How the gym became my new 'local'




With its coffee area, newspapers, and friendly chat, Conor Power wonders if the leisure centre has replaced the pub.

I’M not normally given to going to the gym. Perhaps I’m just of a certain generation or I happened to be born in a certain type of Ireland that’s now gone, but the whole gym scene has always seemed to me like a strange fad that was going to disappear back into the ether from whence it came. Unless you were actually intent on training for some sporting event, there didn’t seem to be any point to it.

A Christmas present of a month’s membership of one of my local gyms opened my eyes, however. I was slightly intimidated by the prospect because I figured that the vast majority of people in there would be overwhelmingly young men and women in their twenties wearing enormous ear phones and moving and sweating at a ferocious rate that would make someone like me feel inadequate.

I envisaged a milieu where toned and muscled people spoke little and compared things like bench-press techniques, the size of their bar-bells and how many hundred kilometres they clocked up on the treadmill.

But instead, my local gym in Bantry turned out to contain a huge variety of clientele — from the 60-somethings to the 16-year-olds; from the fit and toned to the mildly decrepit. There was no sense of a silent smouldering competitive spirit in the place. People greeted each other naturally as they came in the door and chatted about all sorts of things, apart from their progress on the various items of gym machinery.

Every stratum of local society was represented: The bank manager, the council worker; the fisherman; the farmer; the publican and the parson. I was trying to remember where I last felt such an ambience of good-natured social interaction. Then I remembered…. It was in a pub. The real pubs, meanwhile, are still closing. After the first wave knocked out virtually all of the rural pubs in the country, the closure of landmark pubs in mid-sized towns seems to be the next wave of social adjustment that we must endure.

I spoke to an Irishman who had moved to France. He told me that in France, the “pub” scene is actually a morning coffee scene; the café being the real hub of social interaction. In Ireland in 2014, it would appear that the pub scene has moved out of the pub and into the leisure centre.

It seems that the men folk who used to go down to the pub for a quiet pint, a chat and a read of the paper, now pack their little kit bags and find solace in the sanctuary of the gym. I saw a man I knew the other day and he spent a full half an hour having a relaxed shave at the sink in the men’s dressing room. There was nobody to ask him to hurry up and finish and to be sure to clear the sink afterwards.Then he had a little work-out, followed by a dip in the pool.

James — the manager of the leisure centre — told me that about a year ago, the reception area was little more than one coffee machine. Since then, this area has evolved and grown in an organic manner. So many people began coming to the gym for more social purposes than keeping fit, that they began to congregate around the drinks machine. So, now there are comfortable chairs, a coffee table, a selection of newspapers, a fridge with a variety of cold drinks and plethora of health-related paraphernalia for sale. If it had the physical space to expand any more, then it would. Thankfully, this particular gym is part of a hotel leisure centre, so there’s always the hotel bar to take the overflow of socialising citizens.

But even if there are some gym-goers to be found in the bar afterwards, it’s still the gym that drew them there in the first place. I can’t say for sure that the future of this country is in safe hands, but it is definitely in fit, well-toned hands.


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