It has been a very long day. Dodging the Dublin rain in search of
books by your heroes takes a supreme effort and I've drunk in so many
packed, trendy coffee bars that I might die of caffeine poisoning, if
not lung infection. Smoking, like laughing, like drinking, is a
national pastime here. I need a beer.
Dublin is very much like Barcelona was a decade ago. The economies of
both Spain and The Republic of Ireland were once cruelly termed third
world and third division. That has all changed, when Franco rode off
into the sunset Spain exploded. It was the late eighties place to be.
Bournemouth and Benidorm were out; Gaudi, Tapas, and the Olympic games
were in. We all went there, friends of mine actually moved there and
have not come back since, such was the allure of Catalonia.
I do not really know what happened with Ireland though; perhaps its
Riverdance or the Eurovision Song Contest that were the catalysts.
Ireland today,, both North and South provide one of the most desirable
destinations in Europe, showering an abundance of wealth, cool and
manufactured charm over everyone who visits there. The word is out and
Ireland embraces. There is always time for talk, coffee, Guinness, and
So, I venture into a pub, out of the rain. The pub is called 'Nearys'
and it is just behind the fine old Gaiety Theatre. Its what an Irish
pub should be. Fine Guinness and quiet. It still has its original d?cor
and wallpaper; the barmen wear bow ties and tired smiles. There is no
Jukebox, no bicycles or brooms stuck to the ceiling and no one telling
me to have the crack. The word is actually craic and means 'the good
time,' but Ireland for all its wonder has watered everything down for
the sake of tourism including its beer. There's so much fake Irishness
in Ireland that if you stand back from it for a while, you
disorientated and disheartened, but fear not, this pub, Nearys, is the
I settle back with my beer and book but cannot help to overhear a
conversation between two elderly men in the corner. They are yakking
hard about of all things, swimming. Should they go or not go to the
Forty Foot tomorrow, will the weather hold for them and who'll bring
the tea. I'm intrigued and eavesdrop some more. It's their passion for
the subject matter that's so attractive. They talk of friends who might
be there tomorrow and friends who'll definitely be there but should not
be because of dodgy tickers, bad tea techniques, and other such
aliments. They decide that if the weather is good enough they will meet
at Joyce's tower at midday tomorrow. Their deal is done and they finish
their pints and leave. Now I love a mystery as much as the next man, it
has got me into trouble before so I ask the barman about this place,
strangely named the Forty Foot. In return he gives me vague directions
and a brief synopsis of what The Forty Foot actually is.
'It's a place up the coast where old nutters who should know better go
for a daily swim. They're mad. Some have drowned there.'
I finish my pint, say goodbye to the barman who returns a knowing smile
and leave for my dry and very expensive accommodation. I am going to
have a busy day tomorrow. It will be good to get out of this fine city
for a day, however much I love it. Book buying can wait. I go to bed
early as the craic begins to rise like steam from an overworked
expresso machine into the Dublin twilight.
* * *
I am out of my apartment by ten and crossing the little bridge over the
meandering river Dodder. The sun is playing peek-a-boo with the high
clouds as I make my way down to Lansdowne Road train station. Will the
weather hold for the swimmers, I do hope so. I only have to wait about
five minutes for the train to Bray and when it arrives, I am greeted by
a juggernaut of sound, not from the train actually stopping but from
inside the carriage itself. The train is full, strange for this time of
the morning and day of the week (Tuesday). Everyone is chatting and
laughing about anything and everything, the weather, football and
corrupt government officials. There is a young boy in a Manchester
United football shirt with a large stereo pumping out very loud Hip-hop
music accompanied by a howling dog. No one seems to mind. It is funny,
very funny and I laugh inwardly like the Englishman I am at the joy of
it all. I stand there swaying, an audience of one on the short journey
to Dun Laoghaire.
Once there as instructed I turn left and the Dun Laoghaire ferry port
and the Irish Sea confront me. It is dramatic to see a huge ship so
close sailing out to sea; it resembles an enormous shoe. I keep
walking, past little ice cream parlours doing no business at all and
hopeful B&;Bs that look delightful from the outside, but could (as I
know from bitter experience) contain numerous horrors inside once
you've paid your money.
After walking for about twenty minutes, the landscape changes from
ferry-land to no mans land. The coastline becomes more rocky and
rugged, almost alien, a fifties film mock up of the moon. There are
huge jutting sand coloured stalagmites randomly pointing in any
direction conceivable. It is almost unsettling; OK it is unsettling
because there is no one else around. I feel lonely.
At last, after half an hour I spot what I guess is Joyce's Martello
tower on top of a hill. It resembles a perfect bucket sandcastle. I am
now at a place called Sandycove and it is majestic. The sharp sun is
shining and the sea is a Cornflower blue, lapping like a thirsty pup
against the rocks. Still no one at all is in the vicinity. Does this
place that is strangely named The Forty Foot actually exist, or is it
just Irish mischief?
James Joyce lived in the Martello tower for a short while and wrote the
first chapter of Ulessyus here. It's now a museum, but is closed today.
I do not know why, its opening times are clearly marked and indeed, it
should be open now. With nothing to do but wait and admire the view. I
wait and admire the view.
And then magic occurs. There are the boys from Nearys, the swimmers.
Bobbling heads moving out to sea in brightly coloured caps.
I walk down the hill and clamber through the maze of stalagmites; it is
starting to make sense. This is a secret place, an oasis of privacy.
There is a sign.
THE FORTY FOOT.
GENTLEMEN'S BATHING AREA.
A little further along there is another sign.
TOGS MUST BE WORN.
The Sandycove Bathing Association
I've found it! It is a sheltered bay hidden by the rocks. You would be
hard pushed to find it if you did not know what you were looking for.
There is a little hut to change in and steps that guide you helpfully
into the sea. It really is glorious. Why is it here? Who built it? Do I
really want to find out and compromise my wonder of it all?
I sit down on the rocks looking for the boys but I cannot find them.
They must be somewhere, swimming in the Irish Sea that comforts them
like a cold blanket. I have a mint and hypnotise myself with the waves.
One, two, three. Crash, my shirt is wet. I move back slightly. I am
getting worried. The barman in the pub said that men have drowned here.
Panic is setting in, do I shout for a coastguard knowing that there
will not be one, or do I just sit here and wait. My dilemma is answered
from behind me. They appear, the swimmers, cackling, giving me a
"Feck, Feck, its Fecking cold."
I laugh at them, this time outwardly, half in relief and half in
"Are you going in?" One of them squawks at me.
"No I don't think so, I can't swim very well."
"Well that's no good now is it, you'd freeze your bollix off
They amble off; giggling like naughty schoolboys, all flatfooted,
looking for their towels.
Soon there are more. Women as well. Most off them precariously elderly.
They all know each other and share tea and jokes in their little hut.
They all say hello to me.
One man in a green swimming cap that resembles a cabbage, walks to the
edge of the water, looks to the heavens for a few seconds, crosses
himself, claps his hands loudly, and then dives in. He swims for five
minutes, returns to the hut for his tea, and then repeats the
I stay for about an hour entranced by it all. I do not want to ask them
questions for this is their place and time. Almost a Utopia if I want
to be pretentious. Long may it reign.
Then it does, it pours down. I become a solitary comic figure with a
Holsten Pills umbrella flapping in the wind, sitting on a rock like a
garden gnome. It soon clears and the sun does return, this time much
stronger than before and out they all come again, crab-like.
I make my way back up to Joyce's Tower to take one last look at the
beautiful view. I have a conversation with a photographer romantically
named Michael Morrison. He tells me the history of the place and why it
is called The Forty Foot. I shan't tell you because when you find out
for yourself you will be none the wiser, but that is the mystery of
this odd place. Oh and he told me one more thing and he said it with a
twinkle in his eye.
"You're always in the place where you most likely want to be."