On any given day, a sizeable band of hardy swimmers take to the sea across Dublin’s riviera: in Dollymount, Sandymount, South Wall, Seapoint, Vico Road, Hawk Cliff, White Rock.
For many Dubliners, these are the names of summer afternoons, but for this disparate group of water worshipers, they are locations of choice in both summer and winter, come rain or shine.
The benefits of cold-water treatment are legendary. The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used it as part of their bathing regime, and hydrotherapy was revived by the Victorians and later used to treat mental-health issues and alcoholism.
In fact, Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous – Bill W. to his friends – was apparently a proponent, and more recently, an as-yet-unpublished study by Cambridge University researchers suggested that it might help protect the brain against degenerative diseases like dementia.
With lockdown, a whole new generation of adherents to the benefits of a daily short, sharp cold-water endorphin shock mean that jostling for space to dry and change, while keeping a respectable two-metre distance, can be a challenge.
But in Sandycove, home of the famous Forty Foot, a new struggle is emerging. It’s not between male and female bathers – that battle was fought over 40 years ago. Nor is it the regulars and locals versus the “day-trippers” – that is more evident at the weekend, when the locals get their fix early, and then concede the space to the hordes.
This new struggle is between “new money” new arrivals and “old-money” seasoned swimmers. Specifically, it’s between the people who use trendy, pricey brand-name changing robes, and those who think that flaunting money in that way is gauche, even offensive.
This is, of course, not really about the robes. It’s about socio-economic changes taking place in the neighbourhood.
Given the Irish geography, climate and weather, an item of clothing that facilitates a quick change while in public, and in the open, and possibly in the wind and rain too, sounds like a winner.
It is an improvement on the traditional habit of trying to hide your modesty behind a towel or a dressing gown. But the changing practice of choice, at least in Sandycove, has become a cultural weather vane.
While taking my daily dip one recent morning, a printed notice pinned to the wall caught my attention: “This is a dryrobe free area”, it read, referring to a specific brand of changing robe.
Being a blow-in, I had wanted to fit in with the locals, and so I had been having discussions with my wife about buying her such a garment.
That is, until I saw the price, which was north of €150. And she, in no uncertain terms, told me that her uncle, who had swum in the Forty Foot every day of his life, would have scorned such an item of clothing.
The requirement for a swimming costume since the 1970s was one thing, but if you are hardy enough to swim in the sea, you are hardy enough not to need an expensive and flashy coat to keep you dry and warm.
The dryrobe – yes, the brand-name is styled with a lower-case “d” – is the item of clothing of choice (other brands exist, though seemingly not in Sandycove), and this printed A4 notice uncovered a lot more about social tensions in the neighbourhood than any voluminous (and shower-resistant) changing robe could cover.
In the traditional, “old-money” corner, is the tradition of sea-swimming. For decades considered to be a pastime to be enjoyed in the company of your own sex, the Forty Foot was for males, and around the headland, the Sandycove for females and families.
Wealth, as with semi-naked bodies, was not for flaunting in public. That all changed with the action by the Dublin City Women’s Invasionary Force in 1974, which the said-uncle attended and is visible in RTÉ footage of the day, and since then mixed swimming is the norm.
Similarly, it seems that decadent public expressions of wealth which might have been previously socially unacceptable are now more prevalent, and with this, the seeds for culture wars in suburbia were sown.
In the “new-money” corner, certain upwardly mobile youngsters in their thirties and forties (young for this neighbourhood), see having gone wild-swimming as the new dinner-party boast – or that it will be when dinner parties are allowed again.
For them, the outlay of €150 on the robe is a worthwhile investment, which goes far beyond the useful physical garment, but is a uniform – a symbol providing what Pierre Bourdieu called social recognition and a statement of belonging.
This divide here is superficially economic, but at its heart is cultural and perhaps territorial too.
It’s like when someone wins the lottery, and suddenly has money but not the social status they desire, so they buy expensive items to signify belonging to that higher social class they aspire to.
It might have been a pocket watch when Sandycove was built, an outsized mobile telephone a decade after mixed swimming had been finally allowed, or a branded, all-weather changing robe today.
After four years living in Sandycove, I am undecided – I don’t want to be part of suburbia’s culture war and the weather really isn’t really that bad. Also, €150 can go a long way – feeding a family for a week and providing a formerly homeless person with a moving-on pack from Crosscare as they move into a new home.
While cold dips were once considered an antidote to alcoholism, nowadays this activity encourages a post-dip drink, alcoholic or otherwise. In these Covid-19 times, whether you culturally identify as a “wild-swimmer” or a “sea-swimmer”, a splasher, or a dipper, or indeed a sceptic, or a non-swimmer, perhaps the warm glow of charity might be the better course of action?
For those of you considering taking part in the annual Christmas Day dip, a major charity fundraiser, maybe you can do both. A bathing suit, nowadays, is advisable. A changing robe? Well, that is up to you.