Ur­ban swim­ming bring­ing city dwellers to­gether

Pas­sion­ate pad­dlers bring vi­tal­ity and sense of com­mu­nity to Lim­er­ick shores, writes So­phie Gren­ham

The Irish Times Magazine - - LEISURE - Swimmable Lim­er­ick takes place on May 5th, 9am to 12pm at Cur­ragh­gour Boat Club, Mer­chants Quay, Lim­er­ick. For more, see lim­er­ick­un­der­ground.org/

The very idea of do­ing the breast stroke in the mid­dle of a bustling city cen­tre could seem like a mad- capped no­tion. Granted, wad­ing within con­crete sur­rounds doesn’t hold the same en­vi­ron­men­tal draw as the dra­matic Ir­ish coast, but ur­ban swim­ming is qui­etly catch­ing on, in Lim­er­ick city, no less.

Given open wa­ter bathing’s re­cent re­nais­sance, the River Shannon’s ever- in­creas­ing ap­peal shouldn’t come as a sur­prise. How­ever, one doesn’t ex­pect to find a swim like this in the heart of the city; with hordes of pas­sion­ate pad­dlers in the Shannon’s rich green wa­ters in the same space where pun­ters walk to work or the pub. The area it­self dates back to the Vikings, with more me­dieval land­marks than you can shake a stick at.

To ex­plain this fas­ci­nat­ing de­vel­op­ment is Elisa O’Dono­van ( 35), who founded the Swimmable Lim­er­ick scheme in Au­gust 2017, to make the ur­ban river ex­pe­ri­ence more ac­ces­si­ble to the lo­cal com­mu­nity.

O’Dono­van was born in Lon­don to Lim­er­ick na­tives, who re­lo­cated the fam­ily to Rathkeale when she was 15. She later lived in Dublin from 2001 un­til she re­turned to her roots five years ago. When she’s not tak­ing part in triathlons, run­ning a Speak­ers Cor­ner or col­lect­ing lit­ter with the Lim­er­ick City Res­i­dents As­so­ci­a­tion, she’s do­ing a Masters in Speech and Lan­guage Ther­apy and has a blog called Lim­er­ick Un­der­ground.

Ev­i­dently, her com­mit­ment to health and fit­ness is largely re­spon­si­ble for her bound­less en­ergy, but it was only re­cently that she craved some­thing more than just ex­er­cise.

“The river is the place I go when I feel stressed or up­set,” she says. “I dis­tinctly re­mem­ber I had a bad break- up in 2016 and next thing, I hap­pened upon the an­nual Thomond Swim, a re­ally his­toric swim just un­der 2km. They were hav­ing so much fun and I thought, this time next year I am go­ing to do it. There’s an un­der­ly­ing pres­sure for women to look a cer­tain way in a bathing suit, so I never liked swim­ming in a pool. When I saw peo­ple com­ing out of the wa­ter from the Thomond Swim, they were all shapes and sizes and no­body seemed to give a hoot – no­body was look­ing at any­one’s body.” Hooked True to her word, O’Dono­van joined the Lim­er­ick Masters Swim­ming Club, com­pleted the Thomond Swim in July 2017, and was firmly hooked. She quickly re­alised that ur­ban river swim­ming should be­come a recog­nised lo­cal at­trac­tion, but with much bet­ter fa­cil­i­ties. In a whim­si­cal turn of events, she wan­dered into the Cur­ragh­gour Boat Club ( est 1904) on Mer­chant’s Quay and asked a room of men for use of their chang­ing room. The gen­er­ous mem­bers not only agreed, but they now hold leg­endary post- swim feasts in the boathouse in front of a roar­ing fire.

Apart from the pos­i­tive en­ergy that ra­di­ates from such lib­er­at­ing so­cial gather­ings, there is an­other force mo­ti­vat­ing O’Dono­van to grow her num­bers.

“There were very neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions be­tween the river and the peo­ple liv­ing in the city,” she says, her tone soft­en­ing. “A lot of peo­ple in emo­tional dis­tress come to the river, and some choose to end their lives here; peo­ple as­so­ci­ate the river with sui­cide. I re­mem­ber hear­ing peo­ple talk about putting nets around the Shannon. For me, chang­ing that as­so­ci­a­tion and get­ting the com­mu­nity us­ing the river in a fun and ac­ces­si­ble way is re­ally im­por­tant be­cause the river is the main artery of the city.”

It would seem her plan is work­ing splen­didly, uni­fy­ing swim­mers of all ages and abil­i­ties, in large groups of 50 heads or more. It’s enough to sim­ply show up, if only to dip your feet in the wa­ter. “Where the Cur­ragh­gour Boat Club is, we have a very af­flu­ent area and then we have King’s Is­land, which is very work­ing class. The city is very di­vided in that sense. There are se­ri­ous ar­eas of de­pri­va­tion.

“What’s great about all this is bring­ing ev­ery­one to­gether. No­body knows where you’re from or who you are. It’s just about peo­ple en­joy­ing them­selves, hav­ing a cup of tea, it’s like our own lit­tle ur­ban beach. I don’t think you could repli­cate this in any other town.”

O’Dono­van’s hard work has paid off in div­i­dends, with fund­ing from the Lim­er­ick Arts Of­fice to run two so­cial swims at River­fest, Lim­er­ick’s flag­ship fes­ti­val, this May bank hol­i­day.

Her long- term plan for Swimmable Lim­er­ick is to es­tab­lish pub­lic baths and shower fa­cil­i­ties all along the Shannon, so that lo­cals and vis­i­tors alike may en­joy a slice of magic right on their doorstep. Judg­ing by how quickly word has spread in less than a year, this model cit­i­zen might just get her wish.

co‘ m‘ Get­ting the mu­nity us­ing the river in a fun and ac­ces­si­ble way is re­ally im­por­tant

EOIN RAF­FERTY

Given open wa­ter bathing’s re­cent re­vival, the River Shannon’s in­creas­ing ap­peal shouldn’t come as a sur­prise. In­set: Elisa O’Dono­van, who founded the Swimmable Lim­er­ick scheme. PHO­TO­GRAPHS:

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