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Christian prudery once held back female swimmers, but now women are prepared to go the distance

Mary Kenny



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Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin

When Nell McCafferty, Nuala Fennell and Mary D'Arcy led the women's liberation invasion of the famous Forty Foot swimming area in Sandycove, Co Dublin, in the summer of 1974, I applauded their brio, but I'd never have joined in. Deep sea water? Terrifying.

Sea swimming in summer time is something I think we should all try to do, and I usually plunge in once a year at least: but maybe I have also inherited my Connemara grandmother's fear of the sea. The family tradition was that grandmother had seen a drowning in her impressionable youth, and forever afterwards feared the seashore. This story was diligently transmitted to me, and children remember what they are taught when young.

Yet I think the Connemara wariness of the sea was originally quite rational: that tumultuous Atlantic Ocean did indeed "take" people, and there was a superstition that when it "took" one, it would come back for two more. The desperate tragedy of the Cleggan Bay Disaster of 1927, when 45 Connemara fishermen drowned, left an indelible mark on the western coast.