Ireland's first nudist-friendly beach: changing attitudes to beach attire

Now that Ireland’s first official nudist-friendly beach has opened at Hawk Cliff, Dalkey, Co Dublin, Robert Hume takes the opportunity to look back at changing attitudes towards what was deemed proper to wear at the seaside.

A couple of hundred years ago it was usual to bathe stark naked, then Victorians covered up, and now we are allowed to go nude again — but will we?

The Evening Herald claimed in 1893 that “Seabathing was popular in Ireland at an earlier date than in Great Britain”, and stated that well before the coming of the railway the whole of Dublin “seemed to crowd to the water” at Clontarf and Sandymount.

Hawk Cliff, Dalkey, Co Dublin

Youghal “is much frequented during the summer for seabathing” wrote topographer Samuel Lewis; and Bray was “a favourite resort during the summer season for seabathing”.

“Everyone who can afford it seems anxious to leave the town and sojourn for a while by the sea”, reported The Cork Examiner on July 4, 1896. 

Generations of people have enthused about the healthiness of seabathing — it “stimulates the vital organs, improves the circulation, hardens the muscles, and increases the activity of the skin” continued the Examiner.

But there has been less agreement on how one should bathe.

As naked as nature intended

At one time bathers were not bothered that others might see their bare bodies. In Blackpool, the “padjamers” — both men and women — bathed nude in the Irish Sea, having laced themselves with spirits to keep out the cold.

An early 18th-century broadsheet petitioned Dublin ladies to come to Dunlary, to bathe in comfort and safety in sheltered nooks under the cliffs at Salthill: “No bullies nor fops e’er come with rude laughter To make Madam run squeaking out of the water… And pretty Miss Molly, I’d have her remember May strip here as safely as in her own chamber.”

Most people, from King George III downwards, preferred to bathe in the nude.

Ladies dressed for seabathing, 1790

Modesty forbids

Victorians took a much less liberal approach to seabathing, and were scandalised by the sight of naked flesh. 

On September 10, 1866, a shocked Cork Examiner reported: “indecent exhibitions common at every watering-place in England”.

Local campaigns tried to tighten up bathing regulations by insisting that men and women bathe separately, and be respectably clothed.

One rule for her... quite another for him

For her: “Hideous blue gowns” Women now became so covered up that one man wrote the regretful rhyme: “The ladies dressed in flannel cases Show nothing but their handsome faces.” 

Women were expected to change in bathing machines, cabins on wheels, drawn by horses into the sea.

Mrs Mary Duggan informed readers of the Munster Express in July 1898 that she had “fitted up a number of new bathing machines” in Tramore.

At Sandymount women had the seclusion of a bathing machine for twopence, and at Irishtown, Dublin, for a mere penny.

A “modesty hood” was available in the form of a curved caterpillar that descended from the door of the cabin to the water level, and prevented a woman being seen entering or emerging from the sea, while providing a private darkened bath for her to swim in.

Closeted in seabathing machines along the coasts of Ireland, women managed to conceal their bloomers with “hideous blue gowns”, according to the West Cork and Carbery Eagle in 1867.

Seabathing machine Bridlington costume of Yorkshire walker antique print

But there were hitches. 

The Cork Constitution revealed in 1889 that at Youghal bathing machines were in such short supply that ladies had to change in their lodging houses, and “enveloped in their Ulsters” head for the beach in “a series of rushes”.

By 1900 magazines advertised the first bathing dresses for women. Unfortunately, they were made of wool, and when wet clung to the body, accentuating those very parts they were meant to conceal.

As a result, many women stopped bathing in the sea, stayed clothed and paddled, or simply walked on the promenade.

Ladies in cloche hats 1920s

For him: Bathing drawers

In response to public concern that men were standing with “their persons exposed”, Italian physician, Dr Augustus Bozzi Granville, came up with the idea of bathing drawers, string-waisted striped affairs, which reached down to the knees.

They received a mixed reception. English clergyman Francis Kilvert, described them as a “detestable custom”.

When he tried on a pair at Shanklin, Isle of Wight, they kept falling down.

For many Victorians, this new attire did not cover enough. “Gentlemen get by wearing a paucity of clothing” in the Blackrock Baths, Co Dublin, in full view of the ladies, complained a correspondent to the Irish Times in 1889.

The Hollywood factor

The cult of the sun began in the 1920s, inspired by the American film industry. Getting a decent tan led to a revolution in bathing dress.

Women can be seen with bare arms and legs for the first time in photographs taken on the east coast of

Ireland in the early 1920s.

Niamh Boyce describes women bathers wearing belted tunics, which stopped daringly above the knee in her book The Herbalist (2013), set in Ireland in the 1930s.

Men too were affected by Hollywood, abandoning their drawers for trunks worn by the film stars.

Michelle Bernardini wearing the first bikini 1946

The bikini explosion

Micheline Bernardini modelled the first bikini in Paris on July 11 1946. It was so small it could supposedly “fit into a matchbox”. Its popularity was helped by the invention of nylon, a fabric that dries very quickly.

The name bikini was chosen by French engineer Louis Réard, because of recent atomic tests on the Pacific island of Bikini Atoll. He hoped this new swimsuit would have the same “explosive” effect.

Too right it did! Many deemed it outrageously skimpy, and “morally indecent”. The Vatican declared it sinful, and several countries, including Italy, Spain and Austria, banned it.

But in 1960 more easygoing attitudes and Brian Hyland’s song ‘Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie polka-dot bikini’, resulted in a bikini-buying spree in Ireland.

“Fashion experts have decreed that there would be nothing but bikinis around Dublin this summer”, bemoaned the Irish Farmers’ Journal in 1960. “God save us all, I was sure they were going to stay around California”.

Still, wearers could retain a dash of modesty when they moved around the beach: “Bikinis are handy when they come with their own cover-up jacket… with a white polo neck,” noted the Kerryman in 1969.

Men’s attitude to beachwear also changed — up to a point. Whereas once a man “probably possessed only one pair of swimming trunks, today he will be likely to have several”, noted one contemporary writer.

Full circle: bearing all… again

Topless bathing has long been fashionable on the sizzling French Riviera, and since the 1960s its popularity has been growing in Ireland.

Now, nude bathing is making a comeback. Since its foundation in 1963, the Irish Naturist Association (INA) has been campaigning for clothing-optional beaches. 

Several “unofficial”, beaches have been used for many years, notably Keem Strand, Co Mayo; Forty Foot, Co Dublin; and Long Strand, Clonakilty Bay, Co Cork.

But only at Hawk Cliff, Dalkey, Co Dublin, can bathers officially go nude. 

Described by the INA as more of a “bathing spot” than a beach, “clothing optional” Hawk Cliff has regular bathers and swimmers, and its own diving platform. 

“If you go there in the mornings, especially weekdays, you will find more nudists than non-nudists”, an INA spokesperson told me.

As summer approaches, it remains to be seen how many of us will return to the habits of our predecessors; or will modesty — and the weather — deter us?

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