I n the late 19th century women and girls rarely swam in the sea. It was considered unseemly. Yet in the belief that sea water was good for the skin, hotels and guest houses along the seafront at Salthill proudly offered sea baths, and 'showers' which could be enjoyed in any weather.
Generally there was no problem with men swimming. In fact men could rent togs and a towel for two pence a day. If, in these early days however, a lady really wanted to swim in the sea then a wheeled, covered bathing box was provided. Once inside the lady, or ladies, were pushed out into deeper water. Inside they would undress, and descend the steps into the sea. Once finished they would climb back in, be wheeled ashore, and emerge refreshed, with all modesty preserved.
A Miss Josephine M Caldwell, tell us* that in the 1890s the matriarch of the Salthill bathing scene was a woman known to all as Sibby, who provided a number of salt-water experiences from her business at Atlantic House. She would wade into the sea giving screaming infants the three dips, head downwards, which were, until recently, the approved method on introducing children to the delights of bathing. If a child absolutely refused to be touched by Sibby (having no doubt witnessed the ‘three dips’ fostered on an innocent forebear ), she would pounce on him and, as he sat on the sand, throw several buckets of sea water over him. No doubt such a baptism was meant as a foretaste of the joys awaiting him. But I can only imagine the roars and screams that resulted, and the poor child vowing by whatever little gods he believed in, NEVER to go near the sea again.
There were few bathing-boxes. If any bathers prolonged their dip beyond what Sibby considered reasonable, she would, as they emerged, bestow a resounding smack on them accompanied by a torrent of abuse for keeping others waiting.
'My son Patsy'
If all those delights failed to excite an interest in swimming, there was the option of a sea shower-bath in a shanty nearby, to be enjoyed for the princely sum of 6 pennies. As Miss Caldwell explains: 'only the initiated knew that the power needful to raise the water to overhead level was supplied by Sibby's son, who mounted a ladder outside and emptied a pail of water down at the critical moment.'
On one occasion a lady, standing naked in the cubicle, and having pulled the string, waited in vain for the expected douche. Instead she heard a deep voice overhead: 'A thrifle more to the wesft, I'll trouble ye, me lady'. The unfortunate woman grabbed a towel, and 'horrified and indignant', rushed to confront Sibby. 'Ach Whist', retorted Sibby. 'It's only my son Patsy, and who'd be minding him?'
'Another time an English lady on a visit to Galway demanded a tepid shower-bath. 'An' what might that be ma'am?' demanded Sibby, to whom such flowers of speech were unknown.
'Tepid? Why half hot and half cold to be sure,' was the impatient reply.
'The lady undressed and, all unsuspecting, pulled the string. Down came a deluge of scalding water upon her. 'Let me out! Let me out! she screamed in alarm. 'It was a tepid bath I asked for. '
'Sure you said that t'was half hot and half could that t'was to be, and here's the could for ye'. Another pailful was emptied down.'
'So Venus comes'
The photograph this week shows two premises offering sea baths. George Fallon operated his baths' business from a thatched building to the right of Seapoint House, which he advertised with the sign: Hot Baths and Bathing. No Refunds. (I wonder why it was necessary to say NO refunds? )
Nearby is the more prominent establishment Seapoint House which could be rented by 'a respectable family'. It was ' fitted up in a very neat manner and was amply furnished.' You could indulge in the sea baths at your leisure.
In later years, however, under the celebrated Finan family, Seapoint House gradually merged into a dancehall and restaurant facility which survives today. In the Salthill of the 1940s right into the early 1970s, Seapoint was regarded as Ireland's leading night spot, attracting holiday makers from all over the country, and the hottest dance bands from England. It was the magnet which made Salthill the leading holiday resort in Ireland. There was little demand for sea baths or showers. The last hotel to offer such a service was the Stella Maris Hotel.
As the last century progressed the focus was switched from bathing to swimming, and modern pools. Although confined to the Ladies Beach, women and girls enjoyed the sea with all the freedom of men. The poet Seamus Heaney paused on the Prom, on a summer's day 1963, and watched girls emerge from the sea:
'bare-legged, smooth shouldered, and long backed
They wade ashore with skips and shouts
So Venus comes....**
Next week: More from Paul McGinley's book.
NOTES *One of several amusing stories told by Paul McGinley in his excellent Salthill: A History, Part I, published, and well illustrated, by Carrowmore, Dublin, at €30.
** Girls bathing Galway 1963, from Door into the Dark, published 1965. The poem is available to read on the prom.