Megan Etherton often takes her two children, one four years and the other nine months, to Eamonn Ceannt Park in Crumlin, where they live.
She likes to bring a friend along sometimes too, she says. And might tempt them with the offer of a coffee from the Tram Café. It’s also handy to have toilets there for the kids to use.
So Etherton was disappointed, she says, when she noticed that the café was no longer open four days a week. “It was such a boost to the park.”
A green sign on the railings used to read “Open 7 Days a Week” in white writing. The “7” has been written over in black. Now it says “3”. The café is now open Friday to Sunday, the sign says.
“It’s a shame to see an amenity being reduced like this,” says Etherton. “I personally feel they help parents with kids create a nice outing and ensure there’s something for all ages to enjoy.”
Dublin City Council’s strategy for how to open public toilets across the city, without having to run them, is to grant permits for small cafés or coffee docks with toilets to operate in parks – and for their staff to clean the loos.
But in Eamonn Ceannt Park, “the café operator has advised that a 7-day week café is not commercially viable at the moment”, said a council spokesperson.
The model has faced issues elsewhere, too. In Sean Moore Park in Ringsend, the first contractor pulled out after it judged the location unviable because of the cost of connecting utilities. The council said in July that it was reassessing the feasibility of utility connections there.
And, across town in Clontarf, Deirdre Nichol, the chairperson of the Clontarf Residents Association, says the council has abandoned plans for a coffee dock with toilets attached on the Clontarf Promenade.
Councillors across all parties continue to call on the council to provide permanent public toilets in the city’s parks, says Right to Change Councillor Pat Dunne.
The coffee dock solution in Crumlin worked while it was open seven days a week, he says, but three days is not acceptable. “It creates real barriers to some older people using the parks.”
The solution, says Nichol, in Clontarf, is for the council to provide standalone toilets, which do not need to be connected to coffee docks, just as other councils do. “Why is it beyond the capability of Dublin City Council to put in public toilets?” she asks.
Dublin City Council hasn’t yet responded to queries sent Tuesday afternoon as to whether the opening hours in Eamonn Ceannt Park may be cut further in winter, and how it responds to the argument that it shows coffee docks are not the solution to public toilets.
Wait until the weekend?
On a sunny Tuesday at the end of August, the toilets in Eamonn Ceannt Park are shut and the gates to the railings that enclose the shuttered Tram Café and the football club are locked.
But the park is bustling. Five boys are playing football, women walk dogs, others stride through the park with headphones in, and a family sits at a nearby picnic table eating sandwiches.
If the café isn’t viable in summer what will happen in the wintertime? asks Etherton. “Surely it’s the busiest time of the year.”
She is surprised to hear that the café isn’t viable as she saw lots of people using it, she says. “I always thought it was busy mid-week.”
(Tram Café didn’t respond to queries before publication.)
In 2021, the council tendered for an operator, stating a preference for one that could run seven days a week. It appointed the Tram Café in November 2021.
The spokesperson for Dublin City Council didn’t say whether the contract will be renewed. “This will be reviewed by DCC in due course with regard to a future tender.”
The toilets cannot be left open without supervision, they said, “as they would be exposed to abuse and potential vandalism”.
“However, they are open and available at the weekends when the park amenities and facilities are most in use,” said the spokesperson.
Etherton says that older people and people at home with young kids want to use the park midweek as well.
A citywide lack of loos
Following a public outcry during Covid-19 restrictions, Dublin City Council opened two public toilets in the city centre – one near Stephen’s Green and another at Wolfe Tone Square near the Jervis Centre.
Councillors continued to battle for more toilets throughout the city. Council managers pitched tendering for coffee dock operators as a potential solution to the lack of public lavatories.
In January 2022 at a meeting of councillors for the north central area, independent Councillor Damien O’Farrell tabled a motion calling for the council to provide stand-alone public toilets.
Karl Mitchell, a council executive manager, said the council was in the process of installing six new public toilet facilities, together with coffee kiosks, across the city. “They provide an excellent service.”
Among those six was one on Clontarf Promenade and one in Sean Moore Park, he said
Nichol, the chairperson of the Clontarf Residents Association, says the council didn’t go ahead with that plan because the council had stipulated that it wouldn’t put the new coffee dock close to any existing business that sells coffee.
In July 2022, a Dublin City Council official wrote to councillors to say it was abandoning plans for toilets on Clontarf prom, emails show. “Regrettably, local objections curtailed plans to put a unit into Clontarf Promenade and there are no plans at the present time to look at Clontarf again.”
Nichol says that locals had not objected to the first suggested location, which was near the junction with Haddon Road. “While our request was for toilets and not for a coffee dock, nobody had raised any issue with the Haddon Road location as far as we are aware.”
People want public toilets available when they walk the prom in Clonarf, she says, including in the evenings and in winter.
She doesn’t think toilets in Clontarf would need to be supervised throughout the day, she says, but the council would need to pay someone to clean and lock them, like other councils do.
She cannot understand why South Dublin County Council and Fingal County Council can operate public toilets, and Dublin City Council has deemed it impossible to do so.
“The city council should provide public lavatories,” she says. “Other Dublin councils are doing it.”
Worth a penny
Back in Crumlin, Dunne, the councillor, says that when he was young there were two sets of public toilets close to the Eamonn Ceannt Park.
One set was on Sundrive Road, he says, and another was where the council is planning to build its new maintenance depot.
“When Ireland was a much less affluent country, we managed to provide public toilets,” he says.
There is cross-party agreement among councillors that the council should run toilets in the city’s parks, he says, as most city councils do. “If you go to most cities you either have portaloos or supervised toilets.”
Where toilets are staffed there is often a charge for entry. This practice gave rise to the expression to “spend a penny”, he says.
If there is a cost involved in staffing toilets, it would be better to charge people to use the loo than to have no facilities, he says.
How much it would cost the council to run a toilet, per pee, would depend to some extent on how much a toilet is used.
In April 2022, a council official said that it was costing the council the equivalent of €7 per pee for a toilet they had put in on Ryder’s Row.
In Eamonn Ceannt Park, the council is about to embark on a construction project, says Dunne. “The ideal solution would be permanent public toilets as part of the new council depot.”