They shut down my beloved baths... to 

HOLLY BOUGH EDITOR'S PICK:  A regular at the Eglinton Street pool in Cork city in the 1940s, Patricia Grant got a shock when it closed in the dark days of World War II
They shut down my beloved baths... to 

A.A. (Gus) Healy training young divers at Eglinton Street Baths in 1955

I SEEMED to spend most of my childhood in Eglinton Street baths in Cork city. Maybe because I always got in for free!

“I’m here to see Annette,” I would say at least three times a day, and I would be let through the turnstile no bother.

Annette, a friend of my parents, was the lifeguard in the women’s baths — each of the sexes had their own pool. Every so often I would hear her roar at some kid: “You there! Get out of the deep end!”

I lived 15 minutes’ walk away, one of seven children growing up in St Finbarr’s Place, in the 1940s.

My father, Andy Grant, was a fisherman on the River Lee. On sunny days he would take all us children out on his yawl boat. #On arrival at Little Island, we would all change into our home-made bathing togs. He would try to give us swimming lessons by having us hold on to the boat’s oars.

I loved being on the river, but the baths in Eglinton Street was a much better place to swim, cleaner and safer.

One really sweet memory is of being met by my father outside the pool. “Let’s go down to the Coal Quay,” he’d say, and that meant only one thing: Ice cream for me. So deliciously cool on warm, sunny days after a swim.

Then, my carefree days came to a sudden end.

In the summer of 1941, 85,000 gas masks were assembled in the baths by local volunteers, then given out to the citizens of Cork city. Dublin had just been bombed by German planes, causing a great loss of life in the North Strand area. It was feared Cork might suffer a similar fate.

I well remember that day the baths were closed. My father and I stood outside and he read the notice of it shut ‘until further notice’. Little did I know it would not be reopened until three years later, in 1944 — a lifetime to a little girl.

Also in 1941, the baths building was crammed with empty coffins, which remained there until the danger from air raids ended in 1944.

It was a time when Cork people feared the worst, hence the stockpile of hastily made coffins, as air raids on cities in that wartime period tended to produce scores of fatalities.

“You know something, girl?” My father said, coldly eyeing the piles of coffins. “Those cheap coffins would hardly get you from the church to the graveyard without falling apart. Yerra, they look more like cardboard boxes!”

I remember the tears flowed down my face on learning I, along with hundreds of other children and adults, would be no longer able to go for my daily swim.

It seemed like the end of the world. And in a real sense it was. Nothing would ever be quite the same until the war ended in May, 1945.

In later years, when I left school and got a job with Sunbeam, I took to their swimming pool with great delight. Sometimes I was asked to try a new line of swimwear made at the factory, to see how it performed in the pool.

I was always happy to demonstrate, if it meant time in the pool instead of more mundane work.

I now live in Dublin, and on my last visit to Cork, I passed by the City Hall car park where the baths used to be.

My mind wandered back to the days when us noisy kids jammed up the turnstile to get inside. I can still hear the joyful screams and shouts of joy bouncing off the foggy glass roof overhead.

Pure happiness indeed!

******

EGLINTON Street municipal baths opened in 1901. Photographer Kevin Cummins was a regular visitor in the ’50s and ’60s.

“There were two pools, strictly segregated, and God help anyone who ventured across to the girls’ pool for a ‘gawk’,” he recalled. “My gang used flock to the girls’ school galas — I wonder why? — and pass the evening selecting our very own ‘Miss Cork’ from the teeming mass of ‘young wans’ in bathing costumes strutting around the place.” In the 1970s, the Corporation opened pools in Gurranabraher, Mayfield and Douglas and hotels began adding them too. Eglinton Street baths fell out of favour and were closed in 2005, replaced by the City Hall car park.

When the Lee Baths opened in 1934, initially women were not allowed in. In protest, 70 people, mostly women, signed a letter claiming the Corporation was abusing its authority by prohibiting a large section of the population. Giving examples of women being allowed in other pools nationwide, they asked for the restrictions to be lifted, or for Eglinton Street baths to be made women-only during the summer months. Their requests were not met.

Read more stories like this in the 2020 Holly Bough, in shops now and available to buy online at hollybough.ie

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