Meet the 'early risers' - the swimmers who clean up Sandycove
The area's swimmers are unsung heroes who donate lost or abandoned clothes to charity
Early-morning swimmers at Sandycove, Co Dublin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
As the summer sun rises over Sandycove beach and the nearby Forty Foot in south Dublin, the changing area for sea swimmers is a hub of activity.
It’s 6.30am and the first group of sea swimmers are making their way towards a small shelter area where swimmers can tog out. The sea swimmers have picked up a nickname locally – the early-morning risers – after the phrase coined by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during his Fine Gael leadership campaign. It gives the group a chuckle.
Some are still wearing their dressing gowns to keep out the cold, others are already togged out in their bathing suits. The crisp morning air is not a deterrent.
“From barristers to bin men, you’ll find all sorts down here if you’re brave enough to join us,” says one swimmer.
For years the small, white cement changing area has been a hub of activity and a meeting point for these early risers.
Pat Johnston, who turns 80 later this year, has been swimming at the Forty Foot for more than 50 years alongside her husband, Mike. She rarely misses a swim.
“I looked out the bedroom window this morning. Even though it’s overcast today, I decided I’d make my way down. My husband, Mike, comes down with the aid of his Zimmer frame but he decided to stay at home this morning, which is uncommon.
I think it’s the secret to life to get into the sea for a dip – it keeps me young at heart
“I have been swimming here for 56 years or so. He decided to give it a miss this morning, but I wanted to come down anyway.
“Mike has probably been swimming here a bit longer. I think it’s the secret to life to get into the sea for a dip – it keeps me young at heart,” she adds.
The early morning swimmers are a community. After their morning swim, some make their way to work, others walk home for a warming cut of tea. Others hang around after the swim to clean up the beach. After a sunny day in Dublin, the stretch of beach along Sandycove and the Forty Foot can be an “Aladdin’s cave” of treasure.
“I have found everything on the beach. You name it – from the weird to the downright wonderful, people have left it behind here on the beach,” says Éilis McDonnell.
“I went down at 4am on June 21st, as I was awake, and picked up an array of clothing items. I picked up all the clothes and bagged them. After a wash at home, they are as good as new. I then take them to the local charity shop.
“There were 28 towels so that’s definitely more than one towel an hour abandoned. There were 64 pairs of socks, another basket of odd socks,” she says.
“There are male swimming togs and just general clothes like runners. If there is a heatwave in Ireland, then we might find double this.
“We are all here doing and enjoying the same thing, so I can’t take all the credit,” says McDonnell.
The morning of my visit isn’t the typical sunny morning of recent weeks – but that doesn’t stop the swimmers arriving in their droves.
“I’m here to break my sea swim virginity, and hopefully there’s a bottle of whiskey at the end of it,” says Richard Curtin.
He heard about the work the Sandycove swimmers have been doing to keep the beaches clean through his work as a Clean Coasts officer for An Taisce and decided to join them for a dip.
As he jumps into to sea to join the other swimmers, there are only mild screams from the water.
“It would certainly wake you up all right; how could you be angry after that? It wasn’t as cold as I thought it would be but I definitely want to get some clothes back on me,” says Curtin explaining the importance of community work such as that being carried out by the “early morning risers”.
“Keeping our beaches clean is of the utmost importance, I mean look at how engaged this community are. They are down here 12 months of the year, it’s not just when the sun comes out. They are here in rain, hail or snow.
“The beaches are there for everyone to enjoy but we must remember that what you bring to the beach, then you must take home. It’s not other people’s job to clean up after you.”
As the 7.30am swimmers arrive, it’s time for the early morning risers to depart.
Caroline Fitzgerald explains the sense of community in each of the swimming groups. “A lot of people wouldn’t swim on a day like this, but then there are the brave souls like us, standing here all kitted out in our dressing gowns. The great thing about coming here to swim – and it’s something that I have been doing for years and years – is the great sense of community.
“No, I don’t know anybody’s surname, but that’s just the democracy,” says Fitzgerald. “We come down and we swim and we chat. There are different time slots that people come to.
“Some people come down here and leave an array of things behind them. It’s not just swimming togs that we find – a professional photography camera and engagements rings have been found over the years.
It’s a shame to see what people leave behind them
“The group are amazing for picking up the rubbish. Even in winter people are out clearing up the mess left behind. Éilis [McDonnell] in particular is great for picking up the clothes and washing them.
“It’s a shame to see what people leave behind them. The local charity shops are always delighted when they see us coming.”
One of the charity shops in the area that benefit from such donations is the Irish Cancer Societies in Dún Laoghaire.
“When the fine weather comes out, we see the surge in donations grow,” says Anne Mullin, who works at the store.
“We welcome all donations as long as they have been cleaned, particularly when it comes to towels and clothing. Of course, we welcome clothing that are left behind on the beaches, as long as we can use them.”
As we look around the beach area close to the Forty Foot, McDonnell, who is widely praised by her fellow swimmers for her work on the beaches, picks up some rubbish.
“It’s a lot cleaner today, as the weather hasn’t been great, but if today was sunny you would be seeing a different story. I like to keep the place clean and so should others.”
As the swimmers dry off and make their way home, one of the oldest members of the “early morning risers” passes and shouts that she will see them all tomorrow.
“Same time, same place tomorrow, dears.”