Thursday, November 5, 2015

Those Places Thursday: The Forty Foot Bathing Place

Did your ancestors or family members have a local swimming hole, a spot to frolic on a warm summer's day? Well, in Ireland, a few kilometres outside of Dublin City, there is a natural swimming 'pool' of sorts in the Irish sea, a bathing place which locals and visitors alike have used all year round for over 250 years. It is called the 'Forty Foot Bathing Place'.

Located only steps away from Sandycove beach in Dún Laoghaire (anglicised: Dunleary), the promontory is thought to have been named for the Forty-Foot Regiment once stationed nearby to protect the area from invasion during the Napoleonic era. Local folk lore offers other reasons for its name, including one which says forty feet is the distance from the top of the highest stone to the sea floor beneath, while another sees the name as a salute to the nearby Martello Tower which stands forty feet in height.

Huge granite stones form the walls of the 'bathing pavilion' where swimmers leave their belongings before they walk down nature's 'stairs', supported by rusting iron rails, to venture into the bracing waters of the Irish sea. Although the water may look calm, the changing tides of Dublin Bay, along with the wake created by passing ferries, can whip up the tranquil waters quick as you like, so weak swimmers are ill-advised to take the plunge.

My dad and his pals liked to enjoy a swim in the chilly waters at the Forty Foot, especially to cool off along the way if they were on a cycling trip to the southern counties. Occasionally family members would take the train from Dublin to Dún Laoghaire, and while the women enjoyed a swim at Sandycove beach, the men would venture 'round the corner' to the waters of the Forty Foot.

A couple of hardy souls enjoying a late afternoon swim.
The craggy rocks above the sea surface serve as a reminder of what lies beneath.
'No diving' is the order of the day here.
In James Joyce's 'Ulysses', the character Buck Mulligan refers to
the 'snot green sea' at the Forty Foot where he swims each morning.
My preference is to describe the waters as a mix of blues & emerald green.
The Forty Foot is near the Martello Tower (now the Joyce Museum)
in which Joyce briefly lived with his friend Oliver St. John Gogarty.

On 23 March 1888, one Alfred Carson wrote a letter to the editor of The Freeman's Journal in which he expressed his concern over the possibility that sewage might be released near the Forty Foot Bathing Place. Carson wrote,

Sir — My attention having been drawn to a new sewerage scheme, having for object the carrying of all Blackrock, Monkstown, and Kingstown sewage through Sandycove, and to be discharged in close proximity to the now celebrated forty foot bathing place, allow me, as one who for years has always taken the deepest interest in the welfare of the above, to most strongly protest against any such scheme being carried out...

Thankfully the scheme was diverted and the 'celebrated forty foot bathing place' was saved.

The sign serves as a reminder the Forty Foot was once strictly the purview of a gentlemen's bathing club. The organisation was founded in 1880, and some of those gents were known for taking to the surf in the nude, thus the single sex restriction. As one local put it, all the better to avoid 'shocking the ladies'. In the 1970s women dared break the rules and climbed down the craggy rocks to enjoy a brisk dip in the sea at the Forty Foot, forever ending male domination of the swimming place.

The bathing club still exists, but now membership is open to all. Swimming at the Forty Foot is also open to everyone, and is enjoyed the whole year long. These days swim togs are requisite, although you may see a few bare bottoms if you venture to this spot, as hundreds do, for the annual holiday plunge on Christmas Day.

On the late September day on which I shot these photographs, I visited the Forty Foot at the tail end of the afternoon, around 5 pm. Although it was lightly raining, and the air temperature was around 15°C (about 59°F), there were a few hardy souls enjoying an exhilarating swim in the Irish sea. The water looked very inviting, but with cameras in hand the best I could manage was to roll up my trousers, doff my shoes and venture down the concrete steps into the sea up to my ankles. It was indeed enlivening!

A natural wading pool on the left hand side of the Forty Foot.

The more cautious may enter the sea here via concrete steps.

The Sandycove Bathers Association maintains the area, and
offers the gentle reminder that togs, i.e. 'a swimming costume', must be worn.


  1. Jenn, an interesting and amusing post: men only swimming, snot green sea and bare bottoms? Oh my, an interesting history of a unique place. It does look like a tempting spot to jump in... but only on a very hot day. 59 degrees no way!

    1. Charlotte, thanks very much for your comments. It is a place with an interesting history, and a family connection. Despite the air temperature the water felt very refreshing that day. ;-)



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