We dreamt about swimming in the sea frequently in Madrid, invoking it as a someday cure for the relentless, exhausting weight of late July afternoons. Heat would have you thinking longingly of the icy Atlantic, aggrandising it, wilfully forgetting its pains and remembering it only as a balm. Invigorating, elemental, an obliteration of all previous discomforts.
With Kerry properly looming, the reality of Atlantic dips balanced itself in my brain—a shopkeeper eyeing the scales before dropping on a few more weights on the tray. As the wind made ribbons of our jumpers on our first morning in Dublin I thought of the sea facing west, and imagined being even colder than I was in that moment, and how very recently I had imagined that it would be some kind of relief from a discomfort that had already receded into the vague and untroubling past.
Helene mentions the swimming often, jokingly holding me to earlier, headier commitments. My usual reluctance is something along these lines: I feel the cold more, and have always felt it more. I observe the rangy men of my family shudder and wail as piddling waves wash over their knees, observe their uncontrolled shaking, the relief with which they stumble towards the sand after acquitting themselves. A hypothesis forms: this hurts us more than it hurts others. It must, for we are strong men, sons of Ireland, etc. The children sitting in the surf, the older women walking serenely out to the depth of their necks. They must be feeling something else. They must be. Helene laughs. I laugh, feeling another belief system crumble under the weight of articulation.
‘We’ll swim five times this week.’ She says this as we’re standing ankle-deep in the water on Béal Bán, past seven on Monday evening. I accidentally express shock, vocally. The water feels like hammers on my feet. A steady thrumming ache in my bones. Inarticulable cold. ‘Fives times is every day,’ I protest, but she corrects me. We’re here for six more days.
On Tuesday morning I put the front wheel on the tandem bike, pump the tyres and test the brakes, and we cycle down to Béal Bán with togs on under our trousers and rolled towels in my bag. It’s not sunny, of course. But it’s not cold. I rest the long bicycle against a concrete fencepost above the dunes and arrange our clothes on a hummock of dune grass. The patterns of our days down here often look like falsely idealised photographs—something that makes me want both to photograph everything and never photograph anything ever again.
The tide is far out. Seventy or eighty metres from where we start walking. At Béal Bán this makes little difference, for the sand continues on its punishingly gradual decline for a mile out into the bay. Far better those beaches where you stagger up to your neck in a few wading steps, almost like jumping in. At Béal Bán you must immerse yourself over a great distance, forcing the water slowly over your ankles, knees, crotch before it’s possible to think about submerging yourself.
We giggle nervously as we skip towards the shore, pointing relieved at one visible swimmer a mile down the beach. Even one person means the sea is survivable, and we will most likely survive.
Again the hammers on my feet. Helene says it feels colder today, but to me it feels a little less so. How to explain the laughing at this point? We laugh like idiots, like pure loons. Does that mean we are having a good time? Can a good time feel like this? I slap my chest repeatedly to distract my howling nerve endings.
We spot a small jellyfish—only the size of my thumb, but worryingly brightly red. After that I expect more, and seem to feel more each time the waves move past my legs, but it is only ever clumps of drifting seaweed. Long, slimy strings and small bushy forms and a dozen other shapes and densities. We both scream as the water rises—each lamenting our own particular private pain—and soon after that it is time to dunk. And very, very soon after that it is time to get back out again.
Just what constitutes a “swim,” anyway? We were always going to run up against this question. We say that we’re “going for a swim” when often the activity is a dip, a dive, a very temporary ablution (absolution?) in the clear and painful and faintly redeeming waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Often not a single stroke occurs. We fling ourselves in, drag ourselves out. Swimming would involve unwrapping arms from chests. A surrender to the water that is frequently inconceivable. What are we going to do? Lengths?
‘Are we counting this as a swim?’ asks Helene as we stand near naked, near soaked, staggering against the pull of sand from under our feet. Jesus. If this doesn’t count, what does?
Com Dhíneol (Coumeenole as it’s written in English, but the words are opaque in either language) is a tidal beach at the bottom of the cliffs as far west as it’s possible to get in County Kerry or just about anywhere in Europe. The sand there is always recently wetted and smoothed out, as the sea rises up to eat the beach twice a day, leaving little space to build an unmolested sandcastle.
The waves come in fast and high and tumultuous, harried and hustled by the Blasket Sound and innumerous offshore rocks into a weird, dangerous flurry of churning waters, arriving on the shore from three or four directions simultaneously. When I was three my mam snatched my sister and I into the air as a rogue swell surged up one of the cliff-walled inlets and swept up to her neck. An early memory. It’s a dangerous beach. ‘No swimming,’ the signs say in wordless pictograms, and for most of my life we—and most everybody—obeyed them. In recent years the beach is often full of heedless wetsuited Dubs, and I’ve allowed myself an occasional go in the waves, which are the best of the non-lethal variety this side of the Conor Pass.
We drove around the head to try to forget about the dull, rain-spitting day. You forget about the weather by going out into it. At Coumeenole we pulled up along the road above the beach, parking next to an ice cream van that was swaying visibly in the gusts. Already it was apparent that the waters were rougher than usual. Rougher than the soft day suggested. ‘We’ll see no basking sharks today,’ said Helene, which seemed fair, given that we could barely see the grey of the ocean under the ruckus of whitecaps and sea foam. From the high road above the cliffs we watched waves beginning to break two hundred metres from the shore, sundering over and into one another until the sea became an indistinguishable mess of whitewater.
We removed our clothes in the cove at the bottom of the cliffs, draping our things over miniatures of the black shards that guard the coastline. Sea foam flitted and dropped around us like snowflakes. The sodden sand seemed almost warm under my feet. A family of five stood up to their knees, a mismatched row holding hands, heroic in the face of death.
Turbulent water never feels quite as cold as still water. It hurries by too quickly to get at your bones. We were both surprised by the warmth of the open Atlantic compared to Béal Bán’s freezing bathwater. It was half air, of course. Agitated beyond measure.
Helene, I should mention at this point, had decided to complement her swimsuit with a woolly hat. Nothing seemed strange about it, under the circumstances.
We walked to the depth of our calves, then our thighs. These are imprecise and fleeting measurements, as the water dredged out to our ankles and then tumbled in over our waists every fifteen seconds. The pull of sand under our feet was extraordinary. A suboceanic landscape shaped and discarded with every swell.
But I am neglecting to describe the main part. We were focussed on our footing and on each other, but every so often our eyes were drawn to the waves ahead, and small, nervous noises came involuntarily out of the backs of our throats. Successions of dark monsters rose ahead and above us, growing taller and blacker into the distance, seeming to loom as high as the cliffs, mirroring them, herded violently by them into our narrow little bay. Sheep caught in a narrow gate. They foundered at the furthest breakpoint, cresting and collapsing, jumping over one another, turning the whole ocean white. Only the smallest remnants rose to break again where we stood, but they were enough to pull our feet from under us.
It was hypnotic, the approaching chaos. It looked like wonderful fun. Fun for giants. I walked further out, Helene pulled me further in. We continued this for a while. Everywhere was white, like we were waist deep in frothy milk. Later she showed me the dappled scar on her thigh from when a Catalonian wave dragged her across gravelly sand. In the moments before we exited I allowed a few of the waves to take me, tumble me, hold me under for a few panicky seconds. Is this swimming? We call it swimming.
Ten minutes later we sat in the café with no name and watched a squall of rain approach from the western horizon. It hammered the window as we lit into scones and hot drinks. Two Italians in winter coats and hats were informed of our derring-do. ‘Sometimes the Mediterranean feels cold to us,’ they replied, laughing self-deprecatingly. We accepted their wonder, having arranged for it.
Let’s choose this one for the photo album, shall we? If we’re to pick just one. Empty length of beach, sun-drenched and scattered with wide, smooth stones. Beautiful big rollers coming in from the bay mouth. The fizzing excitement brought on by the unexpected appearance of summer. But first:
You wouldn’t have seen it coming. We certainly didn’t. Another grey and misting day, another half-planned walk hastily unplanned. We floated around the house until lunch, mostly convincing ourselves that the rain wasn’t bothering us. Books get very interesting under these circumstances. Similarly a two-day-old newspaper.
In the early afternoon we slid into raincoats and walking boots and made for the Yellow House. This pub, which has a perfectly serviceable name we never use, sits on the opposite side of Smerwick Harbour and can be approached in a wide loop, hugging the shore of the bay. A series of beaches, rocks, sand dunes, coast road. It is a flavourful walk that is manageable in all weathers. No cliffs, no foggy mountain paths. A pint at the end.
We claimed our pint after a few miles of intermittent drizzle, occasional downpours. Uninterrupted pewter skies. A diversion amongst rock pools, which are calm and unreflective in such weather.
‘Are you in from a big walk?’ asked the girl on the bar (a girl, a true girl), and I was forced to shrug and plot our few little miles in reply. ‘It’s wet though,’ I added, frowning as though this was a strange and unexpected challenge. ‘It’s very wet.’ She nodded, nonplussed.
Then, lo’ and behold, as we sat nursing our prize in the corner window, an abrupt clearing began from the west. A great, dramatic unveiling of the sky. The season shifted in ten minutes. I never saw Helene finish a drink as fast.
‘What does this have to do with swimming?’ a reader might reasonably ask. It’s part of it, though. The unpeeling clouds, the saturation of sand and stone and sea. Everything lit as your memory lights it, as your anticipation lights it.
A stubborn belt of cloud covered the sun for our last mile or so. A dark band of grey, hemmed by endless blue on either side. It was moving the right way; the wind could only bring it one way. And so, in the very moment we descended through dune grass into our private beach, the sun appeared, and everything was at once aligned.
I can’t name the beach (nor, apparently, can the Ordinance Survey of Ireland). Béal Bán is our nearest, this one lies cut off by a promontory of black rocks. A little-used three hundred metres of sand directly opposite the open mouth of the bay. Perhaps it has no name independent of Béal Bán, but this seems unlikely. Every stone in the wall has a name if you go back far enough.
We changed into our togs and paused only for a few brief moments to yowl as our feet entered the water. It was too inviting to wait long. How strange to call the Atlantic Ocean inviting. Greens, blues, shades of grey. We could argue about the colour, but it’s always all of these. Each breaking wave revealed, at its momentary height, a cross section of flattened seaweed. Blotches of brown suspended in the wall of water. We waded through the slimy filaments, laughing at the feel of them.
We didn’t rush, but neither did we dawdle. The sun was almost sunk, and the evening was no longer very warm, or rather it never got a chance to warm. We sat in the marram grass of the dunes and towelled our feet half-clean, then winced at the appalling sensation of sliding them through our trouser legs. I was suddenly exhausted.
Pause in this moment. Looking west: the tumbling crests of the rolling waves sparkling in the low sun. So bright after a dreary day. They broke over our chests, then over our shoulders. The water felt so cold, then suddenly fine. Tired legs, tired bodies. Muted stresses dissolving. The preceding gloomy walk, the dinner to follow back at the house. Nothing is perfect in isolation.
Entering the water became easier every time. After a week I had moved from barely-concealable terror to near-impatience at the prospect of getting into the sea. Each submersion less painful, less shocking. Somehow more welcoming. The sea seemed to want us as much as we wanted it. We should have minded that, I suppose. Should have taken that as some kind of warning.
We had stayed on for a day or two—the weather forecast here never promises anything, but it gives little hints. Vague intimations. Things might improve, they said. It’s possible. The newspaper practically shrugging in your hands.
What we woke up to on Tuesday was not something so simple as good weather. The sky was a uniform shade of grey, more evenly coated than any day prior. But the clouds were very high, and the air beneath them almost clear. I realised I could see the hills from our windows, and walked out into the garden to find Mount Brandon similarly unshrouded. Brandon, which spends the greatest portion of the year wearing a thick mantle, holding onto it even in otherwise blue skies. Its shape seemed almost foreign. Helene, on a dozen trips to West Kerry over four years, had never seen it entirely clear.
So we climbed it.
Half way up I pointed back towards home, training my extended finger along the Yellow House route we’d taken days earlier. Everything grown hazy at this distance. The white sand of Béal Bán, a slash of black rock, the second unnamed beach, an outcrop of marram grass and then: the dark little crescent of a third beach, stained burgundy. ‘I guess that’s why they call it “Wine Strand”,’ I said. The sand is not so noticeably red when you’re standing on it, but next to its neighbours there was a striking contrast. A cove darkened under clouds that were not there.
We drove by Wine Strand on the way home, overheated and sore in our walking boots. I pulled the car up right above the beach and we sat watching surprisingly large waves come in. The rocks at either end show up dark red where they are wet. Unusual for the area. A few of the waves broke larger, irregularly spaced. Strange sea, we commented.
We waiting too long, watching from the glasshouse of the car, held back by some combination of exhaustion and unexpected apprehension. Gathering ourselves. The evening was still an enigmatic, windless grey. A kind of anti-weather. Did Helene talk me into it or I talk her into it? It becomes difficult to tell. ‘We’ll do this, then go home for dinner.’ The anticipation of completion.
The first thing I noticed upon descending onto the sand was the bone-and-feather remains of a seabird thrown up under the dunes by a high tide. The beach, up close, was littered with detritus. Mostly natural. On the left, hidden under the rocks from where we parked, we discovered a trio of deck chairs. Three elders covered with blankets, coated, hatted and reading books, sharing food out of a bag at their feet. They looked like November. We paused on the rise of sand, towels draped over our shoulders like capes. Lots of seaweed. Occasional waves. The air was chilly after the trapped warmth of the car. So recently we had been sweating, swatting at flies, promising ourselves the comfort of the cold sea. Now we were shivering.
The sea welcomed us in.
We dunked almost immediately, kicking off to get past the thick blooms of seaweed we had seen from the height of the sand. We counted our strokes loudly, one! two! three! four!, a running joke on how long we were willing to stay in the water. Soon we were out to our respective chests, and a nice swell came in and bobbed us both before setting us down again on the sand.
The waves that followed rose out of nothing. The first one was a little too large for comfort, but Helene was already pointing to the one following. She called for me to come back. The wall of water reared up and up, curling unexpectedly, curling to break where we were standing. Grinding itself like a machine set to eat us. It rose. It rose. I looked back towards Helene, who was moving towards the shore, and turned to try to dive under the breaking monster.
What hit me had weight. Several moments of oblivion followed. I tumbled uncontrolled, my back raked along the sandy bottom, my head held firmly underwater. This isn’t safe, shouted back half of my brain. I stood up as the water retreated, rubbing the streams from my eyes before opening them. Helene was standing too, coughing, a few metres shorewards. Neither of us were laughing. We stumbled in the rapidly sucking retreat for a brief moment before being hit by another breaker. This one hammered Helene worse, and she struggled to rise from where it dropped her in the surf.
‘I think I’ll get out now,’ she said. I paused in the shallows for a second, hopelessly trying to clean away some of the sand that coated my torso. The water was a sludge of upset particles. Looking behind me, the sea was suddenly calm. Freak waves, the ones your parents warn you about. In Smerwick Harbour, of all places.
The observation deck looked on with what could have been concern or mild amusement. It was difficult to imagine what we might have looked like from their vantage point. We raised a hand to acknowledge either. Helene began coughing up the sand she had swallowed. She was so matted it might have been comical, were we not in a state of mild shock. Her eyes were frosted with sand, her hair looked like a dog’s coming in from the woods. I took a photograph. Maybe we could laugh about it later. After her hearing came back.
We left sea and the dark sand and the rocks that were not quite the colour of blood, but not quite the colour of rocks either. ‘Was this a bad experience?’ I asked. ‘To end it on?’ Helene shook her head. ‘It was not a bad experience,’ she replied. ‘But it’s also not the end.’