Going tribal

An Cailín Rua

NEW PASSION Anne-Marie Flynn took up sea swimming during the pandemic, and now can’t go without her regular dip.

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

Every so often, you read a piece of writing that stops you in your tracks.
So it was in January 2016, when Ruth Fitzmaurice wrote in The Irish Times about how swimming in the cold Irish Sea had become her saviour, as she dealt with the diagnosis of her husband, film director Simon Fitzmaurice, with Motor Neurone Disease.
In her book, ‘I Found My Tribe’, which I subsequently devoured, she speaks of how she and two friends gathered at the cove in Greystones and swam, as a means of coping with the challenges life has thrown their way. As her relationship with Simon grows silent, Ruth fights to preserve their connection, but craves escape from a house overrun with agency staff and medical equipment; a place she can weep and reset. It is a beautiful read, an insight into a creative and passionate mind, a searingly honest memoir and above all, a memorable love story.
While the book made a strong impact on me, I remember thinking that no matter what life threw my way, the last thing I would probably ever want to do was jump into a freezing cold sea as a means of coping. Fast forward five years, to a pandemic.
My sea swimming experience didn’t start with the sea. Nor did it begin voluntarily. I, like hundreds of others, was nominated for Ballina Community Cleanup Group’s Freeze4February challenge, which involved a ‘dip’ in the Brusna River to help raise funds for a new sensory park.
Even though the Brusna River had been the site of the town’s original swimming pool, it had never once occurred to me to swim in it, until I had no choice. Cowardly, in dread of the cold, I delayed my dip until the last possible moment, craftily avoiding the days snow lay on the ground at the riverbank. It was with some trepidation that at the end of the month, I lowered myself into the icy, swirling waters, thick with foam on a rainy Saturday morning. And something happened.
Despite all my dramatics, I survived the experience, with no trace of hypothermia. And after just a brief dip, I felt different. Cold, yes. But lighter, brighter. And I went back, and with a couple of friends, committed to a daily dip for the next ten days. I found I was enjoying it. I wondered why I hadn’t done it sooner.
Within that awful, interminable lockdown with no access to the sea, the Brusna ‘dip’ became a central part of the week, without my even realising. After a couple of dip-less days, I’d feel restless. In rain, in sun, even in darkness, three of four of us would venture to the riverbank and immerse the stress of the day in the pool beneath the falls, until it was but a memory. It became a place of catharsis, where – shoulders under the water, in prayer position – submerging the hands is the hardest – we’d laugh, cry, air the irritations of the week, and celebrate the wins. I recalled the words of Ruth Fitzmaurice: “It shocks my body back to life.” That is how it felt; how it still feels. I am a different person – a better person – each time I emerge.
When the world started to slowly re-open, the dips in the river became excursions – pilgrimages, even – to the ocean. Ruth describes the fear of the sea; how every time your brain screams NO! before you go in, but you do it anyway, running towards the water though every fibre of your being is telling you to run in the opposite direction. The exhilaration of fighting the waves on a chilly April day, without the barrier of a wetsuit is a new high.
Of all the hobbies, I thought I’d take up, this was not one, but I’m grateful. The last year has been a hard one for many reasons, and while I am not comparing it to the experience of Ruth Fitzmaurice, who lost so much dear to her, there has been loss and grief, and I have found healing in the cold water. I have found immunity from colds. And in the communality of swimming with friends, I too have found my tribe.