BEST EVER SWIMMERS MEETING! – SKINNY DIPPING – SOMEWHERE IN CONNEMARA
Words by Maureen McCoy, photos by Paul McCambridge
Traveling along the coastline of Ireland I have been welcomed by swimmers young and old in the ever-changing weather, the common thread between us all; a sense of play and having fun in the outdoors.
Following the coastal roads there are many single track, rough lanes leading down to the shore. One such lane brought me to a chance meeting with a gentle man on an almost private beach. The track ended with just enough space to turn a car and a flat grassy area surrounded with tall bracken, a superb place to pitch our tents on this late summer evening. As the air cooled and the sky darkened we settled down to have a hot dinner and a cool cider.
As the early morning sunshine lit up the tent walls I could hear the stirrings of the others as they rose. Without enough strength yet in the morning sun to warm the air I pulled on my fleece and prepared to greet the day. Zipping open the tent there was an excited; “You just missed the funniest sight!” and as Darragh related to me our new friend’s dramatic entrance to our little ring of tents, pitched as we were at his favourite early morning bathing spot, Paul came charging to his car for camera lenses then sprinted back over the grass towards the sea to record this impromptu introduction to John’s morning ritual.
“This guy just walked past our campsite… BUTT NAKED!”
Tentatively following Darragh and Paul towards the shore I kept my gaze to the ground but was soon assured that the swimmer was merrily breast-stroke swimming at a modest distance, quite decent and perfectly happy to be photographed. As I approached he called across the silver water with a cheeky smile, “Maureen, I hope you don’t mind but I’m not wearing any trunks!”
The sun glinted silver on the water as he happily extolled the virtues of “free-swimming” while drifting back and forth and the tide gently filled the bay, his Jack Russell terriers scoured the rocks on the shore, chasing the varied scents and every so often lifting their heads to check on their beloved master.
“Do you know, September is a great time of the year for ladies to swim in the sea?” he told me. “The sea-weed releases its nutrients into the water. It’s good for the skin, you can bathe in the true fountain of youth and it won’t cost you a penny!”… He invited me to join him, I declined but Darragh decided it was time for his morning bath and so launched himself in…modestly clad.
…“Now, Maureen, you know I’m really going to have to come out now and I don’t want to offend you.” As I turned away to spare his blushes he followed with; “Mind you I don’t think I’d offend anyone right now!”
Wrapped safely in his towel and with a disarmingly good-humoured manner, he quoted some Seamus Heaney and cited the feel-good benefits of sea swimming.
Over a warming cup of tea after his swim John told me that, when he saw our campsite he had almost turned away and left but then said to himself, “Feck’em! This is my beach! I come here every day, if they don’t like it, tough!” and so he had carried on, striding boldly through our little campsite, towel slung over his shoulder, cap and goggles on and nothing else… to swim as nature intended.
Since retiring he has given up alcohol, eats only fruit for breakfast and enjoys a simple life; his ritual sunrise dip in the sea every morning from early spring right through into autumn, while the dogs investigate the rocks, impatiently waiting as he dresses to then take a warming walk along the shore. Later, he might meet up with friends for lunch or go home and read; poetry his favourite. Feeling healthier than ever, he has contentedly exited the rat race and found these simple pleasures perfectly fulfilling.
He looked at the sky and pointed; “See, there’s a squall coming through. It should miss us though and stay out over the water.”
I left this new friend with a renewed sense of the beauty of outdoor swimming, so many people, from so many different walks of life sharing a common love. No matter where one goes, when one meets a swimmer there is no difficulty in conversation.
Salthill Diving Boards
Words by Maureen McCoy
The wind whistles through the metal rails flanking the boards. The waves wash the concrete structure and a queue weaves its way up the steps, spilling out onto the top board. Squealing youths launch themselves into the air, legs kicking as they approach the water, to land with a great splash. A rush of sea water and bubbles as they each claw their way up to the surface, gasp for breath against the cold and exhilaration, then, shaking the sea from their hair, race back to the steps and climb to the high board again.
Mere minutes from Galway City along the Salthill promenade is where you will find these famous diving boards and this traditional sea bathing area. The yellow walls of Salthill, built at various angles to create shelter from the wind, invite one into the inner sanctum where white painted benches, strewn with towels and little mounds of clothing, run the length of each wall. A community of sea-swimmers thrives here, coming from all walks of life.
Early morning sees the business folk taking a dip before their commute. Mid-morning and the retirees club share swims, stories and cups of tea and after school and throughout the summer, the youths congregate.
Following the traditions of past generations, the high boards have become a rite of passage. On the last day of school the leavers flock here in uniform to storm the sea, a release before exams begin. Encouraged and guided by the veteran divers, they progress from the lower and middle boards. Finally making their way up to the double-sided high platform. Egged on by each other and the older divers, they gain confidence, throwing themselves, twisting and somersaulting, towards the ocean.
Now taking the ice-bucket challenge to new heights, a group of teenage girls arrived. Each clutched a small white bucket, pink fluted pinnies worn over their swimsuits. They giggled as they milled on the steps, each pushing another forward, none wanting to be the first, while the on-lookers smiled in amusement. They nervously followed the stream of boys up onto the high platform. The boys shouted as they leapt while the girls, one by one, edged to the front of the board, looking back for re-assurance, then, with courage plucked, a deep breath and a scream, stepped out.
Squeals of delight as they re-surfaced, the girls joined the boys again in the race back to the top.
Salthill; Sea Swimming area and Boards
Easy to find along the promenade and show-cased around the world in film, including Brendan Gleesons “The Guard”, the area is a hive of activity. Bicycle parking and toilets.
Flanked by banks of steps, the near-side bathing area forms an amphitheatre above the sea stage, behind the double-ended boards soar up.
Seamus Heaney wrote several poems in this area and along the promenade you can find quotations of his scribed on the sea wall.
Here is the place to meet swimmers and find out about the local history, people will share with you the hidden beaches and will recommend the entertainment spots in the city.
Glassilaun Beach – Killary, Connemara
Words By Maureen McCoy
Photography by Paul McCambridge
I have been stunned by the raw beauty of Connemara, the lake dotted peat bogs and the myriad beaches from stone, to shell, to fine white sand and now, travelling towards Killary Harbour the mountains soar up. Rugged green banks rise from the roadside and I want to jump out of the car and stride into the hills despite the driving rain, horizontal and beating its way through any gap in my armour. The narrow winding roads take me past new houses, old cottages and tiny fisherman’s hides, some made from metal and some looking like miniature white-washed stone cottages.
On the Atlantic coast and near the mouth of Killary Harbour, Glassilaun Beach does not disappoint, breath-taking even on a grey and windy, rain-swept day, soft pale sand sweeps round in a gentle arc towards a small island with a second small beach. On a warm and sunny day I would swim from here across to that beach and lie in the sunshine. I would walk on the grass-topped island and look out across the North Atlantic, bring a picnic, and while away the day. Today though, there would not be any sun-lounging, the dry bag was needed to store clothes and towels against the rain as we ran across the sand and into the water – all set to squeal at the chill but no, the water was pleasant. A shoal of the tiniest jelly-fish I have ever seen, our only company. Swaying back and forth with the outgoing tide, little button mushrooms, some smaller than my baby toe-nail, they hadn’t the strength to sting. We left the colony and swam on towards the island, while the gentle Atlantic swell softly brushed the shoreline.
Glassilaun Beach is one of a number of Blueway Beaches and as such has car-parking and good information boards. Take the N59 from Leenaun and follow the Connemara Loop past Lough Fee, sign posts then for Glassilaun and Scuba Dive West guide you to the beach and parking – no facilities.
Killary Harbour is a glacial FJARD, similar to a FJORD, only shorter, shallower and broader. At 16km long and over 45metres deep it is one of three Fjards in Ireland; Belfast and Carlingford Loughs being the others.
The Killary Fjord Swim takes place on the 11th October this year, 750m and 2km swims in the Fjord;
Trá an Doilin – Carraroe Co Galway
Words by Maureen McCoy, photos by Paul McCambridge
At the mouth of Galway bay, between Casla Bay and Greatman’s Bay lies one of the most extraordinary beaches in Ireland; Tra an Doilin, or the Coral Beach. Made not of sand but of millions of pieces of what looks like coral in myriad colours. Scoop a handful of this coralline algae known as maerl and it gleams with the mother of pearl of minute shells, miniscule pieces of coral amongst tiny branches of delicate underwater plants, the colours ranging from purple, orange, yellow, fading out to pure bleached white.
Swim in the clear water of any of the series of tiny coves between the rocky outcrops while the countless colours beneath catch the light – a must see on the west coast. Tread carefully as you explore the rocks pools and coves because maerl, while beautiful, is sharp on bare feet.
Excerpt from Wild Swimming in Ireland 2016, ISBN 978-1-84889-280-4
Getting there; from Galway city take the R336 cast road west past Connemara airport. At Casla, turn left onto the R343 and follow the signs for Carraroe. Drive through the village and look for the sign for Tra an Doilin which brings you to the car park and beach.