This appeared in this month’s Totally Dublin. Freud suggested there were three types of fixation: oral, anal and genital. This story is mostly about the middle one.
A log’s tale / A Toilet Read
Totally Dublin’s first skatalogical guide to Dublin City and its rims.
In Germany, you don’t find books or magazines in the bathrooms. Neither do you find crude etchings of Roman bath times or witty warnings to wipe the seatie, sweetie. Germans go to the Kino, the Bierhalle and the nudist park to be entertained; when they go to the bathroom, they’re only interested in self-discovery.
You see German toilets are built with shelving units, unlike ours which are modelled on deep wells. When a German pushes one out they get to see the fruit of their womb, and all we get’s a plop and a splash as the pee, remarkably, tries to climb back from whence it came.
The Germans know their shit. And because of that you’ve got to say they’re some of the healthiest people in Europe. Not only are they 65 years without a genocide, but they emerged from the last recession debt free and with the keys for half a dozen Greek islands in their pockets.
In light of this revelation maybe Ireland could benefit from some anal gazing? Perhaps there are messages in the mud, smoke on the water, gold in the brown?
In order to verify this, we took a strange ride out to a rare and mostly unpeopled patch of Dublin called East Ringsend, to the capital’s sewage treatment works. If you’ve made it to the bathroom, then it’s made it here.
The complex is remarkable, but it wasn’t always like this.
Sanitation arrived late in Dublin. Remember the Viking Experience on Essex Street? It operated out of a church back in the glory days of Temple Bar, when it was full of squats and crack dens and served as ample fodder for parents who wanted to warn their kids of the consequences of not doing their ekker before Home & Away. The highlight of that tour was the smell. Early Dubliners shat where they ate and made no bones about it. And it wasn’t until the British arrived and taught us shame that we introduced sanitation to Ireland.
And then we put it on a pedestal. Not only is Ireland one of the only countries in Europe to not charge – directly – for water, it also has one of the most sophisticated sewage treatment networks in Christendom. In other capitals, waste travels along rickety Roman basins monitored by rats and pederasts; in Dublin, it’s like the Tube on a rare day when good services are operating on Central, Circle and District lines. Yes, we Irish have daily movements like any other nation but we manage to sweep it under the carpet with alarming speed and efficiency. Maybe an afternoon at the sewage plant would help explain why?
Like dating someone out of your league, the first thing you notice when approaching the plant, is that its shit doesn’t smell. The lack of stink nearly floors you. Last month there was a grand total of one odour complaint recorded. As recent as two years ago they could get as many as 30 in a month, but caps and seals have been rigorously employed to deal with gas leaks.
It’s larger than five football pitches with giant swimming pools that you know only too well are full of leftover Dublin, yet amazingly, even in the belly of the beast, there’s minimal reek. You establish that the air contains a heaviness and a warmness and a vaguely perceptible dampness, but it’s not unpleasant. And in fact, situated as it is, by the sea, you’d go so far as to say it feels positively Mediterranean. Ask the O’Connor family who live in trailers next door. They don’t mind, and they’re not going anywhere fast. The kids have fields full of stones to throw at the cars and Mrs. O’ Connor never runs out long stretches to erect washing lines. It’s a little corner of paradise. And if living beside a sewage plant is the price you pay for peace then so be it. Travellers in Ireland don’t live very long anyway.
Paddy and Ciaran run the show at the sewage plant. Both are engineers. Paddy’s from the old school and Ciaran’s the young buck on the prowl. They’re the classic Donnie Brasco twosome with a little less shine and polish. They’re engineers. Their names are bookended with acronymns. In modern Ireland, a job you wouldn’t even wish on an immigrant, requires a degree.
“Some people might call us shitheads,” says Ciaran, “But they wouldn’t try it to our face.”
Ciaran’s a Dub and he wears it on his sleeve like a gay who’s just moved up from the country. Paddy comes from Dublin, but he’s no Dub.
“It’s a very complex process,” he begins but I interrupt him immediately to ask when’s their heaviest period of the week.
“Well, you’d think Sunday morning after a night on the Guinness, wouldn’t you? But it all evens itself out.”
I had a sit down on Parliament Street this morning, by what time should it be worming its way to you?
“The city’s shaped like a basin,” he says, “It could be here already.”
It’s comforting to know that. A frantic reunion, like when you catch a glimpse of your luggage doing turns on the airport carousel while you’re walking into baggage claims.
Paddy chuckles in the background and offloads most of the answers to Ciaran. It’s a bond reinforced by the strangeness of their work. They’re a good team, and it’s going to be heart breaking at the end of this movie when Paddy shops Ciaran to the police. Maybe it doesn’t have to end up that way?
“It wouldn’t exactly be the first thing you tell a girl on a night out,” says Ciaran and jerks and dives dodging photo opps like they were blossom bullets.
Dublin got serious about sewage back in the 1880s and started to build the plant at Ringsend. Back then the boys would climb right into the pools and scrape the dookie into a tanker that brought raw sewage a few miles off shore then dumped it. And they wonder why, for an island nation, have the Irish such apathy towards swimming in open water. The men grew so immune to the smell that they’d even have their sandwiches on the edge of the pool. Marvelling at the sun flashing rays across the North Side, horsing into a Brennan’s (DANIEL: change accordingly dependant on advertiser’s darkest wishes) batch with their feet dangling in filth below. It was a decent job at a time when there weren’t many. On windy days, of which there were many, residents from as far north as Howth could sometimes catch a whiff of the plant in their back gardens. There are plant-facing windows along the bay that had signs glued to the inside saying ‘never ever open’.
Today, however the plant is almost odourless and clean as a whistle. Solids, the euphemism I probably should have used from the start to keep tender readers onside, reach a 6mm mesh where they are filtered into a settlement tank. Anything that isn’t at least 95% water rises to the top inside the settlement tank. A metallic jaw then scalps the solids and begins sterilizing thus reducing them to methane gas and biological fertilizer. This type of fertilizer is like steroids for crops. It’s so strong that the government allocate it in rations, but perhaps at heart they’re just afraid that if Irish vegetables are fertilized by Irish people, it might encourage widespread cannibalism.
The water which is left, is filtered through twenty-four sequencing reactors, which are stacked six stories high like a car park. Bacteria go to work and chew what’s left into liquid. Then a UV machine performs the coup de grace before your piddle is released into Dublin Bay. But don’t panic. It’s safe to go back into the water. The treated pee actually helps clean Dublin Bay. The colours on those blue flags don’t run.
After an afternoon at the plant, you re-enter the city with a certain spring in your step. The air’s fresher. You no longer feel like you’re using the shower after someone’s taken a dump. The city’s OK. Dublin’s not so bad. It’s had its share of embarrassments and a murky past that comes back to life when Ciaran talks about the unwanted babies they used to find at the plant. They were tiny enough to be flushable. The workers had a graveyard for them. Nowadays, condoms block the pipes. And that’s a great improvement.
We are a nation of shit generators. Be it the conventional sort that comes out our bottom holes, or the more theatrical brand that colours our speech. But if that shit can be turned into something that actually cleans our capital and makes it a better place for our grandchildren, and their children and their robot masters, then maybe the only thing we need to take from those over-achieving, continent-grabbing, Dirty Sanchez-loving Germans, is some more muesli.