IT’S dusk at a small hotel in rural Munster. In the bar, 20 out-of-towners have convened. They range in age from early 20s to mid-60s. More arrive, introduce themselves, and join the group in the corner of the bar. They don’t have much in common, but in half an hour they’ll all be naked. They are here for the monthly Irish Naturist Association nude swim and sauna.
The INA was formed in 1963. The International Naturist Federation, with which the INA is affiliated, defines naturism as: “Lifestyle in harmony with nature, expressed through personal and social nudity, and characterised by self-respect of people with different opinions and of the environment.” But why do people hang around naked in groups together?
John, 55, has been a naturist for 30 years. He divides naturists into three categories: private nudists, who enjoy being naked, but do so at home; activists, who campaign to change society’s attitudes to the naked body; and social naturists, who enjoy being naked in the company of others.
John is a social naturist. “I think it has strong messages about self-acceptance and acceptance of other people, of dealing with people without barriers, without the social messages that go with what clothes you wear,” he says.
It’s disrobing time. We file into the hotel leisure centre and sign in. The door is manned by an INA member. Hotel staff are absent. Towels are draped over the CCTV cameras. The hotel has guaranteed privacy.
Most of the men are 40-plus, but there are only four 40-plus women. In the changing room, the older women are confident, but the younger, first-timers are hesitant. I undress quickly and walk out into the pool area; I am a little self-conscious, but not too bothered.
The pool is small and cold, and the steam room is out of order. The steaming Jacuzzi is popular for keeping warm and for socialising. The glass door of the sauna affords a view of the small swimming pool, where people swim lengths and congregate around the edges.
Naturists are open about its appeal. I meet 48-year-old Ken in the Jacuzzi. “I just love having my clothes off. I always feel great,” he says. “I started modelling in 2000, for art colleges and studios. It’s difficult for them to get nude models, especially males. I love my body and I’m very proud of my body,” he says.
Naturists emphasise that it is non-sexual nudity. The atmosphere is social, but it isn’t flirtatious, and we were told beforehand that behaviour that made another participant uncomfortable was unacceptable.
Irish law doesn’t clarify the difference between non-sexual nudity and lewd acts: indecent exposure is policed by several antiquated acts, while section 5 of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act, 1994, says that it shall be an indictable offence for “any person in a public place to engage in offensive conduct.” The definition of “offensive conduct” is broad, so a naturist could be arrested and charged if they had caused offence, even if they were on private property overlooked by public property.
The legal inconsistencies were highlighted in April, in the High Court, where Mr Justice Gerard Hogan ruled that the offence of “offending modesty” contained in section 18 of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 1935, was so vague as to be unconstitutional.
Pat Gallagher, president of the INA for 15 years, wants the law changed. He says that the INA has campaigned for years. “I wrote a letter when Mr Ahern was Minister for Justice, and that got passed to Environment, and then the government changed and it’s now with Mr Shatter’s former office. It’s simply not a political priority,” he says.
The INA will host the International Naturist Congress, for the first time, in September. Backed by Fáilte Ireland, 150 delegates are expected from as far afield as Brazil, Canada and New Zealand. “We didn’t think that we’d be a large enough organisation to host such an event,” Pat says. “But we met with people from Fáilte Ireland, in Amiens Street, and they were very supportive. They said to go ahead. Hopefully, if we get good publicity out of it, it might sway people in Dáil Eireann to look at legalising naturism.”
Back in the hotel, John says his first experience of naturism was abroad: “An Irish woman who lived in Munich told me that she loved plant life and that she was going to show me the best garden in Munich,” he says. “When we walked in, she took off all her clothes and it only took me a moment to realise that everyone else there wasn’t wearing any clothes, bar me. I just wouldn’t get out of my underpants. I was only 23 or 24 years old, brought up in a typical, arch-Catholic family, and believing everything to do with this situation was so sinful. That night, lying in bed, a young, red-blooded Irish male, I thought to myself, ‘you know what, that was great, and the sky didn’t fall in’. I met up with the same woman the following day and said, ‘You’d never do that in Cork’. And she said, ‘Of course not, we just don’t do that kind of thing in Ireland’. When I came back, I started asking questions and I found that there actually were people who did do it, and I started meeting them on a regular basis and a couple of years later joined the INA.”
John says Irish attitudes to nudity are influenced by Catholicism. “We are expected to be shocked by the sight of naked flesh, because of the role of the Church in confusing nudity with inappropriate sexual behaviour,” he says.
How does tie in with the new, sexualised landscape of people pressured to conform to ideals of beauty in the media and advertising? “It was actually an older woman who said to me that it’s so wonderful to be reminded of what real people look like naked,” he says.