Married to the sea: The wonders of wild swimming in Ireland

A swimming weekend off the coast of Kerry turns out to be a match made in heaven

Catching the sunset at Meenogahane Pier. Photograph: Wild Water Adventures

Catching the sunset at Meenogahane Pier. Photograph: Wild Water Adventures

 

About six months ago I tweeted about a wild swimming set-up I had come across in north Kerry, saying if I could marry a company it would be this one. Here I am, a few months later walking down the aisle. Well, not an actual aisle, but a remote beach with a backpack full of swimming gear as a trousseau and my teenage son as best man.

We are staying in a stunning old Georgian guesthouse on the water’s edge of Barrow Bay named, aptly, Barrow House. It was recently renovated by a new owner, Daragh McDonagh, into a stunning beacon of contemporary, classy and laid back Kerry-ness, and the only guesthouse right on the water in the region.

McDonagh’s effusiveness for the area, just twenty minutes north of Tralee, and her personal mission to put all things north of Killarney and Dingle on the map, is infectious. Upon arrival, she greets us with two white goats on leads. “Normally I bring them out to welcome guests and ask them if they would like to take them for a walk on the beach”, she said, “but they’re a bit shaky with the storm coming, so I’m just taking them to the field up above.”

There was indeed a fierce storm that night and so there was no better thing to do than sit by the fire and sink into comfy velvet sofas.

Daragh McDonagh walking with her two goats on Barrow Bay. Photograph: Barrow House
Daragh McDonagh walking with her two goats on Barrow Bay. Photograph: Barrow House

After a fine breakfast, my beau arrives. John Edwards runs Wild Water Adventures with his wife, Michaela, both of whom are there to greet us with their backpacks ready to go. Herein lies the beauty of wild swimming with experts. Their waterproof backpacks are neatly packed with a top winter wetsuit, Neoprene booties, gloves, hat, goggles and a full length towelling changing robe.

John Edwards is a local marathon swimmer who had an epiphany a few years ago while doing a 10km swim across Tralee Bay. He stopped just before the end, impulsively deciding to take in the coast. Ahead was the island of Fenit with its landmark 16th century tower. Behind him was the Maharees archipelago, forming a 5km collection of sandbars that protect the Dingle Peninsula from the Atlantic. And to his right, sweeping down to the coast, was Mount Brandon. He suddenly realised he had lost touch with why he loved swimming, and this brought him to guiding people through the wild waters of Kerry, a story he tells as we walk up Paradise Beach, Barrow House’s front garden, as Fenit Castle comes into sight.

Clambering on top of Fenit Island. Photograph: Wild Water Adventures
Clambering on top of Fenit Island. Photograph: Wild Water Adventures

Edwards’ words are poetry to my ears – I love being in water – but I don’t want to join the triathlon brigade. Rather, I prefer hiking with a swimsuit in my backpack, have a dip, a cup of tea and then keep walking. This is exactly what Edwards does, and brilliantly too. Our first swim is short, over to Fenit Castle, and I’m relieved as it’s still winter. It’s cold, but we only feel it on our faces.

Reaching the shore on the other side, we clamber up to the ruins and walk to an otherwise inaccessible sandy beach on the other side of the fort. From here, we swim back to where we started.

For the next couple of days, Edwards drives us along Kerry Head. Without local knowledge or farmers granting access across their land, it must be impossible to access swimming spots. One such place is Bhinn na Wheal village, near Ballyheigue, where we hike across grassy cliff tops to a stunning red sandstone bay with a large cave on the other side. The waters are still a bit rough for swimming, so we sit on the rocks, drink tea and eat homemade cake, raising a toast to this unknown part of Kerry.

Walking down Paradise Beach
Walking down Paradise Beach

We manage to get into the water at Meenogahane Pier, where the setting sun lights up the red cliffs that envelop it and the massive tower of rock in the middle the harbour known locally as the Horricles. We swim out to it, do a bit more clambering and jump off a few points close to the water. Jumping into the sea is a popular activity in “coasteering”, but this is a different experience. Our focus is on swimming, not jumping, and we don’t have buoyancy aids or helmets to slow us down.

Our final swimming expedition is on the north side of the Dingle Peninsula, another of Edwards’ secret spots at the foot of the Slieve Mish Mountains, called Trá Bhaile Uí Dhuinn. We swim out and continue parallel to the shore to warm up our muscles. Edwards stops and reminds us to do what he did when he had his epiphany moment: Lie on our backs and take it all in. The sun is hitting the mountains, a waterfall is tumbling down to sea, the clouds have passed and the sky has transformed beautifully.

Barrow House. Photograph: Catherine Mack
Barrow House. Photograph: Catherine Mack

For the three-night hiking and swimming weekend, prices are from €650 per person sharing including Barrow House accommodation, all meals, activities, equipment and expert guide. You can swim in Kerry’s waters all year round. Wild Water Adventures provide suitable winter swimming gear. For more details see wildwateradventures.ie or barrowhouse.ie.

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