects them to be swimming. If you are not prepared to take that risk, you cannot have baths at all.
Dillon and Frank Sherwin TD (Independent) had both argued for better provision for swimmers. Dillon was evidently not convinced by the suggestion from Noel Lemass TD (Fianna Fáil) that ‘the city medical officer believes that swimming in the canals contributes largely to polio’. Nor did Dillon accept the suggestion of his colleague Jack Belton TD, who wanted the canals in Dublin filled in, although he accepted that parts of them might be converted to swimming pools. In the same speech, incidentally, Mr Belton said that
A considerable amount of money, in the form of loans, should be given to rural public-houses to help the owners to improve their toilet accommodation.
Mr Belton was a builder and a publican.
Saving the Grand Canal
In 1963, Dublin Corporation proposed to close the city section of the Grand Canal, running a sewer under it and a road on top (later versions had the canal being closed only temporarily, while the sewer was installed, and reopened immediately afterwards). The scheme was, it seems, intended to relieve builders of a potential problem, ‘a shortage of serviced land’: the Minister for Local Government …
[…] arranged that the local authorities would undertake, as a matter of urgency, the provision of sufficient drainage to ensure that house building would not be impeded in the area. […] A longer term drainage programme, the planning of which is being pushed ahead as rapidly as possible, will ensure that adequate serviced land will be available to meet long-term needs. This programme includes the completion of the Dodder Valley scheme and the Grand Canal scheme and the extension of the existing treatment plant at the Ringsend outfall works.
The identification of the Minister’s party affiliation is left as an exercise for the reader.
The Inland Waterways Association of Ireland (IWAI) campaigned successfully against the closure, temporary or permanent, of the Grand Canal; Dublin Corporation eventually …
[…] produced a solution under which the Grand Canal need not be interfered with even temporarily. The proposal that the drains should be in a tunnel under the roadway rather than that the canal should be closed temporarily to permit the laying of the drains in its bed has been generally welcomed. […] I may emphasise once again that it was, in any event, never the Government’s intention that the canal should be closed other than temporarily in connection with the drainage scheme.
As part of its campaign to save the Grand, the IWAI organised Grand Canal Festivals in Dublin. The events included swimming, diving and other events that were likely to end with participants in the canal: water jousting, punt polo, water pillow fights and a greasy pole competition.
During the campaign, Mary Maher, an Irish Times journalist, made several telling points in a short paragraph about the limited recreational facilities for children in Dublin. The Corporation had recently made a grant of 75% of the cost of a private pool in a school in Dublin 4, while other children queued ‘as their parents and probably grandparents did’ for admission to the Tara Street and Iveagh Baths.
In 1974 the Commissioners who were then running the city went on a tour of their domain visiting, inter alia, a swimming pool. The Irish Times said:
But it is valid to ask whether they might not have been better employed visiting the crumbling housing “estates” in the inner city, or the stagnant canals and ponds where thousands of children are still forced to seek their own self-made amenity areas, or the unplanned, sprawling urban complexities which, even today, pass for living areas for so many citizens.
Crumlin eventually got its pool. According to Dublin City Council’s website, that pool — like those in Coolock and Sean MacDermott Street — is open to the public for three hours and forty-five minutes each week over the winter of 2015. Happily, the City Council’s other pools have longer opening hours.
Back at the Naller
While all of that was happening, or not, in the political world, youngsters were swimming in the canals as they had done for generations — and skating and sliding on them in winter. Greg Dalton said that someone always went through the ice on the Grand; Eileen O’Brien, writing in the Irish Times in February 1969, said that children from Fatima Mansions had been sliding on the canal the week before, despite the efforts of the Gardaí and the priests to get them off it. Ron Black remembers sliding on the Royal near Binn’s Bridge.
In earlier years, there had been other amusements: children were sometimes allowed to lead the horses that drew the canal boats: Éamonn MacThomáis said that the journey from the 1st to the 5th Lock on the Main Line was ‘never tiring or dull’, but that the return was ‘brutal’. He was disappointed that the boatmen looked more like farmers than sailors. He and his friends were sometimes allowed on board the canal boats to clean the galley, but the owners of the yachts [pleasure craft] that passed through never invited anyone on board, never even spoke or waved: he could not remember a single friendly person on any of the yachts.
But swimming was the principal amusement. Greg Dalton remembered being given 3d or 4d to go to the Iveagh or Tara Street Baths. But by swimming at Dolphin’s Barn Bridge instead, he could spend the money on sweets, even though his mother would know by the smell that he had swum in the canal. Candida, in the Irish Times “Irishwoman’s Diary” in 1978, reported on a Catholic Youth Council summer project at St Theresa’s Gardens: children were brought to the swimming baths but the boys preferred the canal where they could bring their dogs, dive and play with tyres.
Eddie, on the GAA blog An Fear Rua, remembers swimming, usually naked, in a straight stretch of the Royal known as The Bend, because it was above a bend in the railway tunnel linking Kingsbridge (now Heuston) to Amiens Street (now Connolly) Station. Pat Conneely, in comments on this site, said that he learned to swim where Mickey Dudley’s Stream entered the canal ‘opposite about midway on Whitworth Road’; he too mentioned The Bend as well as swimming places at the Pin Mill and, further out, opposite Cherry Hall beyond Ashtown.
On the Grand, Linda Foley (née Nolan) wrote on the Growing up in Dublin website about
Swimming in the canal … beside Lyons tea factory getting stripped down in the bushes so the lads couldn’t see us … never dawned on us that the people in the offices there were getting a grand view of us stripping because they were behind us ….
Lyons moved to their Goldenbridge factory in 1963. Linda told me that she and her friends referred to the clear area of the canal, near the Kelloggs factory, as the Beenzer. But the idea of girls swimming in the canal was sufficiently novel to deserve mention in Donal Foley’s Saturday Column in the Irish Times in 1979. Boys and dogs, he said, were shocked when a little girl joined those swimming at Huband Bridge. They mocked her, but she was determined to return next day to swim again. Foley called her
A worthy heiress to all the great women of the country from Maeve of Connaught down.
By this stage, swimming in the canal was seen as an attractive addition to the Dublin scene. Pro-Quidnunc wrote in 1968 of the ‘picturesqueness and sheer gaiety’ of the bathers at Mount Street Bridge.
It is all very Dublinish, very pleasing. But, of course, very, very retrograde. Let us, rather, turn our thoughts to the more practical future — to that splendid sewage scheme, that even more wonderful motor road, which may soon make the Mount street bathers no more than a memory.
Or, alternatively, help the Joint Canal Committee to collect signatures opposing the closure.
In 1979 Candida interviewed Mrs Lucy Farquharson, Secretary of the Iona Residents Canal Project about the Royal Canal. She enthused about the ‘kids swimming, fishing, canoeing, people walking’ at the canal; the clear, clean water above the former lockhouse was the local swimming pool.
Ten years later, Mary Russell interviewed Stephen Brierley, the indefatigable lockkeeper on the Circular Line of the Grand Canal. She wrote that, throughout the hot summer, boys (and some girls) had been swimming in the lock at Portobello, and diving from the lock gates, despite the disapproval of the authorities who were conscious of the dangers.
In 2007 Mary Russell wrote of seeing two different young men, in the early hours of two mornings a week apart, standing in the same stretch of the Grand Canal. She sought comments from Waterways Ireland and from the Gardaí and found that swimming was no longer illegal (although swimming in locks is banned). She said that Waterways Ireland had tried to balance access and safety; chains on the lock walls could help anyone who got into difficulties.
It’s not a crime to be in the canal. “We wouldn’t get involved,” a local garda told me, “unless the person was a danger to themselves or to others.”
By 2014, one danger — that of freezing to death — was avoidable: the Irish Times reported that Messrs Aldi and Lidl sold wetsuits for as little as €50, “putting them in reach of the average cash-strapped teenager”. Youngsters were diving or jumping from bridges or lock gates, but those in search of greater thrills jump from even higher up.
Dead dogs and revolting refuse
The dangers of drowning, and of breaking their necks, are not the only ones confronting the Naller’s swimmers. Noel Lemass TD had some basis for his concern about the danger to health of swimming in canals. In 1964 the Dublin City medical officer Dr J B O’Regan warned Dubliners about the dangers posed by weeds and by ‘objects’ hidden underwater. He added that swimmers could also contact disease, but that there had not been a case of that for nearly fifteen years.
But Seamus de Búrca, writing to the editor in 1974, seemed to think that dead dogs were a natural part of the canal. He said that when he was a boy the canal was at least clean, despite the dead dogs, rusty bicycles, prams, guns and ammunition to be found in the Royal. However, by 1974 ‘the whole canal stinks of decay and desolation that cries to nature’, and he urged North Dubliners to help to clean it up.
Donal Foley was more disturbed by the dead dogs and wanted Charles Haughey, Minister for Health, to persuade his colleagues to ‘have the place cleaned up before the children catch typhoid or the plague’.
In 1982 Dick Grogan wrote that Dublin Corporation’s environmental health inspectors had found unsafe levels of sewage-type bacteria at Dolphin’s Barn Bridge and Suir Road Bridge; there were also streptococci at Suir Road. But several politicians remembered swimming in the canals, as Maev Kennedy reported in a Dáil sketch in 1985. Albert Reynolds learned to swim in them, although probably in a rural rather than an urban stretch of the Royal; Gay Mitchell remembered “swimming among the bobbing carcasses of cats, dogs and pigs” and Liam Skelly’s brother had got rat poisoning [leptospirosis?].
Death by drowning
But drowning seems to have been a greater danger than anything the dead dogs could do. Year after year adults and children drowned in the canals. Sometimes people just fell in, sometimes vehicles fell in, sometimes people committed suicide, but many of the deaths were the result of swimming accidents.
In 1876 Thomas Sheehan drowned at Russell Street bridge (near Croke Park); the Irish Times reported that
It appears that the deceased was one of a party of little boys who went to bathe, and that having ventured beyond his depth, and being unable to swim, he was drowned. The child’s parents heard nothing of the matter until he was carried home lifeless.
In 1900 Isaac Grey (27) drowned in the Royal Canal near Mountjoy Prison when swimming late on a Saturday night:
No one saw him sink, or heard him shouting for help. Sergeant 33 D deposed that the place was dangerous to bathers. Bathing was prohibited there, but persons evaded the police. A verdict of death by asphyxia was returned.
In 1937 Christopher Power (17) dived from a wall into the Royal Canal at Binn’s Bridge and disappeared. A month later, Daniel Lonergan (12), who could not swim, went with friends to bathe in Spencer Dock. His friends did not see him enter the water but found bubbles rising; they went for help. Michael Coakley, a welder, went for a swim in the Royal during his half-hour tea-break in 1948; he drowned despite the attempts of three of his friends to save him. Thomas Williams (10) drowned at Broome Bridge in 1951; Laurence Smyth (15) drowned behind Mountjoy in 1964; Anthony Delaney got caught in mud and weeds at Ashtown in 1968; Derek Brazil (14) drowned in 1993 near the old spice mill in Phibsborough, and the inquest jury recommended that lifebuoys be provided.
That is not a complete list of drownings in the Royal; what follows is not a complete list for the Grand.
In 1937 Kevin Kelly (12) of the Coombe had been bathing (he could not swim) near Sally’s [Parnell] Bridge. Afterwards, while walking along the bank, he slipped in to the canal. Thomas Smyth (12) of Kildare Road, Crumlin (another non-swimmer) tried to pull Kelly out but fell in himself. Kelly survived; Smyth drowned. In 1938 Leslie Cooke, a non-swimmer, got into difficulties at Baggot Street Bridge after attempting to dive across the canal. John Egan, a passer-by, tried to save him but became exhausted by Cooke’s struggles; Egan himself was rescued by Michael Tighe and Daniel McNaughton recovered Cooke’s body.
Richard Shane (8) drowned at Baggot Street Bridge in 1947; David Lynch (14) of the Oliver Bond Flats drowned neat James’s Street in 1948 and Francis Shiels drowned at Wilton Place. The following day, Nicholas Davis drowned in Grand Canal Docks while swimming with friends on his lunch break. Thomas Giddell (12) of Ballyfermot drowned in Clondalkin in 1958 and Edmond Kelly of Ballyfermot drowned between the 11th and 12th Locks in 1959.
A month later two young boys, James Masterson (10) and Desmond Grogan (8), drowned near the 6th Lock. Local practice had been to block a culvert to create a pool fed by the canal water. The Corporation had cleared the blockage 17 times in four months; fencing had been removed twice. Three other young boys went to Crumlin to get help from the Gardaí; three older youths helped to recover the bodies.
In 1997 Jason Ryan (11), a non-swimmer, got into difficulties around lunchtime at the 9th Lock when he dived in and was caught in a trolley. His friend Keith Mahon (13) dived in, fully clothed, to save him, but was pulled down. Gardaí, ambulances and the fire brigade arrived within minutes, but had difficulty in getting the boys out until they removed the trolley. Jason Ryan was pronounced dead that evening; Keith Mahon died later. Ten years later, David White and Shane Coughlan died near the same spot.
There are limits to the extent to which the authorities can enforce safety. Those limits were explored during the inquest on Daniel Lonergan, the non-swimmer who drowned in Spencer Dock in 1937. The Great Southern Railways Company was anxious to show that it could not be blamed and it established that the boys knew that they were trespassing, that they had climbed in to the Dock area over the bars of a bridge, that the Gardaí were ‘continually trying to keep boys out of the dock’, that six lifebuoys had been taken away in recent months and that stones had been thrown at the company’s five watchmen.
But the communities that bred the swimmers bred many of their rescuers too. In 1862 a man called Dillon went swimming in the Grand Canal Harbour ‘in the narrow entrance between the drawbridge and the basin’ at the rear of the Barrow Navigation Company’s stores. He got caught in weeds and a man called Hayden dived in, fully clothed, to rescue him. Dillon was the eighth person to be saved by Hayden.
In 1923 an elderly man called William Curran slipped off the parapet of Binn’s Bridge, hit his head and drowned. Francis Egan (16), a non-swimmer, tried to rescue him but tired rapidly as he attempted to support Curran. Private Michael Doyle dived in, rescued Egan and then retrieved Curran’s body. Doyle’s two brothers had also rescued people from drowning.
In 1939 Michael Larkin (13) was awarded a certificate for bravery for an unsuccessful attempt to save another boy who had fallen into the canal at Griffith Bridge, Rialto. Asked where Larkin had learned to swim, the Lord Mayor replied:
He says he learned to swim in the canal. We badly need some swimming pools in this city.
George Jackson (12) of St Laurence’s Mansions, Lower Sheriff Street, was awarded a posthumous bronze medal and memorial certificate in 1951. He died while trying to save a nine-year-old boy from drowning near Spencer Dock Bridge.
In 1957 thirteen people who had saved (or tried to save) others from drowning were given awards for bravery by Comhairle na Mire Gaile. The presentation was made by the Lord Mayor, Councillor Robert Briscoe, and amongst those receiving awards was Master Austin Dalton of Sundrive Road. Austin, Gussie, was the older brother of Greg Dalton, author of My Own Backyard, and he had rescued Greg himself from the canal. Greg got caught in a bicycle when swimming near Dolphin’s Barn Bridge; Gussie was walking over the bridge at the time, dressed in his Confirmation suit; he dived in and rescued his brother.
In the same year, Reverend Brother Michael F O’Mahony had his first swim for thirty years when he dived, fully clothed, into the Grand Canal Harbour to rescue a child, Lily Harris of James’s St Flats. And a year later Christopher Ash and Anthony Crosby, both 17, found Christy O’Brien (4) of Summerhill under five feet of water near Newcomen Bridge. They got him to the bank and successfully gave him artificial respiration. They brought him home and, said Ash, ‘his mother loaned me a coat to go home in’.
The canal’s own people had their share of heroes. At the inquest in 1955 on Veronica Halpin (10) of Cabra West, who fell into the 7th Lock on the Royal, it was clear that lockkeeper John Newman had done his best (with the help of others) to rescue her. But there was no lifebuoy at the lock and CIE were not obliged to provide lifebuoys; furthermore lockkeepers were not expected to be able to swim.
Nonetheless, on the Main Line of the Grand both Peter Lynch (1st Lock) and Larry Condron (2nd Lock) ‘were always on hand to ensure the children’s safety’ and both of them made many rescues.
As Quidnunc said in 1941:
It would seem that the canals are the universities of our swimmers, and to be able to say “I learned my swimming in the canal” is at once a certificate of merit and a strong recommendation for a life-saving medal in advance. […]
Strictly speaking, it is illegal to swim in canal waters and, from time to time, efforts have been made to keep out the dusty hordes. Stern warning notices were planted firmly in the ground at well-known resorts, but in vain. Every summer the mass movement took its irresistible course and nothing short of an extra hundred thousand guards could have stopped it.
Which is as well, perhaps; for those waters have trained a doughty life-saving crew.
 Irish Times 7 June 1867
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