Belfast Telegraph

Sacre bleu... why can't Ireland emulate Paris when it comes to answering the call of nature?

Public provision: Sacre Coeur, where tourists are charged one euro
Public provision: Sacre Coeur, where tourists are charged one euro
Dublin's O'Connell Street

By Mary Kenny

An English tourist visiting Ireland has been complaining about the lack of toilet facilities around the country. There is much to attract visitors to the Wild Atlantic Way or 'Ireland's Hidden Heartlands', but public toilets in these lovely landscapes can be few and far between.

Well, the French probably represent the gold standard in the provision of public loos: the first urinoir (sometimes dubbed, more vulgarly, pissoir) was opened in Paris in 1839 and by 1914 there were 4,000 of these conveniences.

They were mocked as an example of French lack of inhibition on bodily matters, but that's ridiculous: the public lavatory is a sensible, comforting and sometimes urgent public provision. George Bernard Shaw saw it as a symbol of social progress.

The benefits of such progress are listed in a best-selling, if unusual, tourist guide to Paris called Ou Faire Pipi a Paris? by Cecile Briand (Where to wee in Paris?).

Ms Briand has surveyed 250 Parisian toilets which are open to the public. These include the Sanisettes; the 'superloos', which have replaced the old urinoirs, now demolished as being a little too indelicate and open - and a little too odorous.

But this Michelin guide of conveniences casts its net much wider: museums, galleries, libraries, some parking lots, hospitals, swimming-pools, universities, business centres, the Stock Exchange, department stores - all have loos which can be accessed by the public, if you know where to find them.

Cemeteries have some excellent toilets. At Montparnasse cemetery, you can answer the call of nature in lyrical proximity to the resting place of Guy de Maupassant and Tristan Tzara, founder of Dada-ism. The renowned Pere-Lachaise cemetery - where Oscar Wilde reposes - has two sets of public loos, including accessibility for those in wheelchairs, and an especially calming ambience.

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In the cloistered garden of Catherine Laboure - the Miraculous Medal saint - there's a beautiful little loo, which deserves 'a place of honour', set in a pretty little white house with a wooden tiled roof. Convenient for those attending their devotions in the exquisite Miraculous Medal chapel in the Rue du Bac.

Public parks often have very acceptable lavatories, and the Jardin de Luxembourg is provided with three sets. Bravo!

The Irish Cultural Centre, in the 5th arrondissement, wins plaudits for a small but attractive facility, "worthy of a camping site with three stars: numerous and light-filled", and surrounded by little pathways and garden tables.

The famed Sacre Coeur basilica features a recommended loo, but unlike most others, there's a charge of €1. There is also a superloo nearby, which is free.

Among the most comfortable lavatories in Paris are those within the municipal offices of the various arrondissements - the mairies, where the local mayor presides. They are open to the public, even if not advertised as such. The advice is, just walk in the door and you will usually see a sign for toilettes: nobody will stop you (aside from an occasional bag-search). Sometimes these town halls run exhibitions, which encourage public access. I was in the 6th arrondissement mairie recently, and the loos were excellent and spotlessly maintained.

The only restrictions around many of these conveniences are opening-hours - many won't be open in the evening. You can, of course, always visit a cafe to use their facilities, but the etiquette - everywhere, I think - is to buy a drink to qualify as a customer. Catch-22: drinks may mean further need for the bathroom.

Still, it's great to know that there are so many locations which provide facilities of comfort and relief, and every city should emulate Paris in this respect. I have heard Dublin described as 'a disaster zone' in the provision of public toilets (the much-missed Clery's in O'Connell Street had great loos). And for travellers around the country, it seems to be hit and miss: some motorways have improved their facilities but the Dublin-Waterford road route is said to be "only recommended for those tourists with extra-strong bladders".

True, men can, in an emergency, answer a call of nature behind some discreet bush, but it's not that easy for women - and not that dignified either. Toilets are a modern facility which should be part of the tourist experience - and the native dweller on his or her travels, too.

Step forward, John Concannon, the creative genius who devised The Gathering for the Irish diaspora and the stunningly successful Wild Atlantic Way, which re-branded the Irish coastline to magnificent effect.

Mr Concannon now works for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, but surely he could take some time off to conceive of a campaign which I might provisionally call 'Wee in Erin'? We can jest over such matters, but they're serious. All European societies are now ageing societies, and that means more public loos. Tourism is big business in Ireland and ever-growing too. But who wants tourists to travel around with that uncomfortable, pressing need for the bathroom?

Some enterprising travel writer could kick off proceedings by composing a survey of accessible toilets around the country - and where and whether hospitality centres allow their lavatories to be public conveniences. It would be a source of relief to many.

Belfast Telegraph


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