Michael Moynihan: Public loos are no longer a private matter

We may not wish to talk about it but Covid-19 has highlighted the lack of decent and plentiful public toilets in Cork City, writes Michael Moynihan
Michael Moynihan: Public loos are no longer a private matter
Seinfeld's George Costanza (Jason Alexander), second from left, prides himself on knowledge of public loos.

Business brought me to the centre of Cork the other evening, though I acknowledge that ‘centre’ may be a movable feast, particularly with the boundaries being redrawn recently.

(Note to self, future column topic possibility: where is the centre of Cork?) For our purposes I take it no one objects to that wide open space in front of the old Cudmore’s shop at the top of Winthrop Street as a centre point.

My precise commitments need not detain us as a far more pressing engagement arose spontaneously just as I turned that particular corner.

I needed to visit the boys’ room.

Apologies for the delicacy while admitting freely to the hypocrisy. While in theory I am all in favour of frankness and candour when discussing one’s natural bodily functions, in practice I find myself saying something along the lines of ‘I’m just, you know, there, yeah, look’ or some such.

Which is part of the problem. Absolutely.

To complicate matters further I was accompanied by two persons I have previously referred to as unpaid research assistants, though ‘children’ would probably be more accurate.

They too required facilities. And they required them NOW.

This is neither joke nor exaggeration. If you have ever wrangled small children anywhere you will know that the journey must be plotted better than Scott’s plan to reach the South Pole, and Scott didn’t have to take minuscule bladders into account when plotting, unless Evans had another reason for leaving the tent that time.

(I recall one notorious trip to Donegal made by my household which entailed three toilet stops before we had even left Co Cork.) Consequently, the whereabouts of suitable facilities is a proper area of study for us all, and a matter of huge importance to the urban dweller everywhere.

In the TV comedy series, for instance, Seinfeld George Costanza prides himself on being able to name the closest available amenity to any named cross-street in New York.

“Anywhere in the city,” he tells his pal Jerry. “I'll tell you the best public toilet.

“Okay, Fifty-fourth and Sixth?” “Sperry Rand Building,” says George. “14th floor, Morgan Apparel. Mention my name — she'll give you the key.” He can’t be stumped, no matter the location (“Magnificent facilities” is his description of the Metropolitan Opera’s WC.) 

A century earlier, Joyce saw the humour in the same subject, with Leopold Bloom noting how appropriate it was to have a statue of Tom Moore on the public toilet near Trinity College: “He crossed under Tommy Moore’s roguish finger. They did right to put him up over a urinal: meeting of the waters.” (Joyce continued: “Ought to be places for women. Running into cakeshops.”) Well, we had neither George Costanza nor James Joyce to help us find facilities. So we considered our options.

Brown Thomas was open, but like most people we were trying to minimise our time in crowded shops, so we forged on.

Vocal representations were made by my companions to try Eason, but the closure of Insomnia upstairs there ruled that out as an option.

On we went along Patrick Street. Debenhams used to be a reliable option even if the queue for the ladies always seemed unchanging, unending and unmoving. But that recent closure has removed another haven from the already brief list of easily-accessible loos.

Into Merchant’s Quay Shopping Centre with us. Glad though we were to see that the public toilets near Dunnes Stores (upstairs) were open, all of the ladies who used to queue in Debenhams seemed to have moved en masse to recreate that queue in Merchant’s Quay.

No go.

At this stage one of my companions pointed out that there was a Dunnes Stores across from where our voyage had begun, and mightn’t there be some refuge there?

My other companion pointed out that we were staying out of busy shops and added — sensibly enough — that the toilets in both Brown Thomas and Dunnes were on the top floors, which would have made social distancing difficult.

Companion number one said that was picking on her, companion number two hotly denied same, but even after concluding a quick peace settlement I had to acknowledge their points.

The lack of decent and plentiful public toilets isn’t the most surprising aspect of this; it’s the lack of surprise at the lack of decent and plentiful public toilets.

The number of retail outlets closed in the city centre — both permanent and temporary — has made this all the more noticeable, of course. Our experience has no doubt been replicated by many other people — the visit to town is suddenly compromised because the traditional pit stops are no longer available due to the virus and its after-effects.

Oddly enough, this was an area where Cork once led rather than followed.

Older readers may recall — or recall being told about — ‘Klondyke’, a character from Cork’s past. In the 40s he decided to stand for election as a councillor for the Corporation.

His campaign was narrowly focused on one of the most glaring needs in the Cork of his time — a public toilet for ladies in the middle of the city.

Every speech ended with a common-sense plea — “You can't have a nation of healthy men unless you have healthy women too,” — but those same speeches usually featured a pithy appeal many current politicians could learn from.

Debenhams' on Patrick Street, Cork: a reliable spot for discreetly answering nature's call, before its closure.
Debenhams' on Patrick Street, Cork: a reliable spot for discreetly answering nature's call, before its closure.

No need to shout all at once about what happens with public toilets, either. I know they attract what is euphemistically called antisocial behaviour, or what is more accurately described as crime. People don’t favour public toilets because private toilets — in cafes and department stores, for instance — tend not to feature violence and drug use as participatory extras.

Could this not be addressed, though? Is security for reasonable public facilities that much of a stretch?

I have noted many high-minded proposals for the city in the wake of the virus, cycle lanes and pedestrianised streets, al fresco dining and underwater commuter trains (not all proposals accurate at time of writing).

Some of them strike me as narrow in appeal while laden with virtue, though that could be the sneer of an old cynic.

But here’s an issue which affects everyone and which, if addressed appropriately, would benefit all who work in or visit the city and improve the urban experience. It’s not fair to expect private enterprises to provide these facilities.

Don’t worry about us, by the way. We found relief soon enough by going to our stand-by town toilet, the one which never fails us when we’re desperate, the life-saver which has facilitated countless trips to the city.

I’m afraid I can’t share its exact location with you, for obvious reasons.

That’s private business.

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