You can swim the Irish Sea at the Forty Foot. Annapolis could have something like it.

On a trip to Ireland, there’s a spot where literature and taking to the water meet. Maybe there’s a place for this back home.

Published on: March 17, 2023 5:30 AM EDT

Steps carved into the rock at The Forty Foot lead down to a swimming hole on the Irish Sea in Sandycove, Ireland.
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SANDYCOVE, Ireland — Stripping off my warm clothes on a chilly March morning for a swim in the Irish Sea seemed like a good idea when I thought of it a few weeks ago.

We were headed to Dublin with friends for the week of St. Patrick’s Day, and I liked the idea of doing something raw, breaking out of the pubs, music and history of the Irish capital. Taking a swim at the Forty Foot south of the city carried the right flavor of risk, just enough to feel adventurous without putting my wife and me in much danger.

But walking up to the rocky promontory where people have done this for 250 years, my stomach was as mobile as the churning, grey-green water stretching to England beyond the eastern horizon.

A modern, concrete walkway curves toward water around the James Joyce Tower, an abandoned fort along the coast where Ireland’s most treasured and difficult-to-read author found inspiration for the opening of his 1922 novel “Ulysses.” He didn’t go swimming on his trip in 1904, leaving for town after some drunken gunshots to meet the woman he would one day marry.

Pavement turns to chiseled stone at the peak of the walkway and then descends in a gentle slope to the water. Brick and rock windbreaks rise on either side. There, a dozen swimmers were pulling off sweaters and pants to reveal bathing suits beneath, or rubbing towels over bright pink skin fresh from the 42-degree water.

Dozens of yards from the shore, a few heads could be seen above the water, and as we headed down steps carved into the rock to join them, I tried to put second thoughts out of my mind.

I’d love to say I learned about the Forty Foot from reading “Ulysses.” I remember being defeated by his stream-of-consciousness style of writing in college, but not much else.

No, I learned about this spot from “Bad Sisters,” a murder comedy about five sisters who conspire to kill one of their husbands. They bathe at the Forty Foot and make it look glorious.

Bathing is an Irish synonym for swimming and this public park is run by Dún Laoghaire, a suburb of Dublin next to Sandycove. There’s back and forth about the origin of the name. One story is that it is a reference to the British 40th Regiment of Foot stationed there in centuries past.

“I don’t totally disagree with that,” said Robert Walsh, a member of the Friends of Joyce Tower. “But in fact, it’s not. It was a water hole for fishing. When you look at the map of Ireland, there’s such a hole here and such a hole on the road there.”

This one, he explained, happened to be 40 feet deep. Or, it might be something else.

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The Forty Foot was originally a men's only swimming spot, but today is open to all.

I met Walsh and his friend Tom Fitzgerald at the Charles Fitzgerald, an Edwardian-era pub up the street from the Forty Foot. They’d just finished a group reading of Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake,” another difficult-to-read bit of famous Irish literature.

Fitzgerald, who recently sold the pub after 62 years of family ownership, said he’s been swimming at the Forty Foot most of his life, but took a break recently after knee surgery.

“I’ll go back out in April. It’s too cold in March,” he said.

Cold-water swimming isn’t unique to Ireland. It may surprise you to know there’s a bit of it around Annapolis. It was 44 degrees in the Chesapeake Bay this week.

Most people know about the Maryland State Police Polar Bear Plunge, which draws thousands into the chilly waters each year to raise money for Special Olympics Maryland, but beyond that, there is a small cold water culture.

“Locally, there’s a big interest in swimming outdoors,” said Traci McNeil, owner of Crossing Currents Aquatics in Riva, Maryland. “But there’s certainly an element that engages year-round.”

Why can’t we have something like the Forty Foot around Annapolis, a spot where it’s easy to swim on the Severn or South rivers, or Spa Creek? You can go to Sandy Point State Park and a few county parks for a dip in the Chesapeake, but that’s about it unless you have a connection.

“In the Annapolis area, you have to live on the water or have a friend who lives on the water or pay an organization like mine,” McNeil said. “It’s unfortunate.”

The number of open-water swimmers starts to grow as the water warms, and 55 degrees is the threshold that calls people into rivers and creeks. The limiting factor is access, which might seem odd in a county with more than 500 miles of coastline.

“Water access is a major barrier, despite water, water everywhere,” McNeil said. “There are very few places where people can hop in the water and start swimming.”

That could change.

Eric Leshinsky, chief of comprehensive planning for Annapolis, is leading an effort to identify and maximize the use of 30-plus, small city-owned spots on the water. Funded by a federal transportation grant, the results should be released later this year.

One goal is the establishment of swimming holes located far enough from marinas to be safe and with water quality consistently good enough to be healthy, he said.

When I told McNeil where I was going, she offered some advice. There is danger involved in open-water swimming, and a plunge into cold water will take your breath away. There’s also a risk of a cardiac event.

“Plunging into cold water of any temperature becomes dangerous if you aren’t prepared for what the sudden exposure can do to your body and brain,” advises the National Weather Service, which notes that “cold shock” can cause dramatic changes in breathing, heart rate and blood pressure and create a greater risk for drowning.

McNeil told me about Wim Hof, a Dutch cold water swimmer who has developed a breathing method for cold immersion. The simple idea is to breathe out, go in slowly, keep your breathing as normal as possible and then get out after about 10 minutes.

All of that flew out of my head as my right foot went below the surface of the clear water splashing on the brown rock steps at the edge of the Forty Foot.

My wife was ahead of me and walking hesitantly forward.

“Be careful, there’s a bit of a pull today,” someone above us helpfully said.

Up to the ankles, then the knees. I wondered if there was another step as I let go of the steel railing. Then a slow plunge, and a kick and the water surrounds you in a very cold embrace.

This is the easy way in. Young men and women, far more lithe and bold than me, leap from the rocks above and to the left of the steps. There were people farther out doing laps back and forth to a string of buoys marking the end of water protected by the arms of the cove.

“Oh, oh it’s cold,” my wife laughed as we swam a few strokes in a circle.

She headed back for the steps, and I followed after her, unsure of how much time we’d spent in the water but sure that it was far from 10 minutes.

We walked back up the steps feeling vigorous, even warm. A half-dozen women I’d tried unsuccessfully to talk with before we went in were heading back up the walkway, chattering excitedly in sign.

I found myself wishing I’d stayed in longer, but happy with the experience as we dressed for a walk up to Fitz’s for a pint and some Joyce read aloud by people who find themselves in his words.

A swimmer slowly drying himself in the weak sunshine said he’s been coming to the Forty Foot for 40 years. Is it good for your health?

“It’s like oil for the bones,” he said as he shimmied back into his clothes.

Robert Walsh, a member of the Friends of Joyce Tower in Sandycove, Ireland, leads a reading of "Finnegans Wake" by James Joyce in the Charles Fitzgerald pub.