Small wooden houses – some probably worth more than a big house down the country – dot the sand dunes of North Beach, Rush, Co Dublin.
There is a light breeze and a chill in the air. Jane Deane, swathed in the obligatory dry robe, tells me that it is “westerly and about four degrees”.
This is the information that each day Jane posts in their WhatsApp group of 134 intrepid sea swimmers; tide times, temperature, wind direction and a thought for the day.
Jane is from Rush and although she swam as a child she only started again in September 2018 in response to her competitive streak being ignited by a friend who swam through the winter.
“She was never a swimmer and I said, if she can do it, I can. It kind of pushed me on to do it – myself and my husband Des – and then I just continued it and by April Annmarie (McGuinness) joined me.”
She remarks of her friend: “Annmarie is like the pied piper, she gathered up all the troops.”
Jane doesn’t get in the sea every day as she won’t walk out to the ocean. “Some of the girls come at 7.15am and if it’s a low tide they walk out of the sea. I wouldn’t get out of my bed for that. But I swim when the tide is near me”.
Why does Jane do it?
“The challenge and the bit a crack. And I’ve lost so much weight.” She lets out a hearty laugh before adding: “We often bring tea, coffee and cakes. Some days after swimming, you’d need to go on a diet with all the cakes that are brought.”
Annmarie McGuinness and her husband Derek were scuba divers, well used to the water but wrapped up in layers. She had known Jane for years and although encouraged, she thought “you must be mental”.
Assistant director of nursing in Crumlin, Annmarie told us that two things happened that were monumental in her life.
“My husband died suddenly in October 2019 in his asleep. And six months later, his first cousin and one of my closest friends, Helen, died of pancreatic cancer. We brought her home and I remember one of the days coming downstairs and I said to my sister-in-law: ‘I’m going to have a breakdown if I don’t do something.’ And that was the first day that we got into the water with Jane.”
Annmarie needed to “do something to get out of my own head at that stage”. Helen died a few days later but the cohort that had cared for her went swimming and kept swimming.
Jane credits Annmarie with growing their group and Annmarie describes how she does it: “So you’d be swimming along and you’d see somebody swimming.
“You know when you have the petri dish with the amoebas and you kind of go over and suck in that cell, it’s like that.
“You introduce yourself, you have a conversation – do you swim often? And I explain about the WhatsApp group”.
“I call these people Annmarie’s victims,” Jane interjects with a giggle.
The WhatsApp group is the communication tool of choice. Group members will post in the time that they intend to swim and with Jane’s information, Annmarie says: “You will know what time the high tide is at and there’s always going to be someone going with you.
“So even if you’re swimming early in the morning or late evening there will always be someone that will go with you. And that was the biggest thing for us, that to be safe you had to have company but also for the sociability of it,” Annmarie adds.
So why does Annmarie do it?
“When we locked down that second time, for some it was the only place where anybody spoke to anybody different and we were all outside so we were completely safe. It became a real camaraderie thing.”
Similar to how many commuter towns have developed, people may have lived in somewhere like Rush for years but really didn’t know the community. A group like the sea swimmers opens up a door to new friendships.
Annmarie paints a picture of these relationships coupled with sound, waves and happiness.
“To walk down here on the coldest winter days and hear the laughter in the water. Or on a really still daybreak morning, when there’s nobody else here and you hear the chit chat in the water, it would just lift your heart.
“From a mental health point of view, there have been days where I thought I had absolutely nothing left. And getting into that water, within 10 seconds, I know I’ll be grand. I can’t really explain it.
“There’s a lot of scientific research on what happens to your body in the cold but all I know is that when you get in and when you get out, you always feel better. It has a really profound effect on you.”
The group has raised quite a bit of money for charity. Jane explains how this evolved.
“We wanted to raise some money for someone Rachel [another swimmer] knew that needed it and so we did a little fundraiser for her.
A local woman has been working with Syrian refugees in Turkey and I’ve been helping her over the years. I had a painting and I raffled it between the group and made €2,500. We had great craic with that. And then Loretta [another swimmer] knitted a hat for one of the girls. Everybody loved the hat. So we had the hat raffle then and made another €2,500. Things are bad this year with so many refugees, so I said I’d go big. I asked a few artists to donate a piece, which they did. That raffle raised €6,500. People are fantastic.”
Our David Hasselhoff
How Irish Country Living actually ended up with this slightly crazy crew in Rush is down to a more familiar face to this paper, tomato grower Matt Foley (of Kilbush Nurseries).
Matt was born and reared in Rush near Jane, swam as a child and windsurfed all through the winter in his 20s but he stopped due to the deterioration in the water quality. Up until a few years ago, he explains “the water was so bad and so polluted. The sewage was going straight into the sea and I stopped swimming maybe 10 years ago.”
Matt knew that Jane and Des were swimming all year long and so he came down in October and started swimming again.
He jokingly berates his two friends saying that although he saw the girls he stayed away “because I was afraid of them” to which they reply “and now he is our David Hasselhoff”.
But there was a health reason for Matt also. “I had prostate cancer and I had the operation and then I got re-diagnosed with the cancer again last year. I started radiotherapy in November, finishing on Christmas Eve. I just said I want to keep the swimming going and the two of them ran hand in hand, not every day, but most days.”
Why does Matt do it?
I’m definitely hitting the golf ball 20 yards further. Now I’d just like to hit it 20 yards straighter
Matt has two aims, the first being physical: “I’m 66 and they say as you get older you lose your upper body strength so it’s my intention to keep that going as long as I can.
“I’m definitely hitting the golf ball 20 yards further. Now I’d just like to hit it 20 yards straighter,” he laughs.
The second part is mental: “When you get out of the water you always feel bloody good.
“Last February there was a northeasterly wind coming across and it would cut you in two, huge tides running and big waves and it’s just tremendous excitement.
“There is nobody here and the next thing there’s a load of people here. It’s exciting, exhilarating and sometimes I think actually making it back to land alive you are so relieved – you feel so good.”
Matt’s claim of staying in the water 10 or 15 minutes is rebutted strongly by the two ladies. They give him six or seven minutes max. No wonder he was scared of them.
Jane says that there are no medals for getting hypothermia and Annmarie with her nursing hat on says: “If you’re in the water and its cold and you start to feel comfortable, it’s time to get out because you’re hypothermic.”
Advice for the uninitiated
Annmarie advises to “start in the summer time. Our motto every day, was ‘we will go tomorrow’, we never thought ‘I’m going to do this all year round’. Go one day at a time. Don’t think any further than that.”
Taking it one month at a time works for Matt.
You spend nine months in the womb in liquid
“I get to the end of November and then its December and sure it’s just as cold in November as it is in December. So you just go to the next month and the next month.”
Matt has a theory – not his own he admits – as to why sea swimming causes the exhilaration it does: “You spend nine months in the womb in liquid.
“We probably spent about 98% of our evolution in the sea before we got washed up on the beach. So we are just coming back. Something primeval gets switched on that gives you that buzz when you get out of the water, it just makes sense. I have never gotten out of water without feeling just bloody great”.