Wednesday 17 October 2018

The memories will last forever of the Christmas dip in the Dalua

After 35 years, one of the oldest traditions on the festive calendar in Newmarket, the Christmas Day Swim in the Island Wood, will not go ahead this year.

The swim is not going ahead this year mainly due to insurance reasons, which involve a complex web of terms and conditions and, indeed, costs. However, in what can only be hoped is a hiatus year, it's timely to take a look at what caused hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of people to leave their cosy homes of a Christmas morning and strip off to immerse themselves in the almost freezing waters of the Dalua River in the picturesque Island Wood.

If it sounds like something of an 'off the wall' idea (there were few, if any, Christmas swims taking in place in Ireland 35 years ago) it came on the back of another, rather adventurous innovation - a swimming pool in Newmarket.

And that idea owes in genesis to what was a thriving Newmarket Youth Club in the 1970's, which was active in all sorts of areas - but not swimming. Then, in 1979, Mary Stack had the idea of organising a bus for youth club members to Mallow Swimming Pool, so club members could learn to swim and enjoy a great recreational activity.

The first bus rolled out of Newmarket in September 1979 and, indeed, they are still rolling once weekly right up to today.

Such was the initial success of the swimming trips, organisers hit on the idea of having a swimming pool of their own in Newmarket. Without a ready-made venue, and considering the mammoth task - and cost - of constructing a Mallow-like pool in Newmarket, those behind the venture hit on what was considered a more attainable prospect:

Install and outdoor pool adjacent to, and fed off, the Dalua River at the Island Wood.

Plans were made, funding was raised and help was secured from the county council, and other bodies. And the pool in the Island Wood opened in 1982.

For a number of years hundreds of locals learned to swim in the pool in the Island Wood, and every summer many hundreds enjoyed a cool dip close to home - Newmarket is at least 75km from the nearest beach, Banna in Co Kerry.

Everything went swimmingly until ... it didn't. As we all know, the rivers of Duhallow are prone to flooding, and when they do the floods carry untold volumes of flotsam and jetsam along with them, from discarded litter, to sediment to fallen trees. And amounts of this floating ooze all too regularly tended to end up in the pool by the Dalua in the Island Wood in Newmarket.

Nevertheless ... back 1982, with the pool newly opened, it was decided to go one better and hold a swim that Christmas as a fundraiser for worthy causes.

Roughly 20 hardy souls took to the waters of the Dalua that Christmas morning to raise funds for Concern and it was the beginning of a truly great annual event that went on to become a huge fund-raiser and a cherished seasonal tradition.

For perhaps the first five years the Island Wood swims raised funds for Concern but later branched out aid The Irish Heart Foundation, The Irish Kidney Foundation, Breakthrough Cancer Research, to name just a few, and, last year, Mallow Search and Rescue Unit.

For most of the past ten years, and despite the recession, the Christmas swim has raised about €10,000 annually, topping of at €16,000 for Breakthrough Cancer Research in 2011.

Meanwhile, over the years the swim also grew as a social event: from a quick, chilly dip to a festive community gathering in the open air before repairing back home for the Christmas feast.

Mary Stack, whose vision and vigour set the ball rolling all those years ago, and who has organised the event every year since, can look back with a sense of considerable achievement. However, while Mary is a well recognised organiser in the local community - from swims to bus trips and a lot more besides - she is drawing the line on negotiating the minefield of full-on public liability insurance; and that's very easily understandable.

Now, as Christmas 2017 is almost upon us, Mary looks back on the swims not so much with pride as with thanks.

"A 'thank you' to the swimmers seems totally inadequate, considering they have raised over €200,000 for numerous charities down through the years," she says. "Some swimmers have been taking part for almost 20 years and well done to each and every one of you for your efforts, especially facing the cold waters of the River Dalua every Christmas morning.

"Thanks are due also to the hundreds of supporters who came along every year and donated so generously to the various causes.

"Thank you to Jerry McAuliffe, who has been there since the start and to the Kiely family, Dromagh, the late Séan and now his son, Derry, who provided the amplification, and to SuperValu Newmarket for the mulled wine.

"Thanks to all the other helpers down through the years who made it all possible," added Mary.

It is sad to see the swim it over as it was a great meeting place and, for many, a chance to catch up with family and friends on Christmas morning. However, the organisers are very happy that the past 35 years have been accident free and that it has brought great enjoyment and happy memories to many.

Since the news of the cancellation of the annual swim broke, Mary has received a flood (pardon the pun) of regrets and well-wishes. A line from one such letter, received this past week, included the line:

'The annual swim was always a great Christmas event, but the memories will last forever'.