Meet the open water swimmers who feel the positive link between exercise and emotion

Open water swimmers have long enjoyed the positive link between exercise and emotion, writes Clodagh Finn
Meet the open water swimmers who feel the positive link between exercise and emotion

What is it about the invigorating experience of swimming in open water that makes us wax lyrical?

Ruth Fitzmaurice evoked the steadying power of the sea in breath-taking prose when she wrote about finding solace in the freezing waters of Women’s Cove in Greystones, Co Wicklow, then emerging from the waves to share a thermos by tea with fellow members of the so-called Tragic Wives Swimming Club.

In her first book, I Found My Tribe, the mother-of-five described how the sea became her salvation when her filmmaker husband Simon was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in 2008. He now communicate only with his eyes.

Her memoir may be made into a film but Ruth Fitzmaurice’s testimony of how the sea can reset the button in any situation is a story that is played out daily around the coast and in the thousands of unspoiled lakes and rivers around Ireland.

Some wild swimmers will tell you that it feels like freedom. Others speak of switching off so completely they feel reborn when they step back on dry land.

“There is a lot of talk about mindfulness now but, for me, swimming provides a complete switch-off,” says John Edwards of Wild Water Adventures, a family business that offers wild-swimming tours in Kerry.

“All the chaos happens on land,” he says.

Myrtleville swimmers from left, Siobhan Russell, Harry Casey, Marie Watson, Antoinette Wilson, Darren Morrissey and Aisling Barry. Picture: Eddie O’Hare
Myrtleville swimmers from left, Siobhan Russell, Harry Casey, Marie Watson, Antoinette Wilson, Darren Morrissey and Aisling Barry. Picture: Eddie O’Hare

Ask him for his favourite spots and he’ll mention the dark, deep, crystal-clear water of Lochaduin Lake at the Conor Pass on the Dingle Peninsula and the wonders of the coast around Kerry Head. He can’t say enough for the local people, either.

They have turned off electric fences to allow swimmers access to the coast and then invited them, wet and dripping, into their homes to change.

However, it’s a recent swim at Meenogahane Pier in Causeway, Co Kerry, which provides the stand-out memory of the summer so far.

John Edwards was taking a Dutch family for a swim near the pier at low tide when they came across two fishermen in a currach waiting for the tide to turn so that they could land their lobster pots. They were just sitting there, calmly, on the water while the swimmers went by — it was a scene that seemed to belong to another era and made a deep impression not only on the visitors but on John Edwards himself.

The memory of those experiences and ones like them live on for months afterwards, as English Channel swimmer Sarah Ryan explained in an email to Wild Water Adventures. She said her experience of swimming around the Fenit lighthouse and along the rugged coastline made swimming back in London seem a bit dull.

Another Channel swimmer, Co Down native and swimming instructor Maureen McCoy (below) swims all year round but has had a particularly joyful summer, swimming close to a dolphin in the Aran Islands and near a basking shark off the Isle of Man.

Maureen McCoy. Picture: Paul McCambridge
Maureen McCoy. Picture: Paul McCambridge

You don’t have to ask her to explain the appeal of swimming when she recounts seeing salmon swimming underneath her while circumnavigating Pennock Island in Alaska:

“I watched as an eagle took a salmon out of the water right in front of me.”

Last year, she teamed up with award-winning photographer Paul McCambridge to list 50 of the best places to swim in a book that explains why both of them see it as therapy and as a way to reinvigorate the body.

But, she stresses, you don’t have to be a champion or super-fit to enjoy the sea. Anybody can do it, she says, offering the following advice to beginners: “Start off small and go to a local place and meet up with somebody else. Come out before you’ve had enough because then you will want to get back in again.”

The individual stories describing the benefits of swimming in open water are very persuasive yet science has still to fully explain the sense of physical and mental wellbeing that comes with being immersed in open water.

The term ‘blue mind’ was coined by biologist Wallace J Nichols to characterise the mildly meditative state that many feel around water, though it is not yet completely understood.

Dr Tadhg MacIntyre, of the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences at the University of Limerick, is himself a wild swimmer and speaks with great enthusiasm about the peace and sense of autonomy he has felt while swimming at Seapoint in Co Dublin and in Lough Derg near Killaloe, Co Clare.

Now he is part of an international research consortium that will look for a scientific explanation for those positive feelings.

“We want to marry the really strong personal narratives with rigorous research to highlight the reasons for these experiences,” he tells Feelgood.

The Go Green Ex project at UL will work with NUI Galway, the Dublin Institute of Technology and the sports and community facility at Clarisford Park, Killaloe, to track people’s responses to exercise in a range of different settings — gyms, pitches and green (on land) and blue (in water) spaces.

Research has already shown that people say they feel better if they can see water. In Ireland, some 40,000 people live within 100 metres of water and 1.9m of us live just 5km from the coast. Go Green Ex, however, wants to go further and record how people feel after swimming in it.

Looking at nature as a form of therapy is a watershed [pun intended!], says Dr MacIntyre.

A Go Green Ex social media campaign, designed to track the relationship between exercise and emotions, will take place from September 23-30 to coincide with this year’s European Week of Sport.

One of the benefits that will almost certainly be expressed is the social side of swimming in the wild.

Swimmer Aisling Barry can’t say enough about the incredible camaraderie that has built up between the swimming community at Myrtleville.

Myrtleville swimmer Aisling Barry: Became hooking on swimming after doing the Lee swim. ‘The buzz was electric’. Picture: Eddie O’Hare
Myrtleville swimmer Aisling Barry: Became hooking on swimming after doing the Lee swim. ‘The buzz was electric’. Picture: Eddie O’Hare

They have regular post-swim bake-offs and many of them have little gas stoves in their cars. “Somebody will bring sausages, somebody else will bring rashers and we’ll all have breakfast together after a swim. It’s all-inclusive,” says Aisling Barry, who became hooked on swimming after doing the Lee swim.

“The buzz was electric,” she says.

Earlier this year, three Myrtleville swimmers spoke about that singular buzz in a Dulux Weathershield video that went viral. The weather-durable paint went in search of Ireland’s most weather-durable people and met ‘The Invincibles’: Mairead Ní Mhaoileóin, Tom Bermingham and Tom McCarthy.

The trio are in their 60s and 70s, but swimmers range in age from teens to their 80s.

After all, who wouldn’t want a little bit of the adrenaline rush and heightened sense of existence that is so eloquently described by Mairead Ní Mhaoileóin and Tom Bermingham in the video.

Tom McCarthy puts it like this: “Your whole body is tingling; like the blood is rushing through your body like champagne. It’s effervescent… Everybody dies, but very few people really live.”

Take a swim on the wild side

Wild swimmers Maureen McCoy and Paul McCambridge give their top picks of the best places to swim:

1. Vico, Co Dublin

Dublin City has a great tradition of al fresco swimming and further south from the famous Forty Foot, on the Vico Road, the pretty area of Dalkey boasts a similar bathing area. The Vico, nestled along the cliff edge between Dalkey and Killiney beach, is popular with naturists.

2. Pollacappul, Belmullet, Co Mayo

This hidden gem is little-known, tucked away down a long laneway past several farmhouses. It is absolutely stunning. As you crest the hill, on a single-track lane through farmland, look to your right and you will see the beautiful vista of this secluded beach.

3. Kinnagoe, Inishowen Peninsula, Co Donegal

Kinnagoe Bay, with its deep golden sands and three separate beaches, is claimed by many to be the most beautiful beach in Ireland. The first view of the beach from the top of the hill on this scenic route raises the heart rate.

4. Carrick-a-Rede, Co Down

One of the most dramatic swims in Ireland has got to be this superb swim across Larrybane Bay to Carrick-a-Rede island and under the famous rope bridge. This is an advanced swim for strong swimmers. It is best to avoid the bay to the east as the currents are very strong here.

5. Minard, Dingle Peninsula, Co Kerry

This storm beach, with its 16th-century castle, is considered one of the finest of its type in Ireland. It is famous for the boulders rounded by the sea and then thrown onto the shore during storms. During the summer, local children are taught to swim here, one of the few relatively safer places to swim.

6. Simon’s Cove, Courtmacsherry, Co Cork

Two coves for the price of one at the hidden Simon’s Cove. At the main cove, the giant rocks have been smooth-carved by wind and tide into strange creatures. The pebble beach quickly gets to a nice depth for swimming. For an even more secluded swim, walk the narrow track down to the tessellated rocks on the shore. A few hundred metres brings you to an area of flat black rock which suddenly drops away revealing a curve of shale forming a tiny beach.

7. Benderg Bay, Co Down

Walk through the grasslands of Killard Nature Reserve to the beautiful Benderg beach, home to sand martins and seals. Perfect to spend a sunny day swimming, picnicking and investigating the rock pools.

8. Lough Hyne, Co Cork

Lough Hyne is connected to the Atlantic Ocean by a narrow tidal channel. The tide creates rapids twice a day in which kayakers and swimmers enjoy the strong flow.

For further options, see Wild Swimming in Ireland – Discover 50 Places to Swim in Rivers, Lakes and the Sea (Collins Press, €19.99) by Maureen McCoy and Paul McCambridge. The website is

Stay safe

THE RNLI, the charity that saves lives at sea, has named its national drowning prevention campaign ‘Respect the Water’. Those three words encapsulate many of the principles in the safety advice given to those swimming in open water.

Every year, close to 190 people drown on the coast of Ireland and the UK but by taking the following steps, help to reduce those numbers:

- If you find yourself unexpectedly in the water, float to increase your chances of survival.

- Always look for warning and guidance signs.

- Don’t swim alone.

- When swimming in the sea, lakes or rivers, be aware that temperatures are colder and you have to deal with wind, tide and currents.

- Check the tidal activity when at the coast.

- Swim parallel with the shore (not away from it) in standing-depth water.

- Get out of the water as soon as you start to feel cold.

- The international distress signal is waving your hands and shouting for help.

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