Mind your pees and queues

An Cailín Rua

LESSER-SPOTTED LOO A public coin-operated toilet next to Sandymount Martello Tower and beach in Sandycove, Co Dublin.

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

Normally the preserve of the certain few, our newfound freedom has resulted in nearly everyone talking sh*te these days. Unfortunately, talking is all most of us can do, because once you leave home, it’s nigh impossible to find a place to do any more.
Ireland’s lack of public toilet facilities has been a hot topic for decades, as those of us working in tourism are aware. But never has it been in sharper focus. The hospitality sector has generously picked up the slack on this for years, but with Covid and closures, that option is off the table.
People who have been confined mostly to their homes for a year are now being ‘released’ only to find themselves frantically searching for places to relieve themselves while out and about. Many are legitimately anxious about going far in case they cannot access a toilet. In a supposedly modern, developed country. In 2021.
In my day job, I regularly get complaints about the lack of public facilities, and while the local authority has designated some of its own buildings as places where people can access toilets, this is not advertised, and tends to be a 9-to-5 solution that places an additional, unpleasant burden on staff. For a country that places such importance on tourism, this creates a poor impression and inconveniences visitors daily.
Of course, as is typical of this country, the issue disproportionately affects women and children. Any woman ever needing a toilet urgently during her period will know the meaning of the word panic. Not to mention pregnancy or postpartum issues. Children also suffer, as do those with certain health issues.
Even when toilets exist, they fail to consider basic biology and the obvious need to provide extra toilets for women. When have you ever seen a queue outside a men’s loo?
In Dublin, until recently, there were two public toilets available to the entire city. Compare this to the capital in the 1970s, when there were over 60 such facilities, and they were staffed. Most towns in Ireland had toilets, so what went wrong? Surely the primary function of our local authorities should be to ensure that our taxes are used to provide basic services.
There’s a lot to unpick here, and unfortunately, while we can get outraged – as many of us are – there is no denying that the problem holds a mirror up to Irish society as a whole.
Firstly, public toilets are expensive to provide and maintain, and we live in an increasingly capitalist society. The only stream they don’t generate is revenue.
Secondly, public toilets attract anti-social behaviour. And it would also be remiss not to acknowledge that our local authorities could invest a fortune every year in providing the brightest, cleanest and most modern public toilets in the world, and they would do so in absolute certainty that the public would almost instantly destroy them through vandalism, thoughtlessness and poor hygiene. Through our astonishing lack of respect for the people around us, we are our own worst enemies.
Compare us to Japan, where the social contract that exists means people behave with the needs of others in mind, and public toilets are plentiful and spotless. Even the women’s restrooms, baby seats are attached to stall walls so women can relax. New Zealand is another example, where toilets are plentiful and in places are designed as works of art.
Can we be innovative about this? Realistically, there is no big budget or nationwide plan for public toilets, though it’s great to see Fáilte Ireland investing in outdoor facilities.
Businesses cannot be expected to provide this service as a given, but can agreement be made nationally that those that do are incentivised, perhaps by means of meaningful reduction in their rates or licences in return for clearly signalling toilet access outside their premises?
Are there cost-effective eco-friendly options that could be rolled out? Could members of the public get involved, by offering access to their toilets, perhaps even for a small fee, and registering on a mapping service so that anyone could find their nearest loo?  
They say you can judge a civilisation by how it cares for its most vulnerable. But you can also judge a country for how it provides for those in need of a pee.