MARVELLOUS MADGE BOLGER sits drinking sparkling water in the bar of a Dublin hotel

MARVELLOUS MADGE BOLGER sits drinking sparkling water in the bar of a Dublin hotel. She says that if you’d told her last Christmas that by the end of this year she would have made, with her dancer son, a short film under water and a stage show, she would have laughed at you. But in the space of a year both these things have happened and the adventure is not over yet.

Madge is 77, an avid swimmer, a grandmother of 12, a film buff and a member of a social group called the Born Again Teenagers, which she shortens to Bats. Her son’s artistic vision had to fit in around his mother’s already busy schedule. “It wasn’t like he asked me,” she explains. “He just came and told me ‘Mum we are making a film under water’, and then he told me about the dance show he wanted to do.” None of it phased her, she went with the flow. “I’m a relaxed kind of person,” she says.

Her son David, the artistic director of renowned Irish dance company CoisCéim arrives. He orders soup and takes his time eating it. They sit across from each other, mother and son, explaining how it all happened from their different perspectives. I sip coffee and listen, rapt.

I haven’t seen them in ages, but these are two quite important people in my own life. David taught me to tap dance. I can’t hear the song 42nd Street without thinking of him and doing the time step in my head. Madge taught me to swim and when I see her, I hear whistles blowing and smell chlorine and feel my fingers slipping from the white foam we all clung to before we learned to float.


She was taught to swim by her father on Sandymount Strand. The doggy paddle, it was. She has wanted to move in water, as often as possible, ever since. Back in the day, she persuaded the man who ran Marian College’s then brand new pool to let her and some female friends have it for an hour one morning a week. She started the Martello Ladies’ Swimming Club. Baby David was the only male member. She tied an inner tube from a bicycle tyre around his waist and then he went off doing the doggy paddle. Over the years she took every aquatic exam going including the teaching one. She is still teaching now, but instead of swimming seven days a week she “only” swims five.

David always knew that one day he would explore the subject of swimming and his mother in his work. CoisCéim does outreach programmes with the over 50s and last year Madge was in one of his shows during the older people’s festival Bealtaine. When someone suggested he compose a work with his mother, it was as though after years thinking about the idea he had finally been given permission.

Swimming with my Motherwas presented as a work in progress at the Dublin Dance Festival earlier this year. In it, David recalls their adventures in water. They’d swim at night on Sandymount Strand, looking back at the lights from distant houses on Strand Road. Madge would do things like that with her children, although people probably thought they were mad with their nightswimming. David always felt safe with Madge. Still does.

Apparently, David could be a bit of a hard taskmaster during rehearsals. “I remember complaining about him to someone and them saying ‘oh, you should be with him in real serious rehearsals’,” she smiles. She’d be taking notes on the bus going home to remember what they were supposed to be doing and then she’d go in the next day and David would say: “No, we are scrapping that.”

“I thought I was teaching her to dance,” says David at one point in the show. “But she was teaching me patience.”

The short film they made together, Dancing in the Deep End, was written by David and directed by Conor Horgan. It was shot in the Marian College swimming pool, and when I watch I can’t tell if I am so deeply moved because I know them both or because it makes me think of my own relationship with my mother, but it’s probably both. That and the sheer intimacy of this water-based work of art.

It’s the same with the show. It could be about anybody’s mother or anybody’s child. It’s about how things, good and bad, are passed down between the generations, how we choose to embrace them, or how we try to escape them. It’s a show full of the huge, tiny moments of life: Madge cleaning out the child David’s ears and drying the spaces between his toes while he devours a post-swim banana.

David and Madge will spend the new year touring Swimming With My Mother. The tour starts in Limerick (at the Belltable, January 28th and 29th) and then goes to Paris – “Paris, my goodness,” says Madge – and on to the Nottingham Dance Festival, and then there’s a national tour before they hit the Edinburgh Arts Festival. Over Christmas, David will add finishing flourishes to the show and mother and son will rehearse. “She will get some time off,” smiles David.

He taught me to tap dance and she taught me to swim. If you do one thing in 2010, go see their enthralling, funny and heart-lifting dance of unconditional love. roisin@irishtimes.com