The Irish, unlike Australians, know that beaches are not for looking good

Fumbling under towels to get dressed, knickers stuck to wet legs. I’ve found my people

Brianna Parkins: ‘Anyone with more than one bathroom in their house, and matching glasses not stolen from the pub, is considered posh by my very low standards.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Brianna Parkins: ‘Anyone with more than one bathroom in their house, and matching glasses not stolen from the pub, is considered posh by my very low standards.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

I refused to swim at an Irish beach for the first two years of living here. For an Australian, going to the Irish seaside is the equivalent of being handed a pint of Guinness that is two-thirds foam in an Oirish pub with Ed Sheeran’s Galway Girl on repeat and Wild Mountain Thyme on the telly. Symbolically close but experientially, it’s miles off. The whole thing only serves as a reminder of how you’re missing the real thing at home.

My best friend has been coaxing me into the sea for about a year now. Gently bringing me closer and closer to the sea edge on “walks”. Promising me ice-cream with a patient hand outstretched in the same manoeuvre I once saw her employ to coax a stray cat out from behind our bins with a bit of ham.

Our first trip to Dublin’s Seapoint only added to the growing list in my head called “Mad things the Irish seem to enjoy”.

I watched children with chattering teeth and blue lips cling to the metal poles on the ramp into the water. Their parents supervised while wearing those towel ponchos that upset some posh people and delight others. There were no changing rooms so everyone was doing the “PE Class Special” – the unerotic reverse striptease of trying to shimmy a Lycra swimsuit over goosepimpled legs, with only an old towel and a determined grip between you and all harm.

No one looked like they were having a good time. I volunteered to “mind the bags”.

“Aren’t you coming in,” my friend asks me.

“It’s raining,” I said.

“Sure it’s warm rain.”

Pause. (Warm rain, have you ever?)

“The water is freezing. That woman looks miserable.”

“But think how good you’ll feel when you get out.”

If the best part of an activity is the feeling you get when you stop doing it then why do it. There’s something very disturbing about making yourself deliberately uncomfortable and calling it craic.

I wanted to go home. To white sand. To changing rooms. To sun. To palm trees. To being able to surf without a wetsuit. To the pubs that serve you shoeless and shirtless, straight off the beach.

I looked in pity at everyone on the damp concrete in their little special swimming shoes that stop their feet being cut up by cruel pebbles. “Poor pets, they don’t know there’s a better way,” I thought.

But the longer I hung around the more I realised I was wrong. Australian beaches are mostly for showing off. On Bondi everyone is tanned, lasered and wearing thrush-inducing tiny pieces of spandex. For a beach where sewage runs out to the ocean, it has severe notions. It is a place to be seen. I have friends who stop eating at 5pm the day before we go to the beach. “I want my stomach to be flat for the photos.”

Influencers are confident enough in Sydney to film TikTok twerking videos without public mockery. On that grey, clear day at Dublin’s Seapoint, I watched a man strip down shirtless and fiddle with his tripod (not a euphemism) before filming himself doing yoga. Then I heard a well-timed “would you be well?” from a sensible, tracksuit-clad woman walking a dog. I knew at that moment I was finally among my people.

The Irish know that beaches are not places for looking good. They’re for uncool enjoyment. They’re for unsexy fumbling underneath a towel, laughing while your knickers stick to your wet legs as you try in vain to drag them up. They’re for sticky chins and 99s. They’re for convincing everyone on the shore that “it’s lovely once you get in” as you wave your purple arms. The beach is for everyone.

It’s the great equaliser really, the sea. It’s the one place where people who would never cross paths are spreading out beach towels next to each other. Old and young. Irish and immigrant (me!). Rich and poor. In Ireland you cannot buy the beach. The rich cannot pay to go to a VIP section of the ocean. They can live near one but they still emerge from the same shore, picking their swimsuits out of their bottoms like the rest of us. At a south Dublin swimming spot last week a small bit of heat drew everyone from the city out in cars, bikes and on the Dart down to the seaside.

Inexplicably confident older men in Speedos sunned themselves next to a group of Brazilians still wearing their hoodies with their boardshorts. Teenage girls in bikinis with complicated straps hid behind each other self-consciously. I remembered what it was like at that age. My friends (and some of my meaner family members) designated me chairman of the Itty-Bitty Titty Committee.

I hid under oversized T-shirts. The tragedy is if I still had the body that I had then I would wear a bikini everywhere. To the shops, at work, on the telly. Everywhere.

Next to the girls a group of older ladies have just come back from their swim. I watched them stride out of the water and towel down their no-nonsense one pieces. “Now!” they said to no one and everyone, as they pulled off swimming caps and picked up pre-made thermos flasks of tea. Their ease with their bodies makes me look forward to getting older. They know what they’re at now and I would like some of that, thanks. I decide that I too, one day, will be a woman who swims in the sea.

“Are you coming in?” my mad friend asks.

“Jesus Christ no, but maybe next time.”