The very idea of doing the breast stroke in the middle of a bustling city centre could seem like a mad-capped notion. Granted, wading within concrete surrounds doesn't hold the same environmental draw as the dramatic Irish coast, but urban swimming is quietly catching on, in Limerick city, no less.
Given open water bathing’s recent renaissance, the River Shannon’s ever-increasing appeal shouldn’t come as a surprise. However, one doesn’t expect to find a swim of this calibre in the heart of the city; where hoards of passionate paddlers tread the Shannon’s rich green waters in the same space where punters walk to work or the pub. The area itself dates back to the Vikings, with more medieval landmarks than you can shake a stick at.
To explain this fascinating development is Elisa O’Donovan (35), who founded the Swimmable Limerick scheme in August 2017, to make the urban river experience more accessible to the local community.
O'Donovan was born in London to Limerick natives, who relocated the family to Rathkeale when she was 15. She later lived in Dublin from 2001 until she returned to her roots five years ago. When she's not taking part in triathlons, running a Speakers Corner or collecting litter with the Limerick City Residents Association, she's doing a Masters in Speech and Language Therapy and has a blog called Limerick Underground.
Evidently, her commitment to health and fitness is largely responsible for her boundless energy, but it was only recently that she craved something more than just exercise.
“The river is the place I go when I feel stressed or upset,” she says. “I distinctly remember I had a bad break-up in 2016 and next thing, I happened upon the annual Thomond Swim, a really historic swim just under 2km. They were having so much fun and I thought, this time next year I am going to do it. There’s an underlying pressure for women to look a certain way in a bathing suit, so I never liked swimming in a pool. When I saw people coming out of the water from the Thomond Swim, they were all shapes and sizes and nobody seemed to give a hoot – nobody was looking at anyone’s body.”
True to her word, O’Donovan joined the Limerick Masters Swimming Club, completed the Thomond Swim in July 2017, and was firmly hooked. She quickly realised that urban river swimming should become a recognised local attraction, but with much better facilities.
In a whimsical turn of events, she wandered into the Curraghgour Boat Club (est 1904) on Merchant’s Quay and asked a room of men for use of their changing room. The generous members not only agreed, but they now hold legendary post-swim feasts in the boathouse in front of a roaring fire.
Apart from the positive energy that radiates from such liberating social gatherings, there is another force motivating O’Donovan to grow her numbers.
“There were very negative connotations between the river and the people living in the city,” she says, her tone softening. “A lot of people in emotional distress come to the river, and some choose to end their lives here; people associate the river with suicide. I remember hearing people talk about putting nets around the Shannon. For me, changing that association and getting the community using the river in a fun and accessible way is really important because the river is the main artery of the city.”
It would seem that her plan is working splendidly, unifying swimmers of all ages and abilities, in large groups of 50 heads or more. It’s enough to simply show up, if only to dip your feet in the water.
“Where the Curraghgour Boat Club is, we have a very affluent area and then we have King’s Island, which is very working class. The city is very divided in that sense. There are serious areas of deprivation. What’s great about all this is bringing everyone together. Nobody knows where you’re from or who you are. It’s just about people enjoying themselves, having a cup of tea, it’s like our own little urban beach. I don’t think you could replicate this in any other town.”
So committed is O’Donovan to her cause, that she has researched extensively the river’s wildlife – eels, otters and lampreys – and knows the tide patterns intimately. She is rather giddy about her unusual new lifestyle.
"When I started doing the swims last year, I learned a lot about the flora and fauna and how the tides work, I hadn't a clue. I never knew the river was a special area of conservation. Five years ago, I was living in Phibsborough, going to Boojum and now I've got a tide chart," she laughs.
O'Donovan's hard work has paid off in dividends, with funding from the Limerick Arts Office to run two social swims at Riverfest, Limerick's flagship festival, this May bank holiday.
Her long-term plan for Swimmable Limerick is to establish public baths and shower facilities all along the Shannon, so that locals and visitors alike may enjoy a slice of magic right on their doorstep. Judging by how quickly word has spread in less than a year, this model citizen might just get her wish.
Swimmable Limerick takes place on May 5th, 9am to 12pm at Curraghgour Boat Club, Merchants Quay, Limerick. For more, see limerickunderground.org/