If you go down to White Rock Beach by Killiney Hill in Dublin early on a Sunday morning, you can watch the sunrise. Go a little later and you might see a moon instead, because that's when the Irish Naturist Association likes to practise naked Qigong.
Nestled below a steep cliff, secluded from view, the beach is dappled with seaweed and naked participants jumping and crouching to the polyrhythmic pulse of handheld drums.
Qigong is a mostly slow-moving martial art. The class’s teacher, Nathalie (31) says that while the more commonly known Tai Chi works by moving energy around, Qigong focuses on “inner energy work”.
“If you have a pipe and it’s blocked, nothing circulates,” Nathalie says. “Qigong unblocks the pipe so that everything flows – the blood, the lymphatic system – everything circulates so that the body functions properly.” That is to say, it’s exercise.
Nathalie began teaching naked classes with women’s circles where participants would strip down as a way to celebrate the body. This July, she started holding outdoor events for the Irish Naturist Association.
Boud says Irish attitudes toward nudity develop when children are told to cover up
We'll get to the difference between naturists and nudists later; for now, all you need to know is that while artist Ciara Boud doesn't mind being referred to as a naturist, she just sees herself as someone who chooses to "wear or not wear what she wants to".
Boud, who has surveyed nudists and hosts a podcast about them, says Irish attitudes toward nudity develop when children are told to cover up and, then, as they get older, being told what their bodies are supposed to look like. “We associate nakedness with something sexual,” she says over the phone.
“There is that bit more pressure on women in terms of image,” Boud adds. “We’re bombarded from a very young age to hold ourselves in a certain manner and be ladylike. And, in Irish society, taking your clothes off isn’t seen as very ladylike.”
Other naturists Boud has surveyed tell her that they transitioned to nudism from life modelling or body painting. Some just grew up with a casual attitude to nudity and then joined groups when they found out that they were outliers.
“Bodies are quite boring,” says Boud. “Once they’ve been out on display for a little while, you’re like, ‘that’s a t*t and that’s an ass’, and nobody cares and nobody’s looking, and nobody is even thinking of your body in a broken down structure of ‘those are the sexual bits and those are not’.
“When you’re there you never picture yourself as being on show till you hear a tutting person on the beach.”
So, why do it at all?
“It’s an experiential thing,” Boud says. “You can explain and explain and explain to people, ‘you’ll never feel more comfortable in your life’. If you can be confident naked, there’s very few other scenarios where you’re not going to feel comfortable.”
On the beach, Leticia Medina, a Spanish woman in her 40s, looks remarkably comfortable despite an overdressed journalist shoving a voice recorder toward her while yelling questions about the difference between naturists and nudists over the roar of the wind and the sea. (The answer: naturists prefer being naked in nature; nudists aren't fussy.)
Medina wasn't either until she tried to go to a sauna in Ireland and was shocked to see people keeping their clothes on. "It's just disgusting," she says. "It's not hygienic. It's ridiculous. I was thinking 'Are they crazy?'"
She joined the Irish Naturist Association in her search for a sauna where she didn’t have to sit in sweat-soaked swimwear, but has since become one of its leading organisers. As coronavirus restrictions came in, the group set up online naked language lessons and lectures on subjects like nudist beaches and naturist bloggers, as well as a digital pub, where people strip down, fix their own drinks and chat on Zoom.
He tells me that there are two sides to this story and that the voices of those who object to the nudist group should also be represented
Medina says that they have seen a surge in membership during the coronavirus lockdown, with 70 new members in the past few months pushing their numbers to about 400. Five years ago, there were only 146 of them.
As I walk the steep cliff steps from the beach up to the coastal road, a man calls from behind for me to stop. We are both out of breath. He tells me, wheezing, that there are two sides to this story and that the voices of those who object to the nudist group should also be represented. Not his voice in particular, however; he does not want to be quoted.
In all, I speak to seven people on the beach who dislike the naturist group, some standing to the side, mocking the class. They suspect that the nudists are perverts, but they don’t want to be quoted. They are afraid of being labelled as prudes. The nudists taking part in the activities say that they suspect that their detractors are prudes, but they also don’t want to be quoted. They are afraid that they’ll be labelled as perverts. Opinions here are too private to be exposed in public. Of the nudists, only women will go on the record.
Medina says that the group holds classes on the beach because they want to strike a balance between letting the public know about the nudist group and not being in anyone’s face. They want to influence society, but gently. Passengers on the train passing by on the hillside might glimpse the group, but nobody’s sensitivities should be scandalised.
She says she once asked the police if they ever received complaints about the group. She was told: “people will complain about anything”. One time, as she was setting up, a Garda marched down to speak with her about the naturist group; he told her he thought it was cool. Even the people I spoke with who opposed the group didn’t seem to have a problem with nudism in general – some said they swam naked regularly – they just didn’t like the group meeting on their local beach.
Similarly, when mother of two Ciara Langan photographs groups of naked people arranged against stark natural landscapes, she says the only opposition she ever encountered was when someone pressed a Mass leaflet into one of her stewards' hands. Usually, the participants who align themselves on sand dunes, mountains or beaches only hear cheers from passengers in passing vehicles.
If it's just a cultural hangup, ditch it. And then, weather permitting, ditch your clothes
“There are veterans of nudity who come to my events,” Langan said over the phone, “and then there are people who come as total newbies and they’ve never done anything like it before. They’re shaking like a leaf and really, really nervous. Then they strip off and are like, ‘This is amazing’. Or often, ‘Why didn’t I do this 20 years ago? I’ve carried my shame and my insecurities about my lumps or my bumps and all the things that humans have’.”
Langan says that she has never liked labels, metaphorical or physical. “The feeling of wind and rain, and of sunshine on my skin, it relaxes me,” she says. “The last storm we had, I happened to be in a city so I went up to the roof – there was nobody around, so it was grand – I left my clothes behind to feel the static charge.”
Langan explains the etiquette of nudism to me: you put a towel beneath you when you sit; don’t stare; don’t act like it’s a dating event. Do people ever become aroused? “Sometimes it does happen. You can be sitting on a bus and it will happen for absolutely no reason,” Langan says, “but just excuse yourself from the group, don’t make an issue of it. If there is an individual walking around like that, that’s an individual you don’t want there.”
Nudists have a word for non-nudists: “textiles”. When asked to explain why they like to get naked in public, nudists often flip the question: why are textiles so averse to seeing naked people in public? If it’s just a cultural hangup, ditch it. And then, weather permitting, ditch your clothes.
“And when you do put your clothes back on, you’re changed,” Langan says. “You just carry it with you. You’ve more body confidence, you’re not as insecure, and your attitude toward how other people see your body – you care less.”