The Liffey Swim

If, by chance, you should be strolling by Rory O’More Bridge on a summer’s afternoon and should happen upon hundreds of goose pimpled men and women who, clad in their beachwear, descend onto a jetty in the river and dive willingly into the murky, icy waters below - well then, you have happened upon the Liffey Swim!

One of the longest running sea races in the world, the first swim, in July 1920, saw the competitors gather on the nearby Guinness jetty and descend to a mere rowing boat from where they plunged under the bridge to swim the length of the Liffey, emerging from under the Loop Line Bridge at Tara Street Baths. Thousands of spectators gathered then and gather now, happily enduring any turn in the weather, including that well known Irish experience of enjoying the four seasons in one day!

The thrill of the Liffey Swim was not only captured by Jack B. Yeats in an Olympic medal winning painting, he also put pen to paper in praise:

Almost lost in the incoming whitegold, legions
of delicate, dark arms
were lifting like timelapse seedlings

and falling like scissors. The old stuff
of tall stories window and traffic
banked to each side, new strokes,
a broad afternoon in ribbons.

Recreational swimming in the Liffey has long been enjoyed. In the days when heavily laden cargo ships sailed up river, almost to the walls of the old city, fearless and foolhardy youngsters dared each other to climb the very tallest masts and dive into the rubbish strewn waters below. An organised race also took place in 1886 from this same starting point to Butt Bridge and in 1923, the Free State Senator, Oliver St. John Gogarty, took a most timely swim in the Liffey waters to escape his I.R.A. captors.

And for pure Dublin eccentricity who could beat Tom Ecclin, who having declared his undying love to an unsuspecting lady on Essex Bridge and she having, soundlessly, rejected him, he dived into the river and swam to Bachelor’s Walk!

Eighteen year old Marie Finney, an English exhibition swimmer, came to Dublin in 1890 to perform the same feat she had already accomplished from London Bridge - to dive into the capital’s river. Alas, more genteel Irish sensibilities meant she was arrested right before the eyes of thousands of spectators. Thoughts of women thrashing through the tidal waters of the Liffey alongside the pride of Irish manhood excited and frightened the Irish establishment, most particularly the clergy, so much that women did not become full participants in the Liffey Swim until 1991.

Today this gruelling physical challenge is sponsored by Dublin City Council, and competitors, who must fulfil certain entry criteria, come from all over the world - but no wetsuits please!

What more unique journey, under Liffey bridge after bridge and through the very heart of Dublin, could there possibly be?

by Annette Black, Wicklow
Published on 31st August 2013