It's a bright Sunday morning on White Rock Beach in Dalkey in South County Dublin, and the early risers are out in force. On one side of the beach, there's a family paddling at the water's edge, a group of fifty-somethings spreading out a blanket on the sand and a Labrador sprinting along the surf.
On the other side of the beach, tucked into a rocky cove, is a group of about 20 people practising Qigong and celebrating the June Solstice. It would be an unusual sight at the best of times. The nudity makes it even more so.
This isn't the first time the Irish Naturist Association (INA) has descended en masse on Dalkey's beaches. The 57-year-old organisation hosts regular indoor and outdoor meet-ups for its members. Today, however, is the first time it has hosted naked Qigong on the beach - and it's busier than expected.
Coordinator Leticia Medina, who's now passing around homemade pastries for the group's naked breakfast, says the association has seen a spike in interest in naturism as Ireland slowly moves out of lockdown.
"There's been a 31pc increase in memberships between May and July compared to the same period last year, and nearly half of those new members are women," she explains. "We didn't have any women join during that time in 2019."
Leticia attributes the surge in interest partly to the virtual events the association has been running - everything from naked pub nights to naked Spanish lessons - and partly to a deeper need for community and togetherness during the pandemic. "Naturists in Ireland want to be connected to each other now more than ever," she says.
British Naturism has reported a similar increase in new members. The organisation says its numbers doubled during the pandemic, thanks to initiatives like 'Work Naked Wednesday', which encouraged members to wear nothing while working from home.
They've also been appealing for high-profile members like Daisy-Edgar Jones, whose nude scenes in Normal People led to an open invitation from the group's Andrew Welch.
"We would certainly encourage Daisy to decide to continue being naked, unscripted and out of the studio," he said. "Despite what people might think, naturists are also normal people from all walks of life and backgrounds."
Back on White Rock Beach, it is getting busier with regular beach-goers and the naturists start to gather up their belongings. Some of the people here know each other well from previous events; some are newcomers who are still finding their feet (and their socks).
This is the second INA event for Dubliner Lorcan, who at 38 is one of the youngest people in the group. He thinks the growing interest in naturism is linked to our renewed interest in nature.
"With the way the world is now - and we don't know what way it's going - I think people are getting connected back to nature," he says. "And I've heard that people have been trying it out at home, because of the weather and being stuck indoors."
The INA encouraged members and non-members alike to experiment with naturism during lockdown. It ran a Naked Gardening photo contest and offered free membership to women who sent in an artistic nude photo. But lockdown has also, to some extent, normalised nudity among non-naturists too. Actor Ansel Elgort posed naked to raise money for Brooklyn For Life!, an initiative that delivers meals to frontline workers in Brooklyn. And in Germany, a group of GPs stripped down to their stethoscopes to draw attention to the shortage of PPE for healthcare workers. There was a Naked Challenge on TikTok (naked women walked in front of their boyfriends while they were playing video games and captured their reactions). OnlyFans, a platform that allows people to self-shoot and sell adult content, reported a 42pc rise in new accounts.
The pièce de résistance, however, was the unidentified activist, now known as 'Naked Athena', who "emerged as an apparition out of clouds of tear gas" to confront heavily armed anti-riot police during the Portland protests in America.
Lorcan says he doesn't understand why people are squeamish about nudity. He would be naked most of the time at home, he says, if he didn't live with other people. For now, though, he's planning to attend more virtual events from his bedroom.
"I'm in the INA about a year now," he explains. "Before that I was going off to a beach early in the morning and either going for a run or a walk and then, when no-one was around, I'd take my clothes off for 10 or 20 minutes or whatever because I just wanted to be at one with the elements. I did it a couple of times in woodlands as well but I was always really nervous and looking over my shoulder."
There's a safety-in-numbers aspect to joining the INA, says Lorcan, but card-carrying naturism isn't for everyone.
Pat, who's in his sixties, swims in the same part of the water as the Solstice group but explains afterwards that he's not an INA member.
"I wouldn't like to be labelled or part of a big group," he says as he changes back into his clothes. "And I'm not altogether gone on the whole idea of nudist encampments or enclosed places. I just like nudism on beaches in general.
"I think people should be free to go in where they find it fairly appropriate, just once they go about their business and they don't go about interfering with other people and other people don't go about interfering with them. I like that type of nudism."
Pat has been a naturist since the 1970s and remembers a time when there was a more permissive attitude towards it. "There was a stage where you'd go down to the Forty Foot or the Vico and you'd wear your swimwear or you wouldn't wear it when you wanted," he says. "Nobody really bothered and it was free and easy.
"In recent years, I think what has happened since the advent of social media, is a lot more people have become more aware of these swimming places… and you've a lot more younger people with access to cars and with driving licences and they'd frequent the places a lot more now."
There are no gawking teenagers or startled passersby at the Solstice event. If anything, it feels like a tacit territorial agreement has been drawn up between the naturists and non-naturists (or 'textiles', as they are sometimes called).
A man walks by and, in mock-astonishment, asks 'What is the world coming to?' before smiling towards his group of friends. Two children of about six or seven spot the group when their paddle board crashes against the rocks. There's a brief point-and-stare moment but they're much more interested in the next wave.
"I suppose if we were all to move up to where most people congregate, not everyone might be free and easy and chilled about it," says Pat.
"I've often, and others have often, parked themselves up the other end of that little beach and again without any hassle from other people. But you might occasionally be asked to wear something because someone has their kids with them or something. The guards have been down occasionally. I wasn't there myself but they had taken names of people and that's what it amounted to really.
"In fact, I did on one occasion see two officers coming down and they sort of looked around and went away again. I'm not saying they came down when there was a whole pile of nudists all over the place - there was just a few of them."
Under the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, public nudity is only deemed an offence when someone intends "to cause fear, distress or alarm, or engages in sexual activity". The new law is similar to the law on public nudity in the UK, and no member of the Irish Naturist Association has ever been prosecuted for naturist activities.
After the law change, the INA campaigned for Hawk Cliff (also known as The Vico and The Ramparts) to become Ireland's first official 'clothing optional' location. In April 2018, Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council agreed to display signage making people aware that this was a designated area for naturists, but the plans have since stalled after a number of objections by local residents.
Hawk Cliff is close to White Rock but it's much more secluded, points out Eoin, who was a member of the American Association for Nude Recreation before joining the INA in 2019.
"I only went [to the White Rock event] because I'm trying to support the organisation," he tells me when we chat by phone a few weeks after meeting on the beach.
"I would have been very uncomfortable with that on a public beach… I would have been a bit concerned that people would take photos. I suppose I don't like the idea of being laughed at."
Eoin was in his early thirties and on honeymoon in France when he had his first experience of naturism. He and his then-wife discovered an isolated camping spot in the mountains, close to a lake, when they encountered another couple.
"They were a young couple and they were running around naked and swimming naked. My wife said, 'they're just like two children having fun'."
Inspired by what they saw, Eoin and his wife removed their clothes too. "We joined them in the evenings for food but we didn't stay with them when they were doing their own nudity."
It was a liberating experience, he says, and it encouraged them to seek out naturist camping sites whenever they holidayed in France.
Laura, a mother-of-three from Italy who has only recently started attending INA events, had a similar experience. She was 19 when her now-husband's brother recommended a nudist campsite in the south of Italy.
"There was this hippie feel to it - lots of people would have been going for years and years and there was a sort of community spirit with yoga teachers and Qigong teachers. A couple of mornings we got up at 6am for Qigong on the beach. The beach was made of clay and it was good for your skin. So we'd mix it with a little sea water and cover our skin in it and have a face mask or a body mask."
Laura, who has lived in Ireland for the last 20 years, says she isn't a "militant" or "idealogical" naturist.
"I associate naturism with the seaside - it's a lovely feeling to swim naked. I don't really like naturism indoors. I just like the feeling of being in nature and living that experience fully - more than being in a swimming pool," she says.
People are much more relaxed about nudity in other countries, she adds. "Not so much in Italy but definitely in Spain and the Netherlands and Finland.
"I didn't really feel that anyone was staring that time we were on [White Rock]. But I do feel that there is a lot of embarrassment about the body and body functions and anything that has to do with your body really. Even going to swimming classes in Ireland is very strange because you don't see anybody naked in the changing rooms.
"It's a woman's changing room and people are doing crazy manoeuvres to cover themselves up when they're getting changed to make sure that nothing shows and that the towel is on them at all times.
"I think there are more hang-ups about the body in Ireland," she adds. "It's definitely linked to sexual shame. It is definitely something that comes with Catholic culture - the body is the prison of the soul and it needs to be sort of punished to be free from the shame of the body."
This could be one of the reasons why Irish naturism tends to be male-dominated, she posits. "Where the shame and modesty is strongest it has more of an impact on women," she says. "And men have always been getting away with things."
The other, more clear-cut, reason is the historical exclusion of women from nude swimming spots like the Forty Foot. The blatant sexism led to some lively protests over the years, including one by The Dublin City Women's Invasionary Force in 1974 and another, in 1989, involving five naked women and 1,000 spectators.
Frenchwoman Nathalie, who leads the group's Qigong class, says she was a little apprehensive when the INA asked her to get involved with their events. The Tao and Tantra teacher had experience of communal nudity from women's retreats but she had never before been naked with a group of men.
"The atmosphere was much nicer than I thought it would be and much safer than I thought it would be," she says, referring to the unisex aspect of INA's events.
"When I was asked to teach in the outdoors, first of all I had a concern of, 'Oh my God, are people going to see me and what are people going to say and are we going to be in trouble?'
"But actually, when you think about it, being naked is natural. We are born that way - it's something that should be natural but we make it into a sort of a sin.
"I would love to bring more spirituality into [naturism]," she adds, "especially in Ireland, because the country has a lot of influence from the church. A lot of morality, a lot of what you should and shouldn't do. I would like to bring, I would say, more freedom."
INA member José, a fifty-something from Spain, agrees that other countries have a more progressive attitude to naturism. However, he thinks a shift, driven by socially progressive liberals, could be starting in Ireland.
"That thing was unbelievable," he says, referring to the Solstice event. "I never thought something like that would happen in Ireland - and there were a lot of people on the beach and nobody complained as far as I know. I don't think even in Germany you would get that many people doing that on a Sunday morning."
The Irish naturism scene may be experiencing some growth, but it's still small compared to countries like France and Spain where nudist beaches and campsites are dotted along the coastline.
This isn't to say that Irish people are averse to public nudity. The sheer number of volunteers (2,500 in Dublin and 1,300 in Cork) that posed for artist Spencer Tunick when he came to Ireland in 2008 would suggest that people here are willing to try it, just as long as it's positioned as an experience and not a lifestyle.
"It's a way for people to be involved in contemporary art and be included," explains Spencer, who's isolating in his home in Ramapo, New York, when we chat.
"I think people pose because they want to be part of art but then the second part is they want to be naked and free; not sending a message out to other people but just a self-affirming message that they are living, their spirit is strong, and yes, they are going against the grain, which is kind of interesting."
Spencer's nude installations usually involve thousands of volunteers in scenic locations around the world. When lockdown prevented him from making his art, he started a new series, Stay Apart Together, using video-conferencing technology.
People from all over the world have taken part in the project, citing various reasons for their participation.
"Coronavirus isolation made me realise how lucky I am," says a participant from Mexico City. "I want to feel like a part of the world while the whole world takes a break," says a New Yorker. "Life is too short to stress about the naked body... especially when your job is swabbing Covid patients!" says a nurse from Australia.
Photographer Dana Kasap from Tel Aviv also started a nude photography project during lockdown. Participants were photographed from a safe distance in their homes while lying on their couches.
"Some of the people I photographed would have never taken off their clothes, but something about being in lockdown, in isolation, made people feel like they were more willing, wanting to get back to their natural habitat, especially in their own home," she says.
"It was like the shoot was the reminder of this moment, and what we are going through, and the subtle nudity was to let me, the photographer, see them completely and be more exposed."
Looking back at his Irish photography installation in 2008, Spencer says he wasn't at all surprised by the turn-out.
"We always find that where there is a lot of preconceived history to the body, where the body, at least in public, is not accepted, we always find that people want to come out to send a message.
"They want to make art with me but they also do it because they want to reclaim ownership of their bodies and prove that the government doesn't own their bodies."
The people who took part in Spencer's Irish project are generally proud of their involvement. Indeed, many of them still have the limited-edition print that he gives all participants proudly displayed on their walls.
The Irish people who practise naturism as a lifestyle are a little more reserved. Lorcan says he hasn't told his family that he's a naturist. "I had a Catholic upbringing and there would be a lot of immaturity around it and probably still shame. They wouldn't understand it so I don't talk to them about it."
Pat isn't secretive about it, but he isn't vocal about it either. "I've probably mentioned it casually a few times but I wouldn't go out of my way to say, 'come here, listen, do you know what I did yesterday?'"
The reasons behind their reticence vary but, for the most part, it's because they know people have preconceptions about the lifestyle.
"I suppose some people think you're out to put on a show or to shock or something," says Pat. "I suppose if there's a man on his own, or a few men, the perception would be - particularly if they're above say 40/50 years of age - that they shouldn't be doing that. They might think they're just being exhibitionists."
Lorcan thinks some people associate nudity with sex. "People think once a person's clothes are off they are that way inclined. People are conditioned to think like that - it's amazing because I haven't encountered one such incident like that.
"It's always the first question when people ask someone about naturism - what would you do if a man got an erection? That would never happen - you'd really have to put in a lot of concentration for that to happen!"
The other big preconception that people have about naturism, says Leticia, is that it's only for the best-looking bodies. "It is a very democratic environment, she points out, "with all ages, shapes and sizes being very welcome."
As for those with body hang-ups, many naturists say the lifestyle led them to better body acceptance.
"I was self-conscious as a kid because I was very thin and I found it difficult to put on weight," says Eoin. "I went to an all-boys school and a little bit of bullying went on… 'skinny pr*ck', I think I was called. And I'm a sensitive kind of guy so I took it a bit to heart."
Laura says a naked yoga class helped her overcome body insecurities she had after having children. "I think it's very empowering for a woman when you get to a certain age and you've had a few children and you're not sure of your body any more - just being relaxed about it where other people are totally nonchalant about it."
Lorcan says naturism helped him deal with deeply ingrained body shame.
"It's given me more confidence. It's made me a little more humble as well and given me more acceptance of where I am in my life. It's given me more trust - trusting more in people - it's a good mental health activity, definitely."
Nathalie, who is a relative newcomer to the Irish naturism scene, thinks everyone should try it once.
"When we are dressed, it's another layer and we don't feel safe. When we're all naked, there is nothing to hide anymore and people feel safe and this is very interesting to experience… I think why people don't do this is because we judge ourselves too much - we think we're not good enough or our body is not good enough."
This is the aspect of naturism that Leticia is most keen to promote.
"To be honest, our ultimate goal is not to gain more members for the association but to raise awareness in Irish society about naturism and body positivity," she explains when we chat a month later.
The Naked Qigong event is still going strong, she says. In fact, the first event was such a success that they're now doing similar events every Sunday, all summer long, between White Rock Beach and Donabate Beach.
"White Rock Beach is getting increasingly popular for Dublin naturists, especially now in pandemic times, since Hawk Cliff is too small to properly observe social distance when it gets full - and it does get full of textiles these days," she says.
"And we are getting more and more people every time. Last Sunday morning the full Northern part of the beach was fully occupied by naturists, perhaps around 20 taking part in the Qigong lesson and as many just sunbathing or swimming."
The numbers seem extraordinary but it's hard to know if this is a post-lockdown phenomenon or a radical sea change in attitudes. Maybe this is what happens when people are locked down for months. Maybe a lot of people really like Qigong. Either way, Dublin's beaches are going to be a little busier this month - and the INA is finally having its day in the sun.
Some names have been changed
For more information about naturism in Ireland visit www.irishnaturism.org
Photography by Kyle Tunney