I would feel a great loss in having to live without a good view of the sea. My home town, Brighton, once Brighthelmstone, was England’s birthplace of bathing (this from wheeled huts pushed into the waves). My own youth, in turn, was memorably suntanned, salt-sprayed and pebble-dashed.
On a very different shore, with a far less accommodating sea, the mere prospect of the ocean is sustaining. Its huge horizon is deeply calming, a mental lifeline to the rest of the world. And the biggest sky in Ireland, full of fresh-washed wind, is constant theatre, creative and diverting.
So it came as no surprise that older Irish people living along the coast have a lower risk of depression, lowest of all in those with "extensive" sea views. What's new is to find "blue space" commanding such research by the Economic and Social Research Institute and the Environmental Protection Authority.
For the ESRI, Dr Anne Nolan of Trinity College Dublin used data from the Irish Longitudinal Study of Ageing, matched to proximity of the sea. She proposes that proven public health benefits should guide urban planning of the coast. For the EPA, Dr Ronan Foley of Maynooth University targets even wider health rewards from the "green/blue infrastructure" of water and leafiness.
"GBI" is Foley's shorthand for spaces and places that can be matched statistically with records of lower stress and greater wellbeing. They range from street trees and city parks to locations on rivers, lakes, canals and coasts. Explored by new mapping technology, including satellites, they can be matched to clustered indications of good health and low mortality. Green and Blue Spaces and Health: A Health-led Approach (EPA Report No 264) includes health maps of Dublin and the city's nodes of GBI.
The concept of “therapeutic landscapes”, central to a burgeoning body of research, was coined by American health geographer Wilbert Gesler in 1992. A recent international review in which Foley took part described Gesler as “drawing on theories in cultural ecology, structuralism and humanism” to explore environments that helped provide a “healing sense of place”.
Such subjective, even spiritual, intangibles have haunted the authors of otherwise doggedly “scientific” papers. “The assumption,” says the review, “that places were somehow intrinsically therapeutic raised particular concern, prompting greater recognition of the relational nature of people’s therapeutic landscapes.”
A few years ago, how people felt about their experience of the coast prompted Dr Anna Ryan, a geographer and architect, to produce a deeply philosophical book with the help of participants who walked the South Wall in Dublin city and the sands of the Maharees in Co Kerry. In Where Land Meets Sea (Ashgate, 2012), their photographs and artwork helped in exploring "an alternative politics of the coast".
The book also found room for an extract from this column, in which I wrote of an early-morning skinny-dip on the enormously empty strand: “To stand at the water’s edge, a tiny figure, and strip off there, was to become part Roman gladiator, part dreamer in one’s undervest . . . ”
Foley survived "a near-drowning experience" in waves at the age of four and became an enthusiastic advocate of outdoor swimming. He analyses its benefits in papers for the journal Health & Place, and in popular writing. For Brainstorm, an online RTÉ platform for pieces largely written by academics, he contributes "Into the blue space: the joys of outdoor swimming". It is headed by a celebratory photograph of a shoal of winter swimmers bobbing around off the Forty Foot in a low morning sun.
Never the same sea
His papers must bear the weight of academic discourse, so that the act of swimming becomes "an emplaced and performed therapeutic encounter" or "an accretive practice in healthy blue space". For his paper "Swimming in Ireland: immersions in therapeutic blue space" (Health & Place 35, 2015), he explored "a wide range of often inexpressible felt sensations" that accompany a plunge into the waves.
He took his research to two particular bathing spots (the Forty Foot, and the Guillamene Cove in Co Waterford), where he engaged 20 different swimmers in open-ended interviews. They aimed “to tease out evidence on emotional and affective responses to swimming” and the kinds of “blue space” that shaped the pleasure.
As one respondent at the Forty Foot gladly volunteered: “The thing to remember is that every time you get into the sea, the sea is different to what it was the day before, it’s never the same sea that you get into . . . ”
The “accretive practice” of a lifelong daily swim brings satisfied grins on many old people emerging from the waves, brimful of a healthy glow. But the right blue spaces are essential to this, even on an island with thousands of kilometres of coast. For all its swerves into academic in-speak, the insights of health geography could help to plan and take care of them.