Stephen Millar was 12 years old the first time he participated in the Liffey Swim. The young Newry boy was introduced to the water from an early age, and spent his weekends training at the former Blackrock baths.
“My mother thought it was a good idea to send me to my uncle in Dublin who was a swimmer and water polo player. I would have been down every weekend. I was very lucky being able to do that during the Troubles.”
Nearly four decades on, Millar still swims in the Irish Sea off south Dublin a couple of times a week. “Swimming has been fantastic for me, I’ve met so many people through it. I think there are benefits for everybody. It’s inclusive, from pensioners to young people.”
'This country is screaming out for facilities, whether it's a lido or whitewater rafting'
Millar has heard about the plan to build a whitewater rafting facility in Dublin’s docklands, and believes any outdoor sports facility would be a good thing for the city. However, Dublin was once a swimming city, he says. “I was happy to see something happening in the city, but whitewater rafting is a minority sport. Swimming is huge and it’s lovely to see so many more young people wanting to learn.”
Ciara McNerney, who swims outdoors year round, agrees the capital badly needs better swimming resources.
"You go anywhere in England and there's a lido or public swimming pool, but in this country there's nothing like this. I spent my youth in the Dún Laoghaire baths – can't believe they got rid of them. They're also shutting down pools around Dublin and nothing is being opened. If this was any other sport there would be outrage."
McNerney, who also swims competitively and trains on Killiney beach, admits she would be "lost without swimming". "It's the most amazing feeling in the world for me. It resets your rhythm and makes you feel happy.
“This country is screaming out for facilities, whether it’s a lido or whitewater rafting. If there was a facility in the city centre that allowed people to swim or whitewater raft it would be a huge addition.”
Dublin City Council’s plans for a whitewater rafting facility at George’s Dock in the docklands were first proposed more than two years ago at an estimated cost of €12 million. The plans were approved by councillors in December 2019, although the projected cost was later revised from €12 million to €23 million before VAT.
Councillors were told funding would come from a combination of government grants, council reserves and development levies, and that the facility would comprise a whitewater rafting course, a swift water rescue training centre, and a kayaking and canoe polo pool.
It would also be used by the fire brigade and other emergency services staff for rescue training, said the council.
In January of this year the council began the tendering process “to get a more realistic cost estimate”, and said a final decision on the project would be made once this process concludes.
Last month there was a setback when the Department of Local Government turned down a request from Dublin City Council for funding through the Urban Regeneration and Development Fund (URDF). Dublin City Council subsequently said it still had plans for funding the facility, including with grants from other departments. Before proceeding the project must be voted on again by Dublin city councillors.
Dublin-based doctors Patrick Earls and Mark Murphy say George’s Dock should be converted into a large public outdoor swimming facility, and warn that the current plans are “incredibly prohibitive” for most Dubliners. The pair have set up an online petition for their idea, and are calling for a public consultation to ensure the views of local inner-city Dubliners are taken into account.
In February, Earls and Murphy wrote to local councillors that George’s Dock was the “ideal size and sheltered location for a heated outdoor swimming pool”, and would be “far more valuable to the city” as a swimming-only spot.
In the letter seen by The Irish Times, the doctors say that Dublin has experienced a period of planning which “disproportionately facilitates tourism over resident Dubliners”, and building a lido – a public outdoor swimming pool – could become a “truly exceptional municipal asset” for the city.
They estimate the development would cost far less than the whitewater facility while entry fees would also be much more affordable. Whitewater rafting, they say, would be "better located at a larger greenfield site outside the city centre, making it more accessible to the rest of the country and connecting it with major road networks".
Dublin City Council chief executive Owen Keegan says he remains committed to the whitewater plan, and is 'reasonably confident' the project will go ahead
They underline that sewage overflows from Ringsend are causing increasing problems for sea swimmers and are likely to become more frequent in the next decade as climate change leads to heavier rainfall.
Murphy notes that while some Dubliners live near beautiful sea swimming spots, many people in the city centre have no access to proper swimming facilities.
“In the past few months of the Covid-19 world people have fallen in love with swimming, and we all want a better use of public places. This shouldn’t be about corporate events or attracting tourists, it should be about creating facilities for the people who live and work in Dublin.”
Earls says that the whitewater proposal was “pushed through too quickly” without involvement from the local community. “We need more public amenities, and a lido would be a superb municipal asset as opposed to the totally misjudged, largely useless inappropriate infrastructure they’re proposing.”
Alongside the pool, Earls believes George’s Dock could also be developed as a parkland with an emphasis on biodiversity, while a heated lido itself could be renewably powered by geothermal, solar and waste-water energy.
Meanwhile, Dublin City Council chief executive Owen Keegan says he remains committed to the whitewater plan, and is “reasonably confident” the project will go ahead using a combination of “our own funding, funding for the whitewater rescue element, tourism funding and possible sports funding”.
“George’s Dock has effectively been derelict for 20 years,” he told The Irish Times. “We looked at a number of possible ideas, and got advice from the people who build these around the world. They thought it was one of the best locations they’d ever seen. It would animate the area and be really good for tourism.”
On access for locals, Keegan says the facility would be of particular use to young people.
“We think high-adrenaline sport could interest young people who we find difficult to engage in other activities. These are the people jumping from the top of the Samuel Beckett Bridge into the Liffey.”
Keegan contends that constructing a 50m swimming pool at George’s Dock would be overly complicated. “An awful lot of structural work would have to be done. For a lot of the same cost we don’t think there would be a huge demand.
“We’re not against a lido, we know there’s been a huge growth in swimming, but we don’t think anyone will grant aid for it. In London there’s nowhere else to swim but here serious swimmers go to the sea. The council’s experience is outdoor pools die from lack of use.”
Labour Party Dublin Bay South councillor Dermot Lacey says the idea is "bold and imaginative" and will "bring jobs into the area". He expressed concern about the significant pushback against the proposal, saying the capital "desperately needs big ideas".
In contrast, North Inner City councillor Nial Ring believes the plan is “running totally out of control” and wants greater clarity on where funding will come from. “The fundamental question is how much will this cost? It’s fine to say you can get grants to pay for it, but how much will it cost to run?”
While Ring is interested in the lido idea, he has also been contacted by Dublin-based theatre company Thisispopbaby, which has proposed the construction of a permanent Spiegeltent (an ornate cultural event structure) and surrounding gardens at the site.
Mark Fay, a member of the Northwall Community Association whose family has lived in the area since the late 1800s, says the council should focus its energies on addressing the challenges facing the local community rather than pushing forward whitewater plans.
'It's immaterial to us whether it's for whitewater rafting or a pool. We couldn't give a s**te if they build 10 of them'
“The people of the Sheriff Street area have much more serious issues to deal with – we still have major drug problems. We ran a creche for the last 20 years but that had to close about a year ago and since then we have no premises for 64 kids.”
Fay also believes if the plans proceed, the facility will cost far more than the estimated € 25 million. “If they’re going to spend all that money right beside Sheriff Street, we locals have a problem with that. There’s been no public consultation, nothing in an official capacity.”
Last July, when a proposal was made to Dublin city councillors to develop a 50m outdoor heated swimming pool on the river Liffey, the Northwall association said the plan was “not acceptable” and that urgent help was needed to support young people in the area rather than “getting a whirlpool”.
Asked for his thoughts on the lido idea, Fay says that young people already have access to an open-air swimming pool. “It’s called the Liffey, and everyone swims there or in the Royal Canal. Every summer they’re jumping off the Luas bridge into the canal. On a hot day you could have anything from 200 to 400 girls and boys.
“It’s immaterial to us whether it’s for whitewater rafting or a pool. We couldn’t give a s**te if they build 10 of them. Our immediate concern is the problems in the Sheriff Street area. Let’s have a conversation about that.”