Turkish baths in Ireland

Killarney: Killarney Hotel

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Victorian Turkish Baths: their origin, development, and gradual decline

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The Turkish Baths at the Killarney Hotel

Very little is known about these baths except that they were already reported to be open by 15 November 1859 when they were mentioned in a lecture given by Robert Wollaston in Cheltenham.

He describes the style, general location (near the station, at the end of the town), and beneficial effect, in a manner typical of many early accounts of the Turkish bath.

The Bath at Killarney, close to the Hotel and the Lakes, is remarkably elegant—it is on a small scale. Its structure is entirely Turkish, with domes and minarets. It succeeds extremely well, from the numerous visitors who frequent that splendid Hotel...for the accommodation of the thousands who visit those truly magnificent Lakes. After a long fatiguing day on the lakes and mountains, I never felt more absolute refreshment from the Bath which I took in the evening before I retired to rest, and repeated early next morning. The stiffness of limbs, arising from walking and riding many miles over rugged roads, was entirely removed, and the early symptoms of a threatening cold vanished like the morning dew.

Not everyone gave such a glowing account. Francis Drake, who visited the bath a couple of years later, clearly did not approve of the ventilation system. In an article in The Builder, later reprinted as a pamphlet, he wrote:

The baths under [Dr Barter's] supervision in Dublin, Cork, Blarney, Killarney, Belfast, and other places which I visited, are all upon the hypocaust principle, and subject to all the evils I have mentioned, notwithstanding the improvements he has made in ventilation. On one occasion I entered the Tepidarium of the Killarney bath, when ten men of the working-class were in it, and the effluvium was such that I was glad to make a precipitate retreat, and these men too were accustomed to the bath!

However, this criticism needs careful examination as it appends all Barter's other baths to the account of an incident in one of them. Drake is clearly against the use of the hypocaust, and the Killarney incident has been used as an argument against them, rather than being specifically directed against these particular baths.

Even more relevant is that Drake was not a disinterested critic. Shortly after this article was published, he was responsible for rebuilding the Turkish bath at the Newcastle-on-Tyne Infirmary using a system of heating which had just been patented by John Adams Bolton.

It should also be noted that Wollaston was not totally disinterested either. His lecture was part of a local campaign to persuade Cheltenham to build a Turkish bath.

When Queen Victoria visited Killarney soon after the baths opened in 1861, 'flags and banners waved from every quarter, particularly from the numerous spires of the Turkish Bath.' The Queen was staying with Lord Castlerosse who, according to the Morning Chronicle,

takes a great interest in the baths, which are furnished in a most elegant and superior manner, and wished her Majesty to see the Bijou at Killarney; but the pressure of time rendered it impossible. I think it due to him to mention the fact, because Ireland seems to me to be the best patient of this bath, and because its originator in this realm (honour to whom honour!) is now constructing a magnificent bath in Victoria-street, Westminster, at an outlay of £25,000, which will contain ten sets of hot baths, and be able to accommodate 700 persons daily'.

Such hopes were not to be realised, nor was the bath at Killarney overly successful. A few years later, an American visitor reported:

Took lodgings at the Railway Hotel; a large, well-kept house, with very few guests. The [Great Southern and Western] Railway Company had built this house, and at the same time a large elegant building for a 'Turkish Bath. 'Both this 'Bath' and the hotel are magnificent failures, financially. I was told that the Bath did not earn enough to pay for sweeping the dust out of it. But between the Hotel and the Bath lay a charming garden of about an acre, a lawn ornamented with the most brilliant of flower beds and pretty bits of rock-work.

Although the Turkish baths appear to have closed shortly after this visit, the hotel—the first railway hotel to be built anywhere in Victoria's kingdom—survives still, clearly more successful than when originally built and, after being known for some time as The Malton, has reverted to its earlier, more widely known name, the Great Southern Killarney, which it first used in 1896.

This page last revised and enlarged 29 October 2018

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