The bare necessities
British naturists have just appointed a marketing guru to raise their profile and attract new members. Here the movement is a little more self-effacing, as John Meagher discovered at a beach near Dublin
It's Saturday, in the early afternoon, and the vast expanse of Donabate beach, north Co. Dublin, is sparsly populated.
At the far end of the strand, away from the children and the sand castles, a group of adults remove their clothes. Every single garment. They seem utterly comfortable with each other's nudity.
But other people in the vicinity, clearly, are not quite as comfortable. Half-a-dozen golfers, suspending their play at the neighbouring golf links, stare slack-jawed. Some are openly pointing.
A man stands behind one of the sand dunes, camcorder in hand, videotaping the scene. He scampers when he notices he has been spotted. "You'd be worry about something like this ending up on the internet," one of the naturists says.
It seems extraordinary that people would find the sight of naked adults so incredible in 2004 but, for this group of naturists, it's a typical reaction. "People do find it strange," one of the women says. "We've been conditioned to believe that it's wrong not to wear clothes. We want to be different."
Quite why anybody would want to shed clothes on this particular day is beyond me. It's not particularly warm and the black clouds overhead threaten rain. Most people would probably want to add a layer of clothing. But two of the naturists seem oblivious to the chill and the swirling sand as they race into the sea for their regular skinny-dip. It's clear, that for these people the shedding of clothes is a very enjoyable practice indeed.
Naturism is a growing movement worldwide and in Britain the country's leading naturism organisation has just appointed a highly-paid marketeer charged with attracting new members.
The Irish Naturist Association (INA) was established in the early 1970s and has campaigned for "officially approved clothing optional beaches" - without success.
The association is affiliated to the International Naturist Federation (INF) and issue INF membership cards to all members. This card is the internationally recognised naturist 'passport' which is required for entry into most naturist clubs, campsites and holiday centres in Europe.
Naturist facilities in Ireland are very limited. Although there are many secluded beaches around our extensive coastline used by naturists, there are no officially recognised naturist beaches. Organised facilities are currently limited to Dublin and Tipperary.
While Irish naturism is reported to be growing in popularity, many members of the INA seem to be a publicity-shy. Of the group that turn up to meet me in Donabate, only two are willing to be named. And, while most members go to a beach on the southside of the city, they choose to meet elsewhere so as not to draw attention to their usual hangout.
Among those who come is the organiser of the Dublin-based naturist club, Aquarius. He doesn't want to be named. "I've got children to think about," he says.
"It's not because I'm not proud of being a naturist," he says, clearly irritated when I express surprise at his desire for anonymity. Later, he hands me Irish Naturist magazine but insists that none of the photos or any of the content be reproduced. Nor can I mention the swimming pool where naturists can go to swim naked. Public relations is not high on their list of priorities.
His wife, who also wants to remain anonymous, says that, while her children understand their parent's choice, they don't want them to flaunt the fact.
"People have the wrong idea about naturists," she says. "Sometimes they think there's something weird going on, that it's a perversion."
"Or that we have orgies," says another naturist. "There's an awful lot of misunderstanding about what we do. It's got nothing whatsoever to do with sex."
Alan Johnson, a middle-aged businessman, is one of Ireland's few naturists who is willing to be named. He says that Irish people are far more receptive to naturism than their counterparts in the US. "They can be very conservative over there and can take great offence."
The Irish, he believes, have become more tolerant over the years although he still gets the occasional complaint. "I remember this guy coming up to me on the beach and asking me to put my clothes back on because his children were around. I told him that he had a problem with me, not the children. I don't think children have hang-ups about this at all. It's the adults who take issue."
Alan, together with his German partner Hildegarde, enjoys swimming naked. "It's very pleasant indeed to be one with nature," he says. "It's far easier to dry off. And you can decide to go swimMing on a whim. You can be driving by the sea and think 'I'd love to go for a dip in there' and it's great because you can do it without worrying if you have swimming togs with you or not."
Hildegarde says naturism is far more common in the rest of Europe. "There's nothing unusual about being a naturist in Germany or somewhere like Holland," she says. "Irish naturists often go to these places on their holidays, somewhere where they can relax and not feel inhibited."
Naturists don't like to be called nudists. "We're not exhibitionists," one says. "We don't march up and down streets naked. We are very respectful of others when we are in a public place like a beach. We're people who love nature. The word comes from one who worships the forces of nature."
But I'm still a bit confused as to what's so special about naturism.
The following day, I receive an email from a naturist who was unable to make the gathering at Donabate. The 69-year-old man has been a naturist for 23 years - having discovered naturism during a holiday with his wife in Spain - and he adores the freedom it allows. There are four reasons, he says, why he is a naturist.
"One, the sheer sensuous enjoyment of feeling the sun, the air, and the sea on one's whole body, and the chance of getting an even tan," he writes.
"Two, the pleasure of seeing and being seen by other naked people, and the opportunity of appreciating the crowning glory of physical creation, or, if you like, of evolution, which is the human body.
"Three, the pleasure of shedding social conventions and of being with other people who feel the same. We have met some wonderful and friendly people through our naturism.
"And, four, a desire to re-experience the sexual innocence of childhood, perhaps to revert to the Garden of Eden, where the Bible says that the man and the woman were both naked and both unashamed."
Where the law stands on naturism
Irish law does not recognise naturism. The law in relation to public nudity is such that it can be an offence, both under statute and at common law, for a man or a woman to expose himself or herself in a public place, including private lands seen from a public place.
There are a number of laws, some of them more than a century old, which could, in theory, be used against naturists including the Vagrancy Act, 1824 and the Town Improvement (Ireland) Act, 1854. The main legislative provision concerned with public nudity is contained in the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1935 and in The Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994.
Despite the unfavourable legal situation, no member of the Irish Naturist Association has ever been prosecuted for bona-fide activities.
Join the club!
* The Irish Naturist Association, which was formed in 1965 by a group of people who met on holidays, has about 1,000 members. There are two main clubs: the Southern Naturist Club, which serves the Cork and Limerick areas, and Club Aquarius, which serves the Dublin area. Both organise social functions that include weekly swim and sauna sessions during winter and beach outings and camping weekends during summer.
Contact the INA's Pat Gallagher on 086-8370395 for precise locations of naturist areas.