Dublin’s chilly tradition
Under Vico Road, stairs have been sliced into the coastal rocks, allowing swimmers easy access. (Ronan Dillon)
Weather does not stop the Irish. Rain or shine, they can be found playing golf, walking the dog -- and even plunging into the icy Irish Sea for a mind-awakening swim.
The chilly tradition -- in which Dubliners brave coastal waters for the exercise or to ward off the effects of a few too many pints -- takes place daily at swimming holes dotted along the country’s coastline. Some of the more public bathing places attract families wearing swim trunks, while the more sheltered spots lure nude swimmers seeking a bit of peace and privacy. But no matter where locals enter the choppy waters or what time of year they jump in, folklore suggests that the effects of an invigorating swim improve the immune system and contribute to good health. For outsiders though, it is hard not to wonder whether an icy swim simply replaces a Guinness-induced headache with a different kind of pain.
One entry point into the sea is located near the neighbourhood of Ringsend, about 8km from Dublin’s city centre, where the Great South Wall extends 2km into the Irish Sea. The stone seawall, with its little red lighthouse at the end, is a popular place for a stroll, and Dubliners from all walks of life can be seen watching the sunset or fishing off the edge. Halfway along the wall’s length, a ladder and a sloping ramp leads straight to the water’s edge, inviting a dip with its clear shade of deep blue.
On a recent visit, two boys discarded their clothes in sloppy piles and leapt into the water clad only in underwear. The father watched amused from the edge of the wall, as the sound of their splash was followed by shouts of exhilaration once they broke the surface again. The boys backstroked along the length of the wall, and when the wake from a boat swept in, they clung to the ladder until the water calmed again.
The Great South Wall is one of Dublin’s most exposed swimming destinations, so locals looking for more isolation head 12km further south to the Forty Foot in Sandycove, a coastal rocky nook with expansive coastline views and more than 250 years of swimming history. Here, just off a road called Sandycove Point, nudity is common among daily devotees, due to the fact that the Forty Foot was once home to a gentleman’s swimming club with no women allowed. Frequent visits suggest that the likelihood of dropping drawers before sauntering towards the sea seems to increase with age; the older the swimmer, the less modest they seem to be.
While it is possible to arrive at the Forty Foot and swim without another soul in sight, the scene is quite different on Christmas Day (25 December). Despite the chilly weather, packs of usually clothed men and women line up on the rocky ledges to launch themselves into the water. The swimming hole becomes a scenic place to wish each other season’s greetings and have a bit of holiday craic.
The most private swimming hole along Dublin’s coast is 4km further south again, in the hilly suburb of Dalkey. Here among some of County Dublin’s most impressive residences is a tucked-away bathing place amid the rocks under Vico Road, offering nude bathers privacy from passersby. Entering from the road, a short hike down a windy path flanked by wild grasses is required to reach the simple changing hut. Stairs have been sliced into the coastal rocks allowing swimmers to jump off ledges, or you can ease into the sea via a ladder.
This is a neighbourhood place, where many of the same swimmers greet each other daily. It is also possible to arrive and find it empty, an opportunity to savour a local secret without interruption.