Seaweed Bathing: Kilcullen Baths at Enniscrone
I hit peak bathing experience on an unlikely, wind-blown Wednesday morning in mid April, in Ireland.
Huddled away on the North Atlantic coast, the Enniscrone Killcullen’s Seaweed Baths are the main feature of what is an otherwise unprepossessing town in County Sligo. The traditional bath house has been playing host to bathers since 1912, the same year the Titanic set sail on its fateful voyage.
The concept is very simple: it is, quite literally, a bath full of seaweed. Fresh seaweed is gathered every morning from the beach and brought in for the purpose. But as their website states, “to merely confine it to a factual description is to do a great injustice to what it is.”
“Tradition along the west coast of Ireland holds that the practice of bathing in hot water and Seaweed provides relief from painful symptoms of rheumatism and arthritis. The therapeutic power of the Seaweed Bath is attributed to the high concentration of Iodine that occurs naturally in Sea Water and in Seaweed.”
Apparently, seaweed fronds can carry up to 20,000 times the concentration of iodine of the water in which they grow. Stopping off at Enniscrone on a road trip of the Wild Atlantic Way, we sloped in, unannounced and asked about a bath. As it happens, we struck lucky - there was a twin bathing room available immediately. This is clearly a rarity, as we later on overheard the lady on the desk telling a hopeful caller that the next day was fully booked. The seaweed baths are very popular.
As we’d just walked in off the streets, we felt unprepared for bathing, so asked what we needed - shampoo? Swimsuit? None of those would be necessary, we were reassured. Towels were provided and to soap away the seaweed infused water would be to undo the good work of the bath. I love spontaneity, so to be able to dive straight in, without worrying about having to prepare, was a boon.
We waited in the airy, light conservatory reception, merely yards from where the Atlantic lapped the shore under grey skies. When we were ushered through with a surly “they’re ready”, the baths really were a sight to behold. Emerald green glazed and cream tiles adorned the walls, green slatted wood the floor. Big, chunky, no-nonsense porcelain tubs, deep and long enough to accommodate my 5ft 9 frame. The fixtures and fittings were the same that had been there since Victorian times: a brass pipe shower tacked to mahogany panels, bath tap faucet resembling the chunky brass end of a fire hose.
Following an initial awkward undressing (I was on this trip with my dad so we quickly agreed “you don’t look if I don’t”!), my next challenge was how to approach the bath. It was filled with soupy fronds and I was slightly scared of getting amongst. After some deliberations, I decided the best way was to just climb in and lie on top of it and, once the initial squeamishness of limbs entangling with algae had faded, I realised it provided a comfy, spongy bed on which to repose. I asked dad how he was interacting with the seaweed and he said that he was lying under it and once I tried that, it really was heavenly. My body got to appreciate he full depth of the bath and I lay back, clinging the seaweed comfortingly to my chest. As well as being sensuous to squish and hold it against my skin, it felt therapeutic, imagining the oils releasing and the iodine doing it’s good work. It was also quite fun to play with it, making mermaid hair, slimy dreadlocks and pretending we were sea monsters, emerging from the murky brown waters.
The water in the Kilcullen Baths is directly pumped in from the sea below: in fact, when we went walking on the shore afterwards, we saw the pipe that brings it in from the Atlantic. It is then heated, so bathers can enjoy the combined therapy of seawater with the luxury of a hot bath. I’m a huge fan of the healing benefits of cold water showers, and it was a pleasure to stand up, bring the icy water down from the huge brass shower head, appreciate the zinging cold and then plunge back down into the hot bath and its soupy seaweed joy. It was even better when combined with a go in the - slightly claustrophobic - but fun Victorian steam machine, which you had to sit in, close the lid and manually pump the steam inside by way of a wooden handle.
Although no time limit had been set for our bath, we had to reluctantly drag ourselves away, for the open road beckoned and we had a tight itinerary. I can honestly say that I emerged from that bath feeling more refreshed, alive and content than I had felt in years. I kept the salt and iodine on my skin for maximum mermaid effect and spent the day fresh, revitalised and thoroughly cleansed.
Postscript - we brought back some seaweed in a box from Kilcullen and my dad has recently had the seaweed bath experience at home. He is suffering with problems with his back and he said that after his bath, it was the first time he had slept, pain-free, in weeks….