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Wild swimming during lockdown

paulinegarvey9 September 2020

A swimmer enjoying the water on the Dublin coast. Photo by Pauline Garvey

For some time, researchers have written about the possible benefits that come with wild swimming. This activity has been growing for some time, according to John Leech, chief executive of Irish Water Safety[i],  who said his organisation has witnessed a “huge increase” in the number of people delving into open water swimming in the last decade. The benefits of open-water swimming are manifold, he suggests, and he particularly emphasises the benefits to mental health.[ii]

However, although swimming has been a popular activity along Dublin’s coastline for some time, this summer  – during the Covid-19 lockdown months – it seems like it has spread in numbers and enthusiasm.  With warm evenings throughout this summer, ever-larger groups of people of all ages could be spotted in bathing shelters and beaches, or along rivers. Bathing shelters along the coast were hives of activity and individuals who had never been in the habit of swimming before have taken to the water.  Parents of primary school children who were on lockdown and distanced from friends were meeting up at popular bathing spots and socialising through swimming. Other sports enthusiasts took to the water too, particularly those whose activities had suspended during the lockdown. But it was not just about health: seaside parties started to spring up on the water’s edge, particularly after pubs and restaurants were locked down. ‘Outdoor swimming’  fell under the Government of Ireland’s Roadmap to reopening society on 18th May 2020, and more than ever, the Dublin coastline was a hive of activity. WhatsApp was integral in organising and coordinating these events, and men and women, parents and children and different age groups could meet in socially distanced ways.

Geographer Ronan Foley has carried out research on sea swimming along the Dublin coast, as well as inland spaces. His research was focussed not only in the activities but in the blue spaces where swimming takes place and he discovered that swimming places are significant in ‘building up personal and communal resilience and emerge as important public health assets’. Not only are they important for personal histories and identity, but they are an ingredient in creating spaces for communities of shared care and physical activity especially for older people or people with differences”[iii].

One striking feature of all this is the number of people who have taken to swimming for the first time.  One 60-year-woman who had never swum in the sea on a regular basis before not only embraced the sea but wrote into a national newspaper in July stating:

‘…as a confirmed scaredy-cat when it comes to water, I took the plunge during lockdown. What an amazing new experience.  […] …a surprising positive experience during this pandemic’.

Now, she calculates the tide times around her Zoom calls. [iv]  She is not alone.  A local 67-year-old politician made national headlines diving into the sea along the north coast of Dublin, prompting the deputy prime minister  Leo Varadkar (Tanaiste) to tweet about his ‘beach bod’, while members of the public commented on his great shape and one person wryly noted that it fits well with the government’s plans to raise the pension age.  These items, which appeared in newspapers and social media, swiftly circulated on countless WhatsApp groups both in the local area but also amongst groups that were set up to encourage people to meet safely outdoors, and swimming was one go-to.

These findings have particular relevance for older people in Ireland. A 2018 paper published by Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) argues that proximity to the sea had an impact on depression scores for older people. Linking the research with data from the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) they found that those with sea views were found to have a “significantly” lower risk of depression[v]. But besides the views, and the activity, is there more to this new interest that is associated with the lockdown? Foley makes an additional point about the water’s edge. These places are ‘are public, open, free and shared, where people of all generations, shapes, sizes and capabilities all meet up in ways they might rarely do otherwise’[vi].  Health and wellbeing might differ but the swimming might well outlast this lockdown.

References

[i] https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/the-addictive-magic-of-swimming-in-the-sea-in-winter-it-s-life-affirming-1.4074180

[ii] Kelleher, Patrick 23/11/2019 The addictive magic of swimming in the sea in winter: ‘It’s life affirming’. The Irish Times

[iii] Foley, Ronan 30/12/19 The joys of outdoor swimming, RTE Brainstorm, https://www.rte.ie/brainstorm/2019/0102/1019936-into-the-blue-space-the-joys-of-outdoor-swimming/

[iv] Making a Splash, letter submitted to the Irish Times 25/7/20

[v] See Foley

https://www.irishtimes.com/news/health/older-people-with-sea-views-may-have-significantly-lower-risk-of-depression-1.3726672

[vi] Foley, Ronan 30/12/19 The joys of outdoor swimming, RTE Brainstorm, https://www.rte.ie/brainstorm/2019/0102/1019936-into-the-blue-space-the-joys-of-outdoor-swimming/

Vulnerable margins or robust mainstream? Cocooners after lockdown

paulinegarvey18 June 2020

by Pauline Garvey and Bláthnaid Butler

A Dublin City Council notice placed in public parks

After two months of lockdown, Covid-19 restrictions started to be lifted in mid-May in Ireland. Instead of having to stay at home or venture only 2 km from home, people were allowed to travel 5 km and then finally, anywhere in their own county. As in other countries, the sense of excitement was palpable and many Dubliners spoke of their sense of relief in being able to meet friends, albeit with social distancing and venture further than they had for several weeks. Sports reopened to a limited degree, particularly non-contact sports, and among them, golf clubs and tennis courts were opened.  Debate continues about whether masks should be mandatory in supermarkets and on public transport. However, the measures put in place to protect older people who were cocooning is being received as a mixed blessing.

Some over-70 years old find themselves conflicted between recognising the necessity of cocooning on the one hand, while feeling pigeonholed in the category of ‘vulnerable’ on the other. Being ‘at risk’ implies being sheltered and protected but ultimately also denied the same freedoms as other members of society. One place where this was most visible was in the opening of sports clubs, particularly tennis courts, which were ‘off limits’ to the over 70-year olds.  Aware of the bubbling controversy, chief executive of Tennis Ireland Richard Fahey commented that “We are aware that there is an issue. Over 70s feel they should be allowed to go out and play tennis. But they are not the only group that is restricted in this phase”[i]. People who see themselves as fit and agile thus find themselves excluded from their regular hobbies, not as something self-enforced but as an imposition for ‘their own good’.  And this is a particular problem for those that do not see themselves as vulnerable or who consider that the category of vulnerable is too narrowly assigned to a chronological age rather than a health condition and which does not reflect their vitality and overall general health. This issue is central to our research in ASSA and discussed in detail in our forthcoming publications[ii].

It is not surprising, then, that when it comes to food, such issues arise and are frequently fraught.  Anthropologists have long been aware that the rituals around food and producing meals is pivotal to the construction of the home and family[iii]. Mealtimes rules and routines create family roles and socialise family members. We learn about the duties of gender, care and morality through the work of provisioning and preparing food. But when is it appropriate to express reliance or autonomy? And when do practices of care transition from a help to a hindrance? One ‘cocooner’ complained that when she first emerged in the public sphere and walked around the shops, she sensed people were looking at her and that she didn’t feel welcome.  She described her sense of surprise because she felt so self-conscious that she eventually retreated home.

During the lockdown, community organisations were mobilised to shop for cocooners. In Dublin, local community groups such as church groups, scouts and sports clubs set up groups on WhatsApp to shop and drop for people who needed help. Amongst families too it was common for adult children to bring weekly provisions to their parents so that they could stay home. While adult children prefer to do the shop because ‘it’s no bother’, we have found several instances where the parents prefer to be autonomous. One couple watered down their milk rather than ask their daughter to pick them up some more. Reasons for this included a mix of emotions such as fear of being a burden, exposing her to further risk and being prepared to make ‘small sacrifices’ or ‘do without’ because they decided it was ‘non-essential’. However, as soon as it was possible to venture out and shop for themselves, cocooners have often chosen to do so, preferring some risk in order to express their autonomy. At this particular moment, when the lines between safe and unsafe, lockdown or openness are blurred, older people hover between social categories that fluctuate between the vulnerable margins or the robust mainstream. When there is a lack of clarity over what is safe or not, it is worth remembering that efforts to keep groups safe not only impinge on their physical wellbeing but may also work to pigeonhole and marginalise them in unanticipated ways. Lockdown practices are not only rationalised actions but are saturated with sentiment and often conflicted.

 

[i] Watterson, J. 11/05/20 ‘Tennis courts to remain off limits for over-70s after May 18th for health reasons’. The Irish Times, available online https://www.irishtimes.com/sport/other-sports/tennis-courts-to-remain-off-limits-for-over-70s-after-may-18th-for-health-reasons-1.4250613, accedes 11/05/20.

[ii] For example see Garvey, P and D. Miller (forthcoming) Ageing with Smartphones in Ireland: When Life Comes Craft. UCL Press.

[iii] Mintz, S. W., & Du Bois, C. M. (2002). The anthropology of food and eating. Annual review of anthropology, 31(1), 99-119