Salthill, Galway – Boards and Ice Bucket Challenges

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Words by Maureen McCoy

Photography by Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual Media

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.

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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.

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Squeals of delight as they re-surfaced, the girls joined the boys again in the race back to the top.

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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.

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Howth – Dublin

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Words by Maureen McCoy

Photography by Paul McCambridge / MAC Visual Media

On this, the first weekend of summer, a festival vibe sweeps along the coastal path from Howth as a host of teenagers in swimsuits and shorts flock alongside tourists. Clutching their return tickets for the Dart they pass the cliff top shop, towels slung over shoulders and lost in chatter.

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No longer allowed to jump from the pier and now fined if they do, they instead have re-claimed an old diving haunt a little way along the craggy coastline. Leaving the tourists to watch as they drop down off the main path onto a beaten track clearly used year round by fishermen, they make their way to a vertiginous staircase. I thought of Escher and his drawings of the impossible stairs or Harry Potter with the moving staircases of Hogwarts. With no railings and seemingly suspended held only by their own weight, the steps span the cavernous drop to the rocks below and lead onto a rocky outcrop where the concrete plinths of old diving boards still remain.

The water is deep and clear, I can’t see the bottom but I can see that it is very deep and there are no dangerous rocks beneath the surface, a perfect dive pit.

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Plunging in and swimming the few metres to the diving platforms, teens scramble up the cliff in swimsuits, with socks the only protection for bare feet on the barnacle encrusted rocks. Tourists shout encouragement from their vantage point on the cliff path above as a wet-suited young man ventures to the highest plinth. He steps to the edge, clenches his fists then backs away. Gripping his long hair in frustration as he repeatedly goes through this performance. The spectators are getting restless, cries of “Go on! Do it! It’s not that high!” Cameras are poised for the action as anticipation builds. The board below him looks only about 3m from this height.

It’s only when I get down the path, level with the board that I can see I was mistaken. The lower board I would estimate 5 – 6 metres above the surface that would make the higher plinth close to 10 metres. I’ve jumped from 10 in Dublin’s NAC, once, and there’s a lot of time on the way down to realise that you just might have made a mistake.

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Across the deep green natural diving pit, four young men line up along the facing cliff. Standing level with the high plinth, one after the other they leap. The sharp smack as their canvas shoes hit the water reverberates around the cliffs, applause from the coastal path high above as their whoops of delight carry up to the crowd. They swim across to a small rock and rest in the sun. One standing as the others sit they look from a by-gone age. I am hit with a thought of this very same scene happening in the twenties or thirties, a ‘great Gatsby-like’ vision of young men in their prime enjoying the beginning of a seemingly endless summer. Finally they decide to join the throngs of younger divers on the main rock.

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We leave the rock littered with girls and boys, their happy chatter and laughter echoing as we cross that impossible staircase again.

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Ballymorran Bay – Strangford Lough

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Words by Maureen McCoy

Photos by Paul McCambridge

Jon and Sarah, silhouetted against the gleaming water, little splashes from their hands becoming sparkling diamonds in the air as we swam in the low November sun.

We were taking advantage of the dwindling sunny days and with the winter fast approaching, to swim out across the bay toward Darragh Island.  The plunge was taken and the brutal chill awakened every sense in my body as we settled our breathing and then began to swim through knife-like cold, clear water. Jon and Sarah took great delight in introducing me to this secret spot their family have come to for years. They told me how there is now a community of wild goats on Darragh and that as you swim closer to the island there is a deep crevasse where one can feel the temperature drop suddenly as one swims into the deeper water.

Returning to the pier I had the urge to dive, as I climbed out, the water covered my feet and I stood amidst the bright yellows and greens of the lichen covered rocks on the 10ft pier wall. I prepared myself for the ice-cream-headache shock when I dived – it didn’t come! Perhaps two caps was insulation enough or brain freeze had already set in, but I simply felt further exhilarated. Sarah joined me, stepping out of her wetsuit to take the plunge in ‘skins!’ Bravely she jumped in with a cry; “You’d better have taken a photo of this!”

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The water felt fresh and clean and the jellies gone for the winter. The family must have had a blissful summer coming to this quiet spot in the hot weather to picnic and play.

As we helped each other into our warm clothes I extolled the virtues of fleece joggers and pyjamas, and thermal socks, easy to slip into with numb toes and sticky, half dried Skin.

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CURSED LAKE – Slieve Gullion,

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Words by Maureen McCoy

Photography by Paul McCambridge

To dip in the legendary waters of a volcano crater, famed for a curse on the giant, Finn McCool, was too good an opportunity to pass by, so on a warm, sunny day we drove to Slieve Gullion Forest Park, Armagh. A track led us up the mountain and during the 45 minute walk to the summit we passed a stone shelter and read of ancient tombs and the legend of the lake itself.

Arriving at the trig point, to our left lay the small Lough, the sun was shining and with the Lough reflecting the blue sky, it looked like a scene from a Dali painting.

A grey haired man suddenly appeared from the other side of the hill, taking his daily walk, saw that we intended to swim and warned us of the curse…

…when the great, Finn McCool came to the Lough, he saw a beautiful woman there who enticed him into the waters, he bathed but, having entered the water as the strong giant of legend, he emerged reduced to a weak old man with all his hair turned to white!  The beautiful woman was a Witch who had cursed the Lough stealing the great Giants’ strength and power.

 

It took him years of searching but finally Finn found a good Witch who was able to restore his youth, strength and vitality, but his hair remained forever white.

Despite this warning we ventured in, and found, quite unnervingly, our skin took on a blood-red hue in the peaty water, this must keep the story of the Curse alive!

We lay on the water and sculled our way towards the centre, but the Lough is very shallow and floored with peaty silt, easily disturbed and quickly turning the water black, so not good for swimming, although a quick dip on a hot day is refreshing, you will spend more time wiping the silt from your body after!

Perhaps just to sit on a rock and cool ones feet, is enough.

Still, to dip in the blood-red waters of a volcano crater in Ireland was an experience!

Philips Street Atlas, Co Armagh, pg 140, E5

 

Slieve Gullion Forest park, Armagh, drive along the forest road and park at the side of the track. The walk took around 45 mins from the start of the track to the trig point.

 

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THE “SLOUGH” – DUNSEVERICK – NORTH ANTRIM COAST

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Words by Maureen McCoy

Photography By Paul McCambridge

Early evening and nearing the end of a super day exploring the North Coast, the weather was glorious, the warmest day we’d had in weeks.  The evening sun lit up the grassy field as we parked the car on the roadside behind many other cars and climbed over the stile to follow the path down to the Slough.

On the far side of the inlet, nestled on the small patches of sand between large rocks were a couple of extended family groups, with children ranging in ages from a very vocal two year old to teenage.  With wind-breaks pegged into the sand and folding chairs set up, they had been there for the whole day.  Another family picked their way across the rocks, barefoot and in wetsuits to jump from the lower ledges, gaining confidence to later try the high rocks on the opposite side.

As we got closer and the whole of the Slough came into view, a bright pink li-lo starkly contrasted with the teal-green deep water.  Drifting on this was young man, long hair tied back calling instructions to his friends on the rocks.  Another then threw down a large rubber ring and took a great leap from on high to land in the centre.  We all laughed and clapped at his display.

Kealan and I headed to these high rocks.  Kealan jumped first and as I stepped forward I felt a twinge of nerves.  My cautious nature made me hesitate and assess the depth, judge the distance I would need to jump out to clear the rock walls and my heart beat faster as I realised there was no turning back.  3-2-1- jump!  I think I might have squealed a little!  My feet hit the water and I pulled my arms in close to my body, as soon as I was underwater I opened my arms and used a breast stroke kick to stop myself from hitting the bottom.  I needn’t have bothered, wearing my wetsuit I was so buoyant that I popped up again like a cork and bobbed about in the gentle ebb and flow of the inlet.  Barefoot I climbed back up the rocks for a second go.  Then it was time to lose the wetsuit.  The black rocks were warm with the sun beating on them all day and after a few more jumps, and Kealan somersaulting a couple of times, I felt a dive was in order.  Nothing spectacular, just a clean straight dive, start low and work up to one of the higher rocks.

I tested myself on a low rock, ever cautious of the depth, and executed a passable straight dive, next step, a little higher.  The higher I went the more respect I felt for cliff divers, I would never be brave enough for that.  A couple more dives and then I thought I should quit while I was ahead and embarrassment free, maybe with some diving practice I’ll return brave enough to resurrect my somersault, I don’t promise anything though.

I warmed myself on the black rocks as the groups of people began to disperse and we agreed that a long days swimming and exploring now warranted a good feed, the evening sun still strong as we dressed.

Slough at Dunseverick

A lovely inlet with varying levels to plunge from which should satisfy most age ranges.

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Millisle Sea Pool, Co Down

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Arriving at the beach car park, I followed the drive on round to the sea pool.  A lovely, old-style open pool with a low wall snaking around, separating the bathing area from the open sea.   Along this wall, I met some children fishing for crabs, keen to show me their bounty and explain their successful fishing technique.  Red Belly crabs they informed me, and looking closely at the patterns on their shells, I saw how intricate and pretty they could be.

From the sea wall behind, two older boys were jumping into the clear waters, although with the tide on its way out, play was soon halted.  The boys then joined the group at the pool and I was given the task of judging their dives. 

Then it was my turn to brave the water, a little warmer than the open sea, with clear water and a sandy floor.  The climb out onto the wall for diving was not my most elegant moment with the steep sides slippery, and no little concern for whether the local crabs would take a fancy to my toes!  Clearly not, as I had no more encounters with the creatures until the boys were finished fishing and threw the whole bucketful back into the pool! 

The pool has a clean sandy beach area and shelves very gently, giving a large, safe bathing area, ideal for families.  At the seaward, right corner, the pool is at its deepest, and when the tide is in, deep enough to dive.  The pool stretches approximately 100m along this wall, allowing swimmers ample room to stretch out and enjoy.

Well used by locals and holidaymakers alike, small children playing in the shallows, running in and out, older youths exploring the deeper areas, floating in inflatable dingies and playing on body boards, and the first group I met catching crabs and even the odd small dogfish, showing the life in the pool is abundant.

Houses behind the pool area enjoy the double benefits of easy access from their back gardens and a fabulous view over the swimming area and then on out to sea.

Millisle, in 2010, was awarded the Seaside Award for bathing quality and facilities and as well as this great pool area, there is a long strand with good bathing off the beach itself.

NEWCASTLE HARBOUR, CO DOWN

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Drive through Newcastle and out to the harbour any weekend, and around high tide you are sure to find swimmers and divers enjoying themselves.  There seems to be a dedicated group who swim here through the summer months and a few who swim all year round.

The slipway at the side of the harbour wall is the preferred entry point, and it is a short swim out to the marker buoy and back.  Feeling we would like a longer swim, Paula and I headed on out, past the harbour mouth and swam down the coast.

Looking up at the steep sides of Slieve Donard, Paula pointed out the row of small cottages known as “Widows Row”.  These were built for the widows of fishermen who died at sea.  Instead of these women being thrown out of their homes after such a tragedy, they would be able to live out their days in one of the cottages looking out to sea.

We swam on a little past the far marker buoy then retraced our course back towards the harbour where the kids, and some adults, were having a great time jumping and diving from the harbour wall.

It was lovely to see that there are many people around the country still swimming in the sea for pure pleasure and entertainment, bringing their children along too so that the future generations continue the trend.

Each year, around mid-August, the Harbour Charity Swim is run.  On a Monday evening, swimmers will start at the Rock Pool and swim to the Harbour wall and back.  This is a popular local event, and added to this, the Rock Pool opens during the summer months, with an evening swim on Thursdays.

It felt nice to back at the open-air pool, where I first trained as a Swimming Teacher.

Words By Maureen McCoy

Photography By Paul McCambridge