Athletes prepare to celebrate centenary of Cork’s Lee Swim

Event set to attract hundreds of competitors and will draw thousands of spectators


War clouds may have been gathering over Europe but in the balmy summer of 1914 a group of intrepid swimmers took to the river Lee to establish what has since become a Cork tradition.

Swimming races had been held in the river in the early years of the last century, but 1914 was the first year that a race was held on an organised basis and it drew huge crowds.

According to Ossi Schmidt of the Cork Masters Swimming Club, which is organising this year’s centenary race, the Lee Swim became a huge attraction for the people of the city.

“There are some really striking photographs from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s which show huge crowds lining the quays watching the race,” he said.

Among those who participated in the swim during those decades was the late Tadhg Philpott who first entered in the late 1930s and continued competing up until the 1970s.

Philpott, who died in 2011 but is commemorated by the Tadhg Philpott trophy for the best club in the revived race, spoke to the Holly Bough in 2005 about the swim.

“You would want the heart of a lion to do the Lee Swim in those days. The Lee was an open sewer – there was no main drainage . . . this deterred people from getting involved,” he said.

Polio outbreak “People from the Bovril company would be waiting for you with a hot mug of Bovril and you could have shower and change into your clothes at St Vincent’s Hospital on Merchants Quay

,” he added.

Mr Schmidt revealed that the swim, which was banned from the city centre during the 1952 polio outbreak, moved downstream to Blackrock and later Monkstown in the 1970s.

“It was moved downstream because of a deterioration in water quality and eventually it was discontinued, but the Cork Main Drainage Scheme in 2005 allowed us to revive the race.

“We got the idea it would a nice contribution to Cork’s tenure as European Capital of Culture and Joan Lucey of Vibes & Scribes Bookshop chipped in with some generous sponsorship.”

Ms Lucey continues to both sponsor and participate in the race which sees participants swim 1,700 metres down the North Channel and 300 metres up the South Channel to finish at the Boardwalk.

“The first year we had 110 swimmers and this year we have over 500 including many from abroad which makes it Ireland’s largest outdoor swim,” said Ms Lucey. “It also attracts crowds of over 5,000 along the route every year and we’re hoping for the same again this year which would be nice given we’re marking the 100th anniversary.”

This year’s race, which will include Oceans 7 champion Steve Redmond and 16-year-old Straits of Gibraltar conqueror, Rian Herlihy, takes place on Saturday at 4pm.

Participants swim 1,700m down the north channel and 300m up the south channel to finish at the boardwalk.