PAUL ROUSE: Sport is whatever you want it to be

One of the bathing shelters built by Dublin Corporation in the 1930s.

When you turn right off the Howth Road, coming out from Dublin city and you cross the wooden bridge onto the North Bull Wall, the sheer diversity of the world of sport announces itself.

When you turn right off the Howth Road, coming out from Dublin city and you cross the wooden bridge onto the North Bull Wall, the sheer diversity of the world of sport announces itself.

That the North Bull Wall should exist at all is, in itself, a tale which edges towards the incredible. It seems to be the case that the idea for building the Bull Wall came from William Bligh, captain of the infamous HMS Bounty. The plan was to do something to deepen the shallow water of the bay and to deal with the sandbacks that were so hazardous to the increased trade that was coming into Dublin Port in the 18th century.

The Wall was duly completed using granite and limestone, and was ready by 1824. It improved the port and has improved the lives of generations of Dubliners since.

Now, as you pass down the Bull Wall promenade, you come to two modernist concrete bathing shelters, built in the 1930s. They are a legacy of the commitment that Dublin Corporation had to providing simple public amenities. There is no doubt that the capacity of the Corporation was limited by the resources at its disposal, and by the prioritisation of other needs, but there is something wonderful about the bathing shelters. Apart from anything else, they stand as monuments to hope: The hope that a scorching summer would see them teem with people escaping into the sea and enjoying the pleasure of a swim.

Even at this time of year, with autumn turning to winter, there are people in the sea. They have stripped to their swimming togs — no sign of a wetsuit — and walked down the stone steps into the icy water. The wind has whipped up and the sea is choppy behind them, as it stretches back across the bay towards the Great South Wall, Ringsend and the prosperous coastal suburbs of Blackrock and Dun Laoghaire.

People have swam in this sea for as long as people have lived on the island, but when you pass further along the promenade and slip across onto Dollymount Strand, a much more modern sport is on view. More than two dozen kitesurfers are making use of the strengthening wind to shoot up and down the shallow water at speeds touching 60km/h.

Kitesurfing has become one of the fastest growing water sports in Ireland. The season runs from March to November, but these are nominal limits. If the weather is in any way suitable, kitesurfers take their kites and boards to the beach.

On Dollymount Strand it is an extraordinary sight. The wind pulls the surfers faster and faster and they shoot into the air off waves, twisting and turning, before returning to the water again.

In some respects, this is a rejection of the formal world of sport. It is a sport whose participants organise themselves as a community rather than into a club.

It is not competitive in the sense of people pitched against each other (except for the exceptional few who are international adventure sports stars).

The sport grew out of surfing, windsurfing and other adventure sports enthusiasts in the last decades of the 20th century.

The arrival of major windsurfing manufacturers into the sport around the turn of the millennium saw it move towards the mainstream and, within a decade, the sport had spread to coastal areas around the world.

Here, on Dollymount, there are Irish men and women who have taken up the sport in recent years. All around them are Poles and Lithuanians, a German and a woman from South America.

The idea that kitesurfing will become a medalling sport in the Olympics feels entirely at odds with what is on view on Dollymount Strand. The lure of money is massive, of course, but it would be an abject shame if something as joyous as kitesurfing could end up grist to the mill of the International Olympic Committee.

The great thing about Dollymount, of course, is that its expanse allows for recreation of many types, for example, people walking their dogs — or just walking themselves — up and down the strand. There are two toddlers throwing sand at each other and roaring laughter. A father and son are kicking a ball to each other and, at four different places, there’s a sliotar being pucked over and across.

Right in the middle of the beach, a young girl — not yet a teenager — is bouncing a ball on her hurley and striking it in the air. It’s rhythmic and her timing is perfect, as she counts away in Polish: ‘Jeden… dwa… trzy… cztery… piec…’

The way she plays and the way the whole strand is a free site for people to enjoy whatever form of recreation they prefer is a reminder that sport is much more than the formal structures of clubs and their codified games.

Yet, clubs and associations are a fundamental part of the story of the North Bull.

Walking back out along the promenade, down to the right, sits The Royal Dublin Golf Club. The links were designed by HS Colt, a world-famous golf architect, back in the 1920s.

It is celebrated as one of the great links courses in the world and, when it hosted the Irish Open between 1983 and 1985, the competition was won once by Bernhard Langer and twice by Seve Ballesteros.

The Royal Dublin Club, itself, however, is older than its links. It was actually founded at rooms at 19 Grafton Street in 1885 by John Lumsden, the manager of the College Street branch of the Provincial Bank.

Lumsden, along with two of his sons, laid down a golf course at the Phoenix Park, near the Viceregal Lodge (now Áras an Uachtaráin) and played away there before, ultimately, the move out to its current home.

Now, the Royal Dublin Golf Club has a barrier across the entrance to its carpark and a large sign instructing all that it is ‘Private Property’.

You need serious disposable income to be able to afford its membership and it has a formal structure in the way that kitesurfing does not.

This is not to set one off against the other, as some sort of binary opposition. The great thing about sport and recreation is that there is something for just about everyone.

For those who wish to follow the inherited traditions of modern sport, there is a clear way of doing so.

For those who escape from the mainstream, there are everchanging options of finding fun in play.

The best option, of course, is to be able to do both — even if the sea looked a little cold.


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