Call of the wild: 'When you are in the sea, it can be a great leveller'
The women who love open-water swimming are passionate about its life-changing effect on body and soul
For those who love it, swimming - with its delicious weightlessness and steady rhythms - offers a true sense of calm. Yet the swimmers that take to the open seas, rivers or lakes attest to a different experience entirely. In her stirring memoir I Found My Tribe, Ruth Fitzmaurice has written about how she found strength and solace in a Greystones swimming cove, alongside what she calls the "tragic wives club". For Fitzmaurice, the group provides one type of support: the crashing waves, another entirely.
"Like the rolling of the waves, the thrill of the dive, the rush of the cold… this is as free as we can all possibly be," she writes.
Last year, British writer Alexandra Heminsley wrote Leap In: the bestseller charted her experience of sea swimming and how the hobby helped with a number of personal challenges, from body acceptance to fertility issues.
"I wanted to dive into water as I want to dive into life," she writes. "Filled with joy, curiosity and the knowledge that though there might be dangers, they aren't daunting enough to make it not worth doing."
The way these writers tell it, the water offers much more than just simple exercise. It's a moment that can border on the spiritual. Much like the swell in popularity of the 'swimoir', the numbers of people swapping the pool for lakes, rivers and oceans is rising. Those who plunge into the cold Irish seas speak of the physical and psychological benefits with an almost evangelical zeal.
"There's something lovely about turning up [to the water] in the dark and getting into the cold water," explains Dubliner Claire Ryan, a wedding photographer. "In fact, I prefer it in the winter, when your body produces more endorphins as it warms itself up. There's a definite sense of leaving all your problems behind on shore. When you look back at Dublin, everything seems so small. And there's an interaction with nature you won't get from a treadmill."
Originally from North Carolina, Amy Murphy (now living in Dun Laoghaire) was a competitive swimmer in her youth, but had largely kept to the pool.
"I remember watching the Harbour Swim at Dun Laoghaire Harbour and thought, 'wow, that looks so cool. I want to be in that environment'," she says. "Physically, I compared it to an orgasm at the start. I know for me, even walking down the steps to the 40 Foot (a swimming spot in Sandycove, Dublin), every time I'm like, 'why the hell do I do this?', but once you're in 30 seconds, you realise, 'ah, that's why I do it'.
"You plan your life around the tides," she adds. "My kids are 19 and 21 now and they know that from 7 o'clock, if I'm not in the house, there's food in the fridge. I'm in the water."
For many female swimmers, there's a real sense of clawing back 'me time': "I just became Amy again," affirms Murphy. "I went back to having friends outside of work and the school gates. For those few moments, the mobile is in the car and I'm checking out of mommyhood."
Murphy is a huge believer in the sea's power to heal psychologically. Her daughter Delia, who has experienced mild anxiety and depression in the past, has started to swim alongside her in the Dublin Swimming Club. And her mother Sally, 79, comes to Ireland so the three generations of women can complete the Liffey Swim.
This proves to be another great draw for Ireland's swimmers: the strong sense of inclusivity. It hasn't necessarily always been this way, mind. Once upon a time, the 40 Foot swimming spot, made famous by Joyce's Ulysses, was an exclusively male preserve (owing to its seclusion, it was popular with nudists).
These days however, Dublin's swimming spots are open to all comers. No one needs to be 'beach body ready' and generations of Irish people mingle at the country's shores.
The 'lifers' often arrive to the 40 Foot in the mornings still wearing their dressing gowns.
In fact, the sense of camaraderie among the sea swimming community, says Ryan, is palpable.
"People show up with their flasks of tea and biscuits, and everyone catches up on each other's lives," she says. "It's a little shared experience." Vanessa Daws, a visual artist from Sutton, is so enamoured of sea swimming that she has incorporated it into her art practice. Her experience as a swimmer (she swims with Leinster Open Sea) is writ large in the work she shows in her Temple Bar Gallery and Studios space, not least in her Lambay Trilogy project. "I'd always been a swimmer, but when I moved to Dublin (from the UK), I didn't realise there was such a massive swimming community here," she says.
"If you're not in the mood to swim, you do come out better from the sea, that's for sure.
"People who are retired meet every day during the week and do some dips, while others could be highly competitive and more into longer swims.
"The beautiful thing is that you don't need to know anyone's personal experience when you're in the sea. It's a great leveler."
The summers, incidentally, when everyone comes to enjoy the Irish seaside, means increased theft and mess.
"It's great that everyone loves the sea, but it does mean that bags get rifled and people leave their crap behind, which never happens in winter," says Tiffiny Quinn, an IT planning manager from Clonskeagh and a member of the Dublin Swimming Club.
"You don't begrudge people swimming in the sea at all, but there's more much of a community in winter, and the regular swimmers are very respectful of the area."
Originally from Kerry, Quinn said her "social life exploded" after joining the club. "Everyone is so encouraging," she says. "After the very first time I did a master session, the ladies were saying to me, 'you should swim the Channel. You'll be fine'. And guess what? I'm now booked to swim the Channel. These people believe things in you that you don't believe yourself."