In the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, the custom of visiting spas and hydrotherapy establishments was a popular pastime amongst the middle and upper classes of the day. The ritual of “Taking the Waters” in these places was seen as an essential part of maintaining good health and, in some cases, curing ill health. A combination of drinking or bathing in mineralised waters along with the clean air of the countryside helped many a city-dweller to return home feeling energised, even if the efficacy of the waters was far from proven.
In South County Dublin, the most famous of these resorts was Lucan’s Spa Hotel. A curative spring was discovered, near the hotel’s current location, in 1758 by local landowner Agmondisham Vesey whilst out walking along the banks of the Liffey. Smelling a sulphurous gas, he traced the “Rotten Egg” smell to a spring that emerged near the Liffey’s bank in Lucan Demesne. Over the next two centuries this discovery, aided by the ease of access provided by the Lucan Electric Tram, would provide Lucan with its most famous facility, the hotel having opened in the building which now houses the Lucan County Bar. In its day, the Spa was said to rival Bath as a health resort. Indeed a mere eight years after the spring’s discovery, the waters were being sent to Dr. Steevens’ hospital where it was used to aid in the cure of ulcers. There was an underground passageway from the grounds of the hotel which led to the Liffey Banks and the spa house.
Lucan Spa House beside the Liffey in what is now St. Catherine’s Park
The tunnel was only recently removed as part of the N7 road widening project. The hotel expanded greatly over the years; the current building with its distinctive bronze “Onion Dome” roof was built in 1891.
Templeogue, of course, had its Spawell House. It lay alongside the Tallaght Road, by the Dodder River close to Templeogue Village. It was constructed in 1703 and became an inn called ‘The Domville Arms and Three Tuns’. The curative properties of the ferruginous (iron-bearing) spa waters in the grounds of the house were noted in the 1730s. In its heyday, people visited for the chance to escape to the countryside and indulge in the conviviality and party atmosphere for which Spawell was famous. Alas its popularity was short-lived as the waters lost their curative qualities around 1750.
Spawell in 1905 (Above) – from The Neighbourhood of Dublin and below (courtesy of the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage) as it appears today.
It is now a private house occupied by the previous owners of the leisure centre across the road which now bears the Spawell name.
Tallaght had its own foray into the area of hydrotherapy and spa treatments. Nicholas Roe, of the famous Dublin distilling family whose premises in Thomas Street produced Roe’s Whiskey, built a house called Johnville in the hills overlooking the then wide open spaces around the then small hamlet of Jobstown.
William Domville Handcock, in his 1899 book “The History and Antiquities of Tallaght” describes Roe as having created “a very pretty garden, which sloped down the hill. There is a stream through it, which was led into ponds, waterfalls, and fountains”.
After Roe’s death the house fell into disrepair, but was bought by a Dr. Heinrich Waldemar Luther in 1845. Dr. Luther’s qualifications would not look out of place in an advertisement in today’s newspapers. He was a practitioner of homeopathy and hydrotherapy, and proceeded to reincarnate the house as a medical establishment utilising Turkish baths, steam rooms, mud baths, plunge pools and, according to Handcock, “contrivances for boiling out all diseases”. Unfortunately Dr. Luther’s efforts to create a spa complex to rival Lucan’s and Templeogue’s were in vain. The Blessington Steam Tramway (which would have brought clients to his door) was thirty years away; the resort proved to be too out of the way to attract customers in sufficient numbers to make it viable, and it closed some time after 1860 when the establishment was last mentioned in the British Journal of Homeopathy.
Below is the ruin of Johnville in 1905, taken from The Neighbourhood of Dublin
Dr. Luther moved to Cork and by 1872 he had re-established a hydrotherapy and homeopathy centre there, this time reserving his Turkish Baths for the use of that city’s poor. By 1905, Weston St. John Joyce, in his book “Neighbourhood of Dublin” found the house in ruins, albeit with fireplaces, marble mantelpieces, ornamental fountains etc. still in evidence.
The site of Johnville still exists to this day as part of a private residence situated just off the Blessington Road, and tantalising evidence of its heyday can still be seen.
The approach to Johnville as it appears today
Although the ruin of the house was levelled in the early ‘70s to make way for a family home, various outbuildings and walls that comprised the Johnville estate still exist, along with the river itself, still boasting brick archways and culverts (below) which were originally part of the landscaping and water features Handcock so vividly described.
Enormous stumps of ancient trees, long ago felled, dot the landscape all around. A small pile of broken clay cresting, originally part of a roof apex, along with some ancient steel piping (below) are almost certainly remnants of the Johnville of old.
With Special Thanks to Peter Healy for access to the site of Johnville