Salt water sisters: meet the wild-swimming Irish women who take the plunge 12 months a year

By | March 7, 2020

The water is at its coldest now. It’s only 8°C but it feels like it’s freezing. At high tide the women gather. Springing from cars, stripping off jackets and scarves, donning colourful hats and goggles. It’s time to get in.

t Mountcharles Pier in west Donegal, the rain has finally abated. Not flat-calm but not choppy – the swimmers eye the water carefully, knowing that it’s still going to hurt. It’s here that the Wild Atlantic Dippers, a 12-strong group of female swimmers (and one honorary male), meet at least once a week.

At this time of year, the swimming will be brief. It’s a case of get in and get out and grab the hot coffee in the Salthill Cabin coffee dock that’s just a stone’s throw from the pier. I’m here to talk to them about what motivates them to brave the biting cold and swim together all winter long. As someone who swims all year round, I know my own reasons. But for every woman who swims, there’s a different motivation for getting in, especially during these chilly months.

In recent years more and more women have taken up open-water swimming, coming together to immerse themselves in cold water, forging saltwater communities all over the country. At Mountcharles, the Wild Atlantic Dippers – who range in age from early forties to late fifties – might never have met one another were it not for the ocean. Its strange magnetic force drew them together to this place, where they meet and dip and talk and share their lives with one another.

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On the dock of the bay: Writer Kathy Donaghy at Mountcharles pier in Donegal. Photo: Lorcan Doherty

On the dock of the bay: Writer Kathy Donaghy at Mountcharles pier in Donegal. Photo: Lorcan Doherty

©Lorcan Doherty

As individual as each woman herself, they all have their own unique way of getting into the water. Some stride confidently down the slipway while chatting happily; others tentatively approach the water’s edge, noses wrinkling slightly at the first stab of cold water. Soon everyone is immersed, keeping their heads up to breathe, the cold doing its work to quicken the heart rate.

Arms reach out, colourful hats bob in the sea. Some race away to a buoy but most stay near the slipway today. It won’t be a long swim. Unused to swimming here, I stick with the others, staying where the pier casts its shadow over the water. One of the swimmers calls to me to come out of the shadow to feel the sun on my face, and I swim towards her, out into the brightness.

I’m conscious that the moment sums up what happens when women swim together – something I know innately from swimming with my own swim friends. We each want the sun to shine on the othersʼ faces. This is not a place for competition, although in the summer we may put in a long swim and pace ourselves. It’s a place for sharing, for looking out for one another and for simply being ourselves. For the brief time we’re in the water, our bonds of responsibilities to those back on dry land vanish. It’s only about you and the sea and the sisterhood you’re sharing it with.

Dee McGettigan was the initiator of the Wild Atlantic Dippers. The daughter of a fisherman from Killybegs, she’s an accomplished swimmer who has worked as a swimming instructor and a volunteer with Irish Water Safety. She started the group because she wanted other people to feel what she feels when she swims.

For her the connection with water is deep and profound. Dee, who has just turned 51, lost a baby son, Shane, after 42 weeks in the womb. “It’s the only place I feel connected with him,” she says of the water.

“I remember being in the ocean when I felt his last kick. This is my connection with him. That’s why I feel completely at home here. I continue to connect with him in the ocean,” says Dee, who is also mum to a 26-year-old son and a 21-year-old daughter.

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Dee McGettigan taking a dip. Photo: Lorcan Doherty

Dee McGettigan taking a dip. Photo: Lorcan Doherty

©Lorcan Doherty

Because she comes from a swimming background, Dee ensures that everyone is feeling confident but says they all look out for one another.

“I would trust any one of those women to save my life if something happened,” she says.

While 52-year-old Zeita Gallagher, who runs a sweet shop in Donegal town, has always loved the sea, she had ruled out swimming in it because of a chronic back condition which left her in a lot of pain. Then she heard on the Donegal grapevine about Dee’s sea-swimming group. Something, she says, triggered her imagination and she decided to send Dee a message. She remembers the first day she joined the group, liking herself to an excited child packing her bag for the dip.

It was early April last year when she took the plunge.

“It was a beautiful spring day and you could see the adrenaline pumping in me. I was so exuberant – it was like I had got my sparkle back. I found what I was looking for. I’m not a stylish swimmer or a brilliant swimmer. I swim for the enjoyment of it and it clears my head. It’s like a valve being released. You get in and take deep breaths and you come out and you’re like a new woman,” Zeita says.

She credits the sea swimming with giving her a new zest for life and improving her health. It has strengthened her core muscles, and the pain that had seen her lying in hospital for months on end is gone.

“It’s turned me around. I have great joy and it has brought me mental clarity, and I can see things in perspective. I know it’s something I will be doing for years to come,” she says.

Angela Mulreany-Griffin credits the group for easing the pain of the loss of her husband, Michael, who passed away last summer at the age of 54. Originally from Birmingham, Angela met Michael when she was 17 and had decided to move to her mother’s homeplace of Mountcharles.

The 55-year-old remembers the first time she saw him, when she started working for the famous clothing company Magee in Donegal town, and thinking he had the most beautiful hazel eyes. She can’t help smiling any time she’s on the pier in Mountcharles. Even though she’s lost the love of her life, she remembers coming to this place when she and Michael were just teenagers to watch the sun come up after a night out and smoke cigarettes.

While Angela always swam – even through Michael’s illness – she never swam through the winter, and when she heard about the group of women meeting at Mountcharles Pier, she was intrigued.

“It’s lovely to have the company. After Michael passed away, it was great to go out to the water and have someone to talk to. There were days I wouldn’t have gone out if there wasn’t someone there. I would’ve stayed home feeling sorry for myself after Michael died. I didn’t know any of the other women in the group but now I know them all. There’s no expectations of each other. If you can make the swim, you can make it,” says Angela, who is mum to 26-year-old Anthony and 23-year-old Ryan.

The Sunday of our swim is the first time 40-year-old Stephanie Kennedy has been in the water since she lost a baby through miscarriage six weeks ago. She was halfway through her pregnancy and it was her fourth baby. Stephanie says she has good days and bad days.

Originally from Sandycove in south Dublin, the Montessori teacher, who has three children aged between five and 11, is conscious that this swim will be the first without her bump.

While Stephanie says the group is made up of a diverse range of women, they all have one thing in common, and that’s the love of getting out into the water. And while she’s nervous about jumping back in, she hopes the strength of the group will become her strength and keep her swimming faithfully.

In other swim spots around the country, women are forming their own tight-knit swimming sisterhoods.

In Galway, Frances Daly, who will turn 70 in October, never misses an opportunity to swim with her ladiesʼ group. She goes most days if she can with her fellow Blackrock Ladies.

Moving to Galway in the early 1980s with her Irish husband, Frances, who was born in Bristol, found herself like a fish out of water. After her children came along, she started teaching swimming and going to swim at Blackrock in Salthill, a swim spot that can only be described as a Galway institution. One day she was there and two women asked if she’d like to swim with them. She never looked back.

During the summers they would come to Blackrock with their children. Over the years, those young mothers became grandmothers and a core group of 12 has kept swimming together.

When her own mother, Iris Lily, died, some of her swimming friends came over to Bristol to say goodbye to a woman they’d never met. “It made it a very sad but joyous occasion,” Frances says.

Over the years there has been grief. There have been losses of loved ones, illnesses and illness of partners. Frances says they know the time will come when they have to confront their own mortality.

“It’s not something we dwell on very much but it is extremely important for all of us that we see each other several times a week. I don’t think we’re unique,” she says.

Like so many of the women I talk to, Frances believes that there is great power in salt water.

“I’m not being flippant when I say I think it’s kept me from the psychiatrist, because of the chats we have. You get this amazing sense of the sea taking your problems away. The water has that ability to remove stress, and cold water especially is exhilarating.”

The community she has found through swimming has become like family. Frances says while she never had sisters, these women fit the saying that friends are the family you pick for yourself.

“We don’t always get on. We have our disagreements but you still can’t get a word in edgeways. If I didn’t see them for a week, maybe I could survive, but I’d have lost something. We don’t take it for granted – we’re not blasé about it,” she says.

In Dublin, Alice Kelliher, originally from Tralee, Co Kerry, started swimming at Dublin’s famous Forty Foot around the same time she was setting up her own beauty business in Ballsbridge. When she met her husband, Ger Kennedy, she discovered they shared a love of open-water swimming. While he started a swimming club called the Walruses, Alice and her female friends branched into their own group, the Walrettes.

She jokes that she’s done a lot of recruiting for the Walrettes in her salon, talking about the benefits to other women, who in turn have joined up, hitting the popular Dublin swim spot.

“You’re in the sea, you’re in the fresh air. We’re bobbing up and down, swapping everything from recipes to recommendations for goggles. Before Christmas, I remember we were swapping our grandmothers’ pudding recipes,” the 53-year-old recalls.

On the sea-swimming circuit, women are travelling in their groups to meet up with other groups and share a special swim spot. Alice tells me there are women in her life she’d never have met if it hadn’t been for swimming.

“Women are the ones who start a conversation. You look at the woman next to you and ask, ‘How was the swim for you?’ The men are dressed and ready to go but we’re still putting our socks on and chatting away,” she says.

As well as the sense of community, it’s the relaxation she gets from being in nature that keeps Alice coming back. And it was that sense of being in nature and love of the feeling of cold water on her skin that saw Alice join the International Ice Swimming Association in 2015. She soon began travelling to international competitions with her husband, who is well known in the Irish open-water swimming community.

Last month, Alice travelled with a 12-strong group to take on an ice-swimming challenge in Antarctica, where her goal was to swim 500 metres.

“If you can swim through the winter and into the next year, it’s amazing what you can do. Every time, before I put my foot in the water, there is this trepidation. Will I do it? It’s like the fight or flight kicks in. It gives me an adrenaline spike that I’ve never got from anything else. It’s your body overcoming the cold. You never feel more alive than you do at that moment,” says Alice.

Talking to women in these swim communities about what motivates them to keep going through the winter, you get a sense of the power of being part of a group that wills you on when your own will might be flagging.

From my own experience, friendships are forged from the vulnerability we feel when we strip away the layers – literal and metaphorical. The body hang-ups and discomfort you might feel standing in your swimsuit on a cold beach in Donegal on a winter’s morning soon disappear. You’re united in a common purpose – getting in and grappling with the cold.

For me, the sea is life’s great alchemist. Whatever hard stuff is going on in life, it feels like it’s eased after a swim. Life throws its curve balls at all of us but for me there is a beautiful certainty in knowing that after this wave, another will come.

When I get to share a swim with friends, it feels like a gift. When I see the feet of one friend – always faster than me – fly past, her feet in the water become my guide. The yellow swim hat of another beside me becomes a reassurance that we’re in this together. And when we stop for a break, that friend telling you to look at the sun, and reminding you that this is what life’s about, makes you realise how lucky you are to be in the ocean, swimming.

Photography by Lorcan Doherty

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