Back for annual Liffey Swim – 70 years after winning race
Event’s oldest surviving winner to be special guest at finish line today
Anthony Kennett (87) from Blackrock, Co Dublin, who won the Liffey Swim in 1943, aged 17, will be presented with a commemorative trophy by the Lord Mayor of Dublin at the event today. Photograph: Eric Luke
In 1932, Manchester-born Anthony Kennett’s father Henry had two job offers. One was to manage a shoe shop in Cairo; the other was to manage a similar shop, Tyler’s, in Dublin. He chose Dublin.
“I had never seen the sea before,” recalls Kennett, now 87. He was six when he boarded the mailboat to cross the Irish Sea. His father was already in Dublin. Together with his mother Emily, older sisters Jean and Margie and the family dog Gyp, they crossed on May 12th, 1932.
“We moved into this house,” Kennett says. We’re sitting in the livingroom of a 1930s house in Frascati Park in Blackrock, which the Kennett family has been renting for an unbroken 81 years.
They originally had the whole house, as his grandparents also lived with them, but since 1940, Kennett and his family have lived on the ground floor.
The house was a short walk from the famous Blackrock Baths, where Kennett learned to swim. “It was 12 shillings and sixpence for a summer ticket, from the first of June to the end of September,” he says. “I went very often.” At 14, he joined the Pembroke Swimming Club at the baths, and began entering the races that were run every Tuesday and Thursday.
“I started doing long-distance racing. I learned on my own. This was during the war years, and everyone was on their own.”
By the time Kennett was 16, he was doing some serious racing. “There was a race from Ireland’s Eye to Howth. That was a rough one. I missed the harbour and ended up on Balscadden beach, where the lighthouse is. My clothes were back on the pier at Howth, and I had to walk back there in bare feet just in my swimming trunks.”
By the time Kennett was 17, he was working as a craftsman in Merrion Square, making tables and chairs, and still living at home. Due to rationing, “we only had a glimmer of two hours for gas,” he explains. “So we all had to have dinner at the same time.”
The Club wanted to enter him for the Liffey Swim, for which there was a time trial to qualify in those days. A swimmer had to swim half a mile in under 16 minutes.
Unexpectedly, the examiner turned up for the Blackrock Baths trials just after Kennett had eaten dinner. He got word to come at once.
“I’d just had my dinner, and I asked him if he’d wait till later, but he told me he had to go to Clontarf next and see a whole load more over there. I had no alternative. I had to do it. I barely made it in just under 16 minutes.”
In those days, the Liffey Swim was a men-only event, and the starting point was a barge near Heuston Station. “There was a platform along the side of the barge and everyone had a different handicap. You hit the water when they said, ‘Go!’”
Kennett dived in and started doing the crawl.
Dead dogs and cats
“I forgot everything. I kept in the middle all the time. There was oil from the barges, and my sisters told me later there were dead dogs and cats floating in the Liffey.
“The finish was Butt Bridge, and when I touched the finishing line, I looked up and I couldn’t see anyone else. I said, ‘Am I last?’ The man at the finish line said: ‘Look behind you.’ I looked back, and realised the second man was only coming under O’Connell Bridge when I was already home.”
As he was too young to go into a pub, and there were no formal celebrations after the presentation in those days, Kennett went home to Blackrock.
“The cup and myself got a free ride on the tram. In those days, it wasn’t broadcast on the radio and of course there was no television, so they didn’t know at home what had happened. My mother opened the door and said: ‘Don’t tell me you’ve won another cup, there’s no more room on the sideboard.’”
He lost his sight in the 1960s, but with the help of his family, has continued to live an independent life.
His wife Elizabeth died in 2006, but his son Colm, the youngest of four children, now lives with him.
Kennett believes he is the oldest surviving winner of the Liffey Swim cup. Today’s race marks the 70th anniversary of his winning swim, and he will be a special guest at the finish line. He may no longer be able to see it, but he will get an opportunity to hold the famous Liffey Swim perpetual cup in his hands again.
To mark the anniversary of his achievement, he will be presented with a special commemorative medal by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Oisín Quinn.
It may not take up as much room on the sideboard in Frascati Park as the cup once did, but this hard-earned and long overdue tribute won’t have to be returned next year.