25th October 2019

The Stories Behind The Magic of Ormeau Baths

Ormeau Baths holds a special kind of magic within its walls, the kind that’s only fully understood by its residents. It’s a magic that can’t be tamed and one that grabs a warm, welcoming and fascinating hold on those who walk through its doors. As you enter the co-working space, you step right into the stories, memories and precious sense of community that’s so proudly cultivated by those who call Ormeau Baths home to their business. 

And who better to share the behind-the-scenes of that magic than our very own Claire Dowds, General Manager of Ormeau Baths. 

Here, Claire shares a little insight into the previously best-kept secrets of Ormeau Baths, what sets Ormeau Baths apart and the inside scoop on what brings the space to life. 

Honouring the Heritage

In 1888, the Ormeau Baths were built to provide 36 public baths and two swimming pools for the surrounding community who, at that time mostly didn’t have kitchens, showers, baths or even hot water in their homes. For over 100 years, the Victorian Bath House provided a neutral space where school kids, families and workers could come together to play, swim — and of course, freshen up. This heritage is something that’s close to many people’s hearts, including those who come to visit Ormeau Baths today.

For Claire, it’s a connection close to home.

“This was where my dad came to have baths because he grew up on Sandy Row. He learned how to swim here and so did my mum. So for me, whenever I tell people that there are stories in those bricks and those tiles, it’s a very personal thing for me because their stories are in here.” 

The building was then sold and closed in 1990 following which it was converted into an art gallery in 1995. However, the building found itself on the market 16 years later. At this point the founders of Ormeau Baths as we know it today, came together to create the co-working space in 2017. 

“Our new tagline is, ‘Bringing Belfast together since 1888’. This was a building that was made for the community (through the public baths). In some ways now, we’re giving it back to the community through people being able to come back and work in it. Through also honouring its history as an art gallery, we’re bringing that back too through artist Brian John Spencer exhibiting his work throughout the building. It’s like breathing life back into the history of the place.” 

“It’s all the original tilework too. My favourite part of the tour is the chimney. The chimney that used to heat the water for the baths is still there and it is absolutely spectacular and nobody really notices it from outside when they’re coming to the building. It’s still standing and it’s absolutely beautiful. There are lovely little architectural pieces of it. The beauty and the workmanship that was put into this place is incredible.”

“I think it’s amazing that we get to work in a place that’s so inspiring and that so many people poured a lot of love and effort into to make. Because it’s absolutely spectacular. People spend thousands to get tiles like that and to create interesting pieces but people poured over this stuff and so often places like this just get knocked down or just gutted and everything gets taken away.” 

“The thing that I love about this building is that you can feel the history in it. You can feel it and it’s super important that we embrace the future but we also learn from the past and take things from the past. This is our heritage. We lost our heritage for a while and now, one of the things we want to do is to make sure that people don’t feel they have to leave Belfast to go and fulfil their dreams.”


A Space By Entrepreneurs For Entrepreneurs

“The really unique, cool part of Ormeau Baths is the whole idea that it’s by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs. The heart behind this place is not to become a mecca but to actually serve people and make sure our members are inspired.”

“The way that I believe you make this place successful is by making people feel like they belong and by connecting people with interesting things that will inspire them to do greater things. Those that are involved in this live their life from a missional perspective. We want to leave the world or the places that we were a little bit better than they were when we entered them. I hope that what everyone feels when they enter the space is a reminder that they’re ok, they feel refreshed and that they leave a little bit more inspired.”

“Those that founded Ormeau Baths, they’ve done it because they want to pay it back to pay it forward. Entrepreneurs understand what other entrepreneurs need and want. Where we go to next and what we develop next is about how we can connect our members and our community with those who have walked the path a little bit in front of them, who understand what the pitfalls are and understand the highs and how you deal with the lows plus how you maintain in the middle of it all.”


Community first – always 

“What we’re good at is that we really are community-focused and that we’re just having fun and doing what we love to do. Plus we have this beautiful building and I think that that has a lot to do with it. I don’t lie whenever I touch the walls when I’m giving tours and tell people that there are stories and history and so much within in these walls because there are and you have to stand and just embrace that and move from that place and learn from it too. “

“People are always surprised by how welcoming everyone is and how everyone is generally interested in other people. The thing with building the kind of culture and community that we’ve worked hard to do is that this isn’t a place for you to come to only gain things from other people. This is a place for you to come to be part of a community so you give and in that, you also receive. So if you’re coming in here just expecting to take then I think you’ll be disappointed. The connections that are made between people are amazing and it all happens as it does at a good party – in the kitchen. It’s not even planned, things aren’t set up, it just happens. When people are genuinely interested in others – as many are in Ormeau Baths – good things happen.” 

“What excites me about in here is that, we were always a nation of dreamers and doers but for a long time we almost became a nation of disillusioned dreamers and we became stuck or felt like we had to go away to do things and now there’s this real feeling that we’re on the cusp of something right now within NI, as a whole, where people are beginning to believe in their dreams, believe in their ability to make something happen, to take a risk again. That really excites me. So it inspires me to come in here every day and see people doing that. And it inspires me and excites me when I see everybody cheering each other on to do it.”