The Holy Sea

Growing up beside the Irish Sea in South County Dublin, it was not surprising
that as a child I viewed the sea as something special. My mother brought us
children down to Sandycove harbour every sunny morning of our childhood
summers for a swim, she would bring a flask of coffee and we would play for
hours paddling as toddlers and building sandcastles. Later on we learnt to
swim in Sandycove baths with Mrs Gilmore, who famously taught hundreds of
children to enjoy the water. Later we progressed to Dun Laoghaire baths,
where we became brave enough to dive off the high board.
From our earliest years there was always a sense of forbidden mystery just
around the corner from the harbour in Sandycove known as the “Forty-Foot –
Men’s Bathing Place”. As we children got a little older and somewhat more
curious, we ventured down on our own and used to climb over the rocks to see
what was so special about this forbidden place. My brother told us that the
priests used to swim there. Getting a peek at the priests was the height of our
boldness, and we were terrified that we would be dammed to hell if we were
ever caught.
A few years later, as a student in Loreto Abbey Convent, which was situated
facing out to Dalkey Island, some of us girls learnt of a special bathing place
where the nuns used to swim. Once again, we hid behind rocks and saw the
nuns for the first time without their habits, but with very modest swimming
suits that looked like something from a Victorian postcard!
So while I swam every summer well into my twenties, I always had a reverence
for the sea. As well as the priests and nuns who regularly swam, my uncle, a
devoutly Christian man, was one of the few who swam every day of the year.
He never missed his Christmas Day swim right into his 80s.
Looking back this sense of holiness and the sea being somewhat intertwined is
not so surprising. Holy Water is used to baptise babies into the Catholic faith.
Lourdes Water is highly cherished, and there are many people who maintain
they have been cured in Lourdes. Indeed it is not just the Catholic faith that
has water at its spiritual core. The River Ganges is most sacred in the Hindu
tradition, where the river is believed to be the personification of the Goddess
Ganga. Hindu belief holds that bathing the Ganges on certain occasions causes
the forgiveness of transgressions and helps attain salvation. In Islam the
ZamZam Well in Mecca is the holiest place, believed to be a miraculously
generated source of water from God.
In Ireland we have many stories about the sea, rivers and lakes that are linked
back to spiritual origins. As with many religions and belief systems throughout
the world, water is a natural symbol of purification. We are so fortunate to be
surrounded by water on our island, and I have always lived close to it. For
thirty years I lived on the Kerry coast, and regularly swam in the Atlantic
Ocean. Like my mother before me, I brought my children to swim regularly. We
also fished in the local river, and took boats out on the lake. And now newly
retired, I live in the lovely seaside town of Youghal, where I enjoy a walk on the
Eco Boardwalk every morning.
To spend your life beside the water is privilege that so many of us in Ireland
are able to enjoy.