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Swimposium for the senses: why Irish people are drawn to the water

Artist Vanessa Daws talks about her new aquatic project 


Artist and swimmer Vanessa Daws creates art in ‘watery spaces’. Picture by Vanessa Daws

Artist and swimmer Vanessa Daws creates art in ‘watery spaces’. Picture by Vanessa Daws

Artist and swimmer Vanessa Daws creates art in ‘watery spaces’. Picture by Vanessa Daws

During the long lockdowns of last year and this, sea swimming has been a source of solace for many. Something about the act of being momentarily alone in nature, with only the roar of the oceans in our ears, seemed to provide respite from the endless claustrophobia of our homes and the quotidian anti-thrills of a walk in the park.

Vanessa Daws is a Dublin-based artist who tries to investigate in her work why exactly we find a dip so calming.

Over the years, she herself has created art in “watery spaces” as diverse as the M50 Aqueduct in Blanchardstown in Dublin to the Bogs of Ballcroy in Co Mayo. Her work “investigates where this drive to swim, to immerse oneself in water comes from. Is it the sheer thrill of the unknown; to feel the water on our skin, the cold on our head, adapt our breathing and to feel we exist?”

Daws is unveiling an “aquatic project” — a “Swimposium — Swimming A Long Way Together”, which will take place from morning to evening next Saturday (August 21) at various points across Dublin Bay.

There will be actual swimming of course, but also presentations and panel discussions which “investigate the swimmer’s physical and psychological connection to the ocean”. The panels will also take in a discussion of swimming’s role in health — with surfer Easkey Britton among the line-up — and its place in the community. There will be a warm meal and a performance by traditional singing group, Landless.

It’s going to be a meeting of art, history and recreation.

“There is an inexplicable can’t-put-words-on-it draw to the water,” Daws says.

The inspiration for the event comes from Daws’ heroine in swimming: Mercedes Gleitze.

She was an English woman, of German stock, who became the first person to swim the Straits of Gibraltar and the first British woman to swim the English channel. She was something of a sporting celebrity in the 1920s and 1930s and huge crowds would cheer her record-breaking swimming attempts.

Vanessa explains that her fascination with Gleitze was tied in with her own attempt to swim the English Channel.

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“In the summer of 2019, I spent 12 hours in the English Channel, I was on my way across to France. A lot of people do it now, it’s quite common. There are boats with a pilot, and members of the crew who help to feed you.

“It’s a narrow body of water with a lot of traffic. I was being pushed in the current, and I ended up where the ferries go and my pilot could work out that with the speed I was travelling, I was going to be in the way [of the ferries] so he made me stop.

“I knew I had another six or seven hours to go and I felt fine and was swimming alright. It was a bit disappointing but that’s the way it goes.

“I was cold and tired but I was OK. I want to try again.”

The aborted attempt did not taint her love of swimming.

“When passing a body of water, be it pond, fountain, lake, river or sea, it’s hard for me to resist the urge to take a swim,” she says.

Daws read a book about Mercedes Gleitze, written by Gleitze’s daughter, Doloranda Pember, and during lockdown “as a relief from the endless emails of that time”, they became pen pals.

“We wrote letters to each other which was quite nice. I went to meet her before Covid hit and that was really nice.”

Music played a central role, as an accompaniment and support to Gleitze during her record-breaking swims and the festive atmosphere she encouraged on the pool deck will be emulated at the upcoming swimposium.

“It’s a way for people to come together and talk about swimming and the value of it,” Daws explains from her studio in Dublin. “It’s for swimmers, artists, geographers and historians, anyone who wants to come along.”


Tickets for the Dublin Swimposium events are €20. A ticket for the bus between the Swimposium event sites can be purchased at time of booking for €5. Tickets are available on eventbrite.ie/e/swimming-a-long-way-together-dublin-swimposium-tickets-164895327363

For further information, see swimmingalongwaytogether.com

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