This is a piece I did for a really nice independent magazine in Berlin called Hate. There’s pretty much no advertisement in the magazine, they sell for a fiver and then fund all the other costs they can’t meet by throwing raves. The piece is about sanitation in Dublin, and the place where Irish dumps go to die.
Sanitation arrived late in Dublin. Early Dubliners shit where they ate and they made no bones about it. It wasn’t until the British visited and taught us to be ashamed of our movements that we introduced sanitation to Ireland. This is a story about spending a day in Dublin’s main sanitation plant.
The largest sanitation plant in Dublin, and also Europe, is in a place called Ringsend. They could have constructed the plant at Tolka, Bull Island or anywhere else along Dublin Bay, but instead they chose the euphemistically loaded, Ringsend. Town-planners have a sense of humour you could chop wood with.
Sanitation may have arrived late in Ireland but we were quick to put it on a pedestal. Not only is Ireland one of the only countries in Europe to not charge 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 all 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. The hope was that, spending a day at the sewage treatment plant would explain why.
Like a lover who can do no wrong, the first thing you notice when approaching the plant, is that its shit doesn’t smell. The building is enormous. It’s larger than five football pitches with four pools, stacked like IKEA shelving, full of different grades of yellow and brown. Yet, strolling up the drive the lack of stink nearly floors you. Last month there was a grand total of one odour complaint recorded, and for all we know it might have just been a damp dog asleep beneath a window. But as recently as two years ago they got as many as forty complaints in a month. You could blame the change on the new system of cleaning and distilling fluids they started using at the plant, but you could also claim it as a symbol of Ireland’s final steps towards divinity. Jesus’ piss, apparently, was sweeter than honey wine.
Paddy and Ciaran run the show at the sewage plant. Both are engineers. Paddy’s from the old school and Ciaran’s the young kid on the beat. 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 wish on someone who’d just crawled their way into Europe, requires a handful of degrees.
“Some people might call us shitheads,” says Ciaran, “But they wouldn’t try it to our face.”
“Treating waste is a very complex process,” he begins. “Dublin City is shaped like a basin and the waste moves rapidly from the suburbs to here in Ringsend.”
I ask him when’s the plant at its busiest.
“Well, you’d think Sunday morning after a night on the Guinness, wouldn’t you? But it all evens itself out,” he reports.
I had a sit down this morning, I say, by what time should it be worming its way to you?
“It could be here already.”
It’s comforting to know that. A happy reunion, like when you catch a glimpse of your luggage doing turns on the airport carousel while you’re walking into baggage claims.
Do you ever hide the details of your job, I ask.
“It wouldn’t exactly be the first thing you tell a girl on a night out,” says Ciaran.
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 brown into a tanker that brought it – RAW – a few minutes off shore then dumped it overboard. And they wonder why, for an island nation, the Irish have such an aversion towards going into the sea. The men who worked at the plant grew so immune to the smell that they’d even have their sandwiches on the edge of the pool, their boots splish-splashing in the mess below.
Today, however the plant is clean as a whistle. Solids, the euphemism I probably should have used from the start to keep the ladies reading, 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 the sterilizing process 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 what comes out of Irish people, it would mean we were a nation of cannibals.
Bacteria go to work and chew what’s left into liquid. Then a UV machine performs the coup de grace before the liquid 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.
After an afternoon at the plant, you re-enter the city with a certain spring in your step. The air is lighter. 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. Ireland used to be a dark and scary place to find yourself unexpectedly pregnant in. Nowadays, condoms block the pipes. And that’s a great improvement.
The Irish are a nation of shit generators. Be it the conventional sort that comes from our stomach, or the more theatrical brand that accompanies our speech. But if that shit can be turned into something that actually cleans the city and makes it a better place for our grandchildren, and their children and their robot masters, then you’ve got to say that our shit, like good cream, will one day rise to the top.