Last weekend my friend Sophie lured me to her favourite swimming spot on the hottest day of the year with the promise of a new ladder. My previous visits to the Half Moon Swimming Club at the Great South Wall in Poolbeg have been marred by the rusty, crumbling steps coupled with the aroma of the nearby Ringsend Wasterwater Treament Plant tickling the nostrils. One woman’s (me) smell o’ sh*te is another woman’s (Sophie) precious childhood memories, though, so with talk of the new ladder and the sun blazing in the sky we headed off to swim. And it was lovely, in fairness. It always is.
Later that same day, itch not fully scratched, I executed a perfectly timed trip to Portmarnock’s Velvet Strand to carry out the very last of the summer swims. The travel time on Google Maps maps had reduced from 50 minutes to 39, the tide was coming in and, crucially, it was inching closer and closer to bedtime for the beach’s many tiny, cranky, sandy inhabitants. Sure enough, I arrived as many families were leaving and the largest of the gangs of youths with their stereos and good times – how dare they!? – hadn’t arrived yet. There wasn’t a jellyfish in sight and the sea was like bathwater in the shallows and not much colder further out. Once back on the sand I carried out my usual tradition of checking to see if I can afford to buy a house in Portmarnock or indeed anywhere near the sea in Dublin (Spoiler: I cannot) and felt genuinely sad that this might be the last fully tolerable swim of the year.
Swimming in the sea in Ireland is typically cold enough to be considered medicinal. On a beach like Portmarnock the warm shallows make for delight on a hot day, but usually the waters around this island are torture for the cold-averse and challenging for the hardiest of swimmers. A few days before my glorious double whammy I’d swum in the Atlantic at Ballyloughane beach in Galway while out west for a work trip. It was another scorching day and the receding tide made for shimmery still water, yet it was biting.
Now that we’re halfway through September and sea temperatures for the year have peaked, it becomes a battle of mind over matter to continue flinging oneself into the waves. It’s times like this that I go into a dark hole of wondering why I bother living in Ireland when I could probably buy a house for 5p somewhere where it’s sunny year-round and the sea is like a gentle, warm Jacuzzi. Of course, I’ve watched enough A Place in the Sun to know that the red tape alone would drive me into the mouth of a whale. Besides, I love Ireland most of the time and don’t want to sacrifice friends and loved ones and my just-affordable rent.
Convincing those friends to come swimming in Ireland in October, or, indeed, convincing yourself, is quite the task, and by November I might have stopped completely. That’s despite the truly therapeutic benefits I feel from immersing myself in the sea. It shocks me free temporarily from anxiety and body hatred. It’s urgent and bracing and ritualistic and healing. I don’t like the bitter feelings I get when I feel thwarted by geography and finances and weather, all keeping me from my beloved water.
Of course, there are workarounds. I can drive, I have a car, I’m happy to do the 90-minute round trips in the summer, so why not continue these into the autumn and winter? Wet suits exist, even for some of those who fall outside the ‘straight’ size ranges. There are swimming groups and swimming gloves and swimming shoes, pleasingly called “Hot Socks”. There is the wisdom that comes with never regretting a swim, no matter how cold the water. There are the attempts to harness our island status for good with the tolerable Clontarf public pool – on a grey day it’s hard to forget you’re paying €10 to swim in the sea – and the baffling Dún Laoghaire Baths. There are new ladders too at the Forty Foot in Sandycove and there’s the Belmullet Tidal Pool and the Pollack Holes in Kilkee and Creevy Pier in Donegal and now I’m just naming beautiful places in Ireland like I need a reason to stay. Like I need a reason to just keep swimming. That’s the key. Just. Keep. Swimming.