At swim, two buddies: searching for Ireland's best swimming spots
Two sea-swimming friends set out around the coast this weekend in search of the top 40 places to get wet
Michael O’Reilly and Brendan Mac Evilly at the Forty Foot, Sandycove, Dublin. They begin a two-month journey around the coast of Ireland this weekend in search of the best 40 swimming locations
There are three kinds of sea swimmers: those who need to be dragged to the sea, those who do the dragging, and those who can’t be dragged at all. Those who do the dragging seem to be on the increase. And they’re doing a good job of encouraging more people to the sea.
Each year larger and larger crowds descend on popular swimming spots – while savvy swimmers take to quieter coves and cliffs to plunge into the sea.
This weekend is the first in a two-month journey for my friend Michael O’Reilly and me. We are travelling the coast of Ireland, from Dublin to Donegal, in search of the best places to get wet. Leaving my job at the Irish Writers Centre, I’ve set myself the enviable task, with Michael, of selecting, photographing and writing about 40 swimming locations that will eventually fit into a full-colour book.
Regular open-water swimmers already know of Ireland’s most popular swimming sites, from the Victorian baths of Dublin’s coastline to the otherworldly Pollock Holes, in Kilkee, Co Clare, and the playful diving platforms in Salthill, in Galway. We’re going to show you some of the lesser-known hideaways to swim.
As well as seeking locations, we’re curious to meet Ireland’s sea-swimming community. Every spot has its own atmosphere and people. Sea swimmers are generally welcoming to newcomers who share their passion for the water, and are helpful with advice and safety tips.
We’ll rely heavily on local knowledge and are seeking suggestions from swimmers to help us choose the finest spots.
To the reluctant swimmer we hope to explain the joys and excitement of open-water swimming and to dispel some common fears.
Many worry about the cold and consider swimmers mad to willingly brave Irish waters. But the influence of the North Atlantic Drift means our sea waters are an average of seven or eight degrees warmer than other countries’ at the same latitude. Irish seawater ranges from six to 16 degrees, the lows coming in February and the highs in August, so the water temperature is often matched to the air temperature. Keep telling yourself that as you wade seawards.
Tell yourself, too, how beneficial swimming is to your physical wellbeing. It’s a high-exertion activity, great for keeping fit, burning calories and improving your metabolism.
Sea-swimming can ease the pain and irritation of skin disease, improve circulation for those with diabetes, and may help relieve nerve pain for those who suffer from multiple sclerosis. Swimming in cold water can alleviate other aches and pains in general, as the low temperature triggers sensors under the skin, resulting in bursts of adrenaline to the brain.
Sea-swimming can be good for one’s mental health, too. Andrew Fusek Peters, a year-round swimmer, writes in his book Dip: Wild Swims from the Borderlands that wild swimming helped him to recover from a period of deep depression. “Swimming is about feeling alive – whatever fear is in my head, as soon as I am in the water, it has gone, slam-splash-dunked. So although swimming alone didn’t save me from depression, it broke the pattern.”
And for those without ailments the shock and thrill of the cold water induce a sense of vitality and a feeling of living in the moment. That’s not to say that sea-swimming is without risks. Beware the “cold shock response”. When cold receptors below the skin’s surface are stimulated, they send a message to the brain to “get out of here” that in turn speeds up the heart.
Another set of receptors around the nose and mouth tell the brain that the body is about to dive underwater, which slows down the heart. These mixed messages can cause arrhythmias of the heart, making the experience dangerous for people with predispositions to heart troubles.
But regular cold-water swimming habituates the cold shock response, which is why daily dippers will often tell you the water is lovely, even in the dark days of winter. Their bodies have adapted to the cold.
The unaccustomed swimmer must also conquer the fear of the unknown. For me a brush of seaweed against my leg immediately triggers images of sea beasties passing by – or, worse, the dreaded jellyfish.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised, however, by the sight of a curious seal popping its head up at Bullock Harbour, in south Dublin – although a man at Vico Baths, in Killiney, was warned me never to look a seal in the eye. I’ll remember that as we travel the country, looking for inviting beaches, tidal pools, piers and rocks.
Our book, At Swim, takes its name from Flann O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds. We hope our journey through the waters of the Irish Sea and Atlantic Ocean result in some equally absurd adventures.
Swimmers can email suggestions of spots around the country, with photos or links if they wish, to email@example.com. You can support the project by pre-ordering At Swim on Kickstarter: iti.ms/1R91GUZ