Cork’s Lee Swim has come a long way from over-the-shoulder togs

Veteran race starter Eddie Campion has been involved through the polio years through to modern times

Competitors in the Lee Swim nearing the old North Gate Bridge, circa 1910. Photograph: courtesy of the Irish Examiner

Competitors in the Lee Swim nearing the old North Gate Bridge, circa 1910. Photograph: courtesy of the Irish Examiner

 

When Eddie Campion stands on St Vincent’s Bridge in Cork on Saturday to launch this year’s Lee Swim, he will reflect back on nearly half a century of involvement in what has become an institution on Leeside.

Campion (83), a native of Roman Street on Cork’s northside, like many Corkonians, learned to swim in the now long disappeared Lee Baths on the Straight Road, but his swimming career was curtailed in the early 1950s when he contracted TB but he didn’t allow that to limit his involvement.

“I always had an ambition to be an alickadoo [non-swimming participant],” said Mr Campion, who has been a time-keeper or starter on the swim for almost half a century, having been invited back by the Cork Masters Swimming Club in 2005 when the race was revived during Cork’s year as European Capital of Culture.

The Lee was not quite as hospitable a river in the 1940s and 1950s as “the water was filthy”

“We start now from St Vincent’s Bridge, next to where we used to start from long ago – the Distillers Field is what they used to call it in the old days. In those days, in the late 1940s and 1950s, you would get maybe 20 or 30 competitors but you would have huge crowds of spectators.

“It was all men. There were no female participants and some of the old-fashioned men used to swim in over-the-shoulder togs. It would be held on a Friday night, and between the start and the finish at Brian Boru Bridge, the quays and the bridges would be packed with people watching it.”

The Lee Swim gets under way in 2011. Photograph: Provision
The Lee Swim gets under way in 2011. Photograph: Provision

According to Campion, the Lee was not quite as hospitable a river then as “the water was filthy”, and an outbreak of polio in Cork in the 1970s led to the race being transferred from the Lee to other locations such as the Lee Baths, Glenbrook to Monsktown and Drake’s Pool to Crosshaven.

The race stops

Eventually the race fell into abeyance, but when it was revived in 2005 Campion was invited back as starter. It’s a role he has played ever since for those who swim the 2,000m course down the north channel around the Port of Cork, building to finish at Lapp’s Quay on the south channel.

I just press the hooter. Sometimes I think I’m in participants' way but they’re very nice

The race, revived as the Vibes and Scribes Lee Swim, has gone from success to success with up to 500 participants but Campion is modest about his involvement: “I just press the hooter. Sometimes I think I’m in their way but they’re very nice and I was delighted when they asked me to be starter again.”

For Vibes and Scribes owner Joan Lucey, an annual participant in the race as well as sponsor, it was important that the revived race would have as many links as possible to the original Lee Swim, which began when a group of intrepid swimmers took to the Lee in the summer of 1914.

“The Lee Swim is such an institution in Cork going back to the early part of the last century, so it was great to get someone like Eddie, who was involved in the organisation of the race in the 1960s and ’70s, involved again when we revived it as it maintains the continuity of the event,” she said.

“As well as that, of course, Eddie and the Campion family are synonymous with swimming in Cork. They were involved in teaching hundreds, if not thousands, of Corkonians to swim over the years, so it’s a great honour for us to have him start the race every year.”