Although describing herself as "a terrible swimmer", Cork writer Lynda Radley became obsessed with celebrated endurance swimmer Mercedes Gleitze, the first British woman to swim the English Channel. On her eighth attempt in 1927, aged 26, Gleitze succeeded in this impressive feat in a time of 15 hours and 15 minutes.
Glasgow-based Radley, on finding a faded photograph of Gleitze in Cork City Library, went on to write The Art of Swimming, inviting audiences to imagine the world of Gleitze. The solo stage show, starring Radley, was first seen at the Cork Midsummer Festival 14 years ago. It is now returning to the festival in a newly-conceived film version for online presentation, directed by Tom Creed with music by Michael John McCarthy.
"What really attracted me to Mercedes Gleitze's story was her endurance," says Radley. "I suppose when I first wrote the play, I was a young writer and it felt to me that being a long distance swimmer is a bit like being a writer in the sense that it's about keeping going. There's a certain amount of loneliness involved.
"And also, people who are very successful have to fail a lot and fail better before they become successful. Coming back to this story as an older artist with more fear and more success under my belt, I always feel that Mercedes has something to say to me."
Radley, who relates that Gleitze took part in a 30-hour endurance swim at the former Eglinton Baths in Cork city, says that the swimmer's life feels very relevant now, in the context of the pandemic.
"Mercedes talks about keeping going even when you're on a journey that seems unending," says Radley.
In the online film, Radley has pieced together Gleitze's history, gleaned from archival material. Initially, Radley had very little material to go on. "While Mercedes achieved so much as a sportsperson, she had slipped out of history and nobody really remembered her. I think that was the case for a lot of female athletes. Long distance swimming is one of those things in which women excel.
"But in her day, Mercedes was quite the celebrity. Men used to throw roses in the water in front of her. She was incredibly beautiful and she achieved so much, breaking records. She swam the Strait of Gibraltar before anybody else."
Radley managed to track down two of Gleitze's three children, Doloranda Pember and Fergus Carey. Growing up, they wouldn't have known much about their mother's accomplishments because she quit swimming to rear her family.
"They were very kind. They had things belonging to their mum that were boxed up. There were archives of her swims, programmes and photographs. They shared all these things with me, photocopying stuff for me."
Doloranda Pember went on to write a book about her mother, entitled In the Wake of Mercedes Gleitze.
Gleitze's parents were German. She moved to England as a child and was brought up mainly in Brighton. When her father was interred back to Germany during World War 1, Gleitze, also dispatched there, was determined to make her way back to England. "She tried to swim home but didn't manage that."
However, she returned to England, from where she travelled all over the world participating in swimming competitions and solo swims. After her relatively early retirement, "she unfortunately was to suffer rheumatism later in life." Born in 1900, she died in 1981.
Radley says that Gleitze wasn't a moneyed person. "She became a secretary. It's funny because when I wrote the play originally, I was working as a temp in an office. So we had that in common. Mercedes at that time used to swim in the Thames."
She was what is now known as 'wild swimming' which takes place in outdoor bodies of water such as open oceans, rivers and lakes. The Romantic poets were keen on it, swimming in open water to connect with nature and spirituality as well as nourish creativity. Today's wild swimmers feature in the press and social media, often accompanied by romantic language.
Gleitze didn't just indulge in her love of swimming. She became a philanthropist, setting up homes for the poor. And this pioneer was the first female sportsperson to get sponsorship - from Rolex. The company created the first water resistant watch called the oyster catcher which Gleitze wore on one of her swims. The world was Mercedes Gleitze's oyster, a woman of substance who pushed the boat out and is now being celebrated in film.
- The Art of Swimming is available to stream from June 14-16. www.corkmidsummer.com