'Who in their right mind, at this late hour, would consider going for a swim'

By Kieran Howley

Driving into the car park I saw two of them coming up the steps, bags slung nonchalantly across the shoulder and looking half perished as they walked across the grass. I thought it wise to go and ask advice, not wanting to be too foolish or foolhardy. Unlikely there would be many swimmers down today as the inclement weather, comprising strong wind and cold rain, more than enough turn most away - save the diehards!

They gave me the go-ahead. Not sure if it was the answer I was looking for - it would be so easy to head straight home; they said the water was lovely but just to mind getting in and out, as the tide and waves were strong and there was a good pull. Great, oh, and good luck.

Good; there are a couple more about, one or two finished and getting changed, with a few still out in the sea. As they try to coax some warmth back into the body with some frantic towel-work, I feel I can almost hear their teeth chatter, but then I turn away to change. What if it is mad – here appearance does not count for much.

This is crazy. The evening is the end of Autumn and those dark clouds coming across from the West are heavy with rain. Who in their right mind, at this late hour, would consider going for a swim; and with Winter so close, it feels almost threatening?

Then again, that is only surface appearance, or if you like – and to mix a metaphor - judging a book by the cover. Those in the know will say, yes, the water is lovely and not a bit cold; and you can see for yourself, those waves and that swell will make for a fun and wild torrid time. All required is courage and the initial resolve to get in - albeit with the warning, to be cautious gaining entry and then again when leaving. Because the water will sweep the legs from under you, so hold the handrail on the way down and try to get your timing right when letting go. Here goes.

The notion of some sedate entry does not hold this evening. No time to get use to the temperature, no testing the water with the big toe, the acclimatising is quickly forgotten. All that splashing and with the rush of foam well and truly wet, and half ready when the moment arrives, now it is time to dive in… Aaghhh.

No sound underwater. Just that otherworldly shock - from the now into the unknown. As it has been ten days, I am mildly surprised at how nice the water is, no great yelping or catching big gulps of breath. The surprise is – there is no great shock!

Best to push on, get out where it is safe, away from the rail and the steps, from the rocky coast. Not far off, a wandering seal comes in close, perhaps curious about the habits of these strange land mammals and their carry on. Three people in the water now but only for the seal – and his scary bristling chin – is it home. We are the visitors. The same goes for that much maligned and dreaded other sea creature – the jelly fish. Thankfully, this far after Summer, those ‘denizens of the deep’ have now left “our” shore and have moved further out to sea. Hopefully!

Such power and harmony, no point in kicking or threshing now, arms and legs have their uses but better surrender to the mood of the greater element; showing off could land you in trouble. It is so playful and spiritual. Always spiritual. Back to the time we found our ancient selves cast up on the sand, making a new beginning (of sorts), maybe trying to seek solace elsewhere. Funny how Stan and Oliver come to mind at this reminiscence, one saying to the other that immortal line: “Another fine mess you’ve got us into!” How could we ever have traded the water for soil. No, not a great swap.

For now, time has ceased the weary drag and the grey approach of weather and evening make for a far more elemental world. This moment is off the beaten track. Here is wholly present. Meanwhile, another topsy-turvy metaphor, swimming feels like the flipside of the coin to flying – we are guests in the wonder of water.

Later, and now the tricky bit, getting back out. Easy does it. No rushed moves. It is like approaching the moment of precarious choice, where dire consequences... well, for the time being you just shut out that kind of thinking. Better wait until you know, then nothing for it, now and before you realise your feet are back on earth - good old solid ground underfoot.

Wrapping that towel around your shoulders and wiping the water from your back, the feeling of being alive causes a kind of shivering and trembling, the holy thrill of it all – at making it out alive. Back in the car, with the heater turned on full – strange but easy to imagine how toast might feel under the grill. Nothing so strange as life. Maybe time to head home. But first for that cup of tea.

This piece first featured in the Meath Chronicle's 'Christmas Cheer' publication

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