Sunday 26 May 2019

A sea dip is the last thing you can do for free

Swimming in the warm waters of the Irish Sea brings back memories of swims of yesteryear, writes Liam Collins

MARINE LIFE: Liam Collins takes to the water. Photo: David Conachy
MARINE LIFE: Liam Collins takes to the water. Photo: David Conachy
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Treading water in the slightly snot-coloured Irish Sea off Blackrock, Co Dublin, one of the other swimmers pointed to the clear blue sky, splashed the water and said: "They still haven't found a way to tax the sheer pleasure to enjoying something for free."

Down the road at Seapoint, the regular swimmers seem to have gone into a sort of summer hibernation, unable to deal with the invasion of the hoi polloi who spread out their towels, trolleys, prams and other paraphernalia, as they lay out for the day "sunning themselves like pedigree dogs" as a councillor once put it, blocking the paths of passers-by without a thought.

Finding a quiet spot to swim is like being let into a secret, even though you always knew it was there.

Drying off in yesterday's sunshine, I looked towards the city, remembering the old days when we cycled down to Blackrock baths, to swim, watch fearsome games of water polo and marvel at the divers as they swooped gracefully from the highest of the three diving boards. I made it as far as the middle one, decided life was too short and the shame of retreating down the iron ladder was preferable to the terror of launching myself from that height.

The baths are gone, but not the memories that linger of a lifetime of summer days, swimming in various waters around Ireland and how such simple pleasures are an integral part of life. Mostly my swims were an accident of a warm day and the opportunity for a dip.

My father loved to swim at Dollymount, which meant a detour through the city to cross that fascinating wooden bridge which reverberated as the old A40 car took us to the beach, where my first memory is of being caught by a big wave and being taken tumbling out to sea until strong arms pulled me wailing from the water.

I must confess too, over half a century later, to several summers swimming in the Stillorgan Reservoir, which supplies most of the drinking water to south Co Dublin. We used to congregate in a corner far away from the main pumping station and swim in the cold clear mountain water and then spend whole afternoons sunning ourselves on the grassy banks.

Only later did I discover the literary significance of the place. When trying to read Ulysses I came across this passage from James Joyce: "Yes. From Roundwood reservoir in county Wicklow of a cubic capacity of 2,400 million gallons, percolating through a subterranean aqueduct of filter mains of single and double pipage constructed at an initial plant cost of £5 per linear yard by way of the Dargle, Rathdown, Glen of the Downs and Callowhill to the 26 acre reservoir at Stillorgan...."

When you turn on the tap in many parts of Dublin, the water coming out today is dripping from that same Victorian system that is under such strain from the current drought.

Yesterday, after emerging from the water, I remembered swimming on the empty expanse of Inch on the Dingle peninsula when first discovering the delights of Kerry. We stayed in a B&B above the strand. I would marvel at the local men of a certain age who would drive onto the beach after Mass, wearing their Sunday suits and ties, open the car door but remain behind the wheel reading the paper.

Somewhere off Dunquin, after spending far too much time the night before in Dick Mac's and Paddy Bawn Brosnan's pubs in Dingle with a crowd of lads who had driven down from Longford on a whim, the Atlantic waves seemed the ideal cure for a hangover. But as it washed away the dregs of the night before, I drifted unknowingly out to sea - and it was only when I saw the specks of those swimming off the beach did I realise how precarious my position was.

But for once I didn't panic and slowly and methodically hauled myself back into shallower waters and safety.

Another time, coming back from the Lisdoonvarna festival, we spent a glorious afternoon swimming off Fanore, in Co Clare, between drinking pints in O'Donoghue's pub on the winding road above.

Emboldened by the drink and the sun, two of the lads took off all their clothes - it was a time when 'streaking' was popular - and jumped on the back of a passing tractor.

The Clare farmer, who was driving with his Collie sheepdog by his side, turned around with a smile and said: "Grand day, thank God... are ye going far?"

Sunday Independent

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