Doctor Richard Barter: Hydropathy in Ireland

Dr. Richard Barter (1802-1870) was the founder and proprietor of St. Ann’s Hydropathic Establishment, the first in Ireland, located near Blarney in County Cork where he successfully treated illnesses using cold water as a therapeutic agent. He was a man of social conscience, respected and much liked hydropathist who was part of a growing Water Cure Movement. Archival images of St. Ann’s Hill, Hydropathic Establishment, Co. Cork show a very elegant building.
Later he worked with colleagues for revival of Turkish and the hot moist air bath of the Romans that had been lost and forgotten in the British Isles for around fourteen centuries. At a time when the majority of Victorians had no indoor running water, let alone any experience of taking what we think of as an ordinary bath, he and his advocates argued that a network of public Turkish baths should be built at public expense. There were many technical problems which had to be resolved and which gave rise to much controversy particularly between proprietors of rival establishments. Many were built and extensively used throughout the British Isles and several existed in Ireland. The biography and bibliography on different types of water cures and his other work is widely documented.
Part of his legacy is the popular Irish Roman baths. With some variations they feature in modern spa facilities providing a three hour circuit that combines a system of the hot, moist air of Roman baths and the warm, dry air of Irish bath traditions. For added invigoration there are hot and cold dip pools and spaces for relaxation that help to enhance the feeling of health and wellness.
Richard Barter M.D.
Richard Barter was born on the Barter family estate, Cooldaniel, in the parish of Kilmichael, County Cork, Ireland. His father died when he was still a young child. He was left to his own devices, his mother apparently preferring his older brother.
Being accustomed to look after himself, he grew up developing an independent mind and an ability to act with firmness to bring to fruition projects in which he believed even though he might be criticised for them or, on occasion, be subjected to ridicule.
In 1828 he completed his studies at the Royal College of Physicians in London, passing his examinations with distinction. Moving back to Ireland, he took up an appointment in Inniscarra as dispensary physician while, at the same time, building up a successful medical practice of his own. According to a biographer, he was well liked and one wealthy satisfied patient “settled an annuity of fifty pounds a year on Dr. Barter during her life”.
Soon after the cholera epidemic of 1832 he left the dispensary and went to live in Mallow where he met and married a Miss Newman. They returned to Inniscarra where Barter became interested in farming, and was one of the founders of the Agricultural Society of the County of Cork. (His son, also Richard, was later to be knighted for his services to agriculture).
A distinguished physician, Dr. Barter’s interest in the use of cold water as a therapeutic agent began after hearing a well travelled military man, Captain T Claridge, speak when he visited Cork during the course of a lecture tour in 1842. A convincing advocate of hydropathy, author of a book on the subject, Claridge had received successful treatment from Vincent Preissnitz in Silesia, a pioneer in the use of cold water therapy. Barter made trips to places in Malvern and Ben Rhydding where he witnessed the practical application of processes he had hitherto only heard, or read, about.
He opened St. Ann’s Hydropathic Establishment in 1843 paying scant attention to the most determined and paltry opposition from the Irish medical faculty. Its opening was greeted with every form of ridicule and contempt, yet strange to say patients dropped in one by one to “the mad Doctor”. The hydro was an almost immediate success and there were soon many residential patients. St. Ann’s hydro remained open until 1952 and has since fallen into ruin. A map and images of its neglect and overgrowth are featured in Farquin Blake’s book Abandoned Ireland on his website.
Ita Marguet, February 2012
Note: Acknowledgement is given to sources used in this text. It follows research into the name and origins of Irish Roman baths. Other texts include Health and Wellness: Baths in Saillon and Leukerbad, Switzerland (2010) by Ita Marguet.