Sea swimming in West Cork is just the tonic after my stroke

After he had a stroke, Steve McDonald decided he needed to get heathy, and sea swimming in his native West Cork provided the solution, he tells CHRIS DUNNE
Sea swimming in West Cork is just the tonic after my stroke

NEW HORIZONS: Swimmer Steve McDonald.

STEVE McDonald jokes that his body shape suggests he’s better at floating rather than swimming.

But since the 55-year-old Glaswegian relocated to West Cork from London with his wife, Mary, he is shaping up, and has taken to sea swimming like a duck to water.

“I never thought of myself as a swimmer, even though I could technically float!” says Steve, who lives in Shandrum in the townland of Bantry.

The city slicker even admits: “I was scared of the sea. Coming from a big city, I never went to the swimming pool. I couldn’t be bothered with all that faffing around with tokens, changing rooms and lockers.

“I was happy kicking a ball around with my mates or playing tennis in the street over a make-shift net when Wimbledon was on telly.”

Glasgow was a world away from the Wild Atlantic Way. 

“The water was mainly used for building dirty great big ships,” says Steve.

“I spent my adult life working in London where I never had the time, energy or inclination to go swimming. It was never on the horizon.”

But he was inclined to enjoy poolside pursuits?

“Ah yes, having a drink and relaxing in the sun at a poolside bar in the Caribbean was very nice!” adds Steve, who established Braemar Consulting more than 30 years ago to help businesses grow and strengthen brands. He is also a tutor with Cork Education and Training Board.

Now he is happy in the open water, feeling right at home, although he adds: “I’m still a blow-in!”

Steve has been living in West Cork for 13 years, embracing the camaraderie of his friends and neighbours, joining the Glengarriffe Park runners and a local open water swimmers group.

“The community here is fantastic. Mary and I love West Cork. It is glorious. We have everything we want right here on our doorstep.”

Had the locals any problem understanding his Scottish accent? 

“Ach aye!” laughs Steve. “My accent has been likened to a grenade going off!”

“I married an Irish lass,” explains Steve. “Mary’s ambition was to come back to Ireland to live. And we did.”

The couple’s first blind date meeting is a lovely story

“My pal working in the advertising agency with me said, you must come and meet my flat-mate’s girlfriend,” recalls Steve. 

“Racing from the train to the pub to meet the lassie, a beautiful blonde came towards me and I thought, if the girl I’m going to meet is half as good-looking as that one, then my luck is in.”

Indeed, Mary Hanrahan was the ideal woman — the very blonde Steve had admired en route to the pub!

Steve McDonald with his wife Mary.
Steve McDonald with his wife Mary.

“That was that! I knew that night I would marry Mary.

“I was travelling a lot back with work then,” adds Steve, who held senior roles in marketing, strategy and advertising for 25 years, working with brands like Virgin, Mitsubishi, Failté Ireland and Laya Healthcare.

“I told Mary not to go out with anyone else until I came back from Paris.” 

Soon the couple were winging their way across the Irish Sea, where Mary continued her teaching career and Steve concentrated on his career. Everything was going swimmingly, then Steve suffered a setback.

“I was on my way back from a business trip abroad and I suffered a minor stroke at the airport; a TIA. 

"I think I’m smart but I’m really not. My older brothers had heart attacks and health issues and I had missed all the clues that I was really unfit.”

How did he feel?

“I felt like an old fart!” adds Steve, who is refreshingly honest. “My lifestyle was mad, travelling the world, looking the part, was exhausting. I was football mad and I travelled long distances regularly to watch Celtic. I was a big part of the supporters’ club. I couldn’t sustain the lifestyle.”

He got out of the fast lane. 

“Sense came to me eventually and, being an avid gardener, I signed up for a horticultural course at Scoil Stiofan Naofa. I really enjoyed it.”

Life slowed down for Steve.

“Mary was temping in schools in Cobh and Schull before she got a full-time teaching post in Castletownbere. The roles were reversed. She was the main bread-winner.

“West Cork is a stunning environment. En route to Castletownbere I used to marvel at the landscape, no factories, no smog, what a stunning environment. Snave, Bantry Bay; it’s God’s own country.”

Did he miss the buzz of the city?

“I found it hard to sleep amidst the peace and quiet at first. I missed the sound of the traffic and police cars. I bought a fan just for the noise of it!”

He felt at home too.

“The Irish and Scottish cultures have great similarities and great differences. You adjust accordingly. The weather can be a challenge!”

After his wake-up call, Steve wanted to enjoy idyllic West Cork with his wife and the company of their whippets, Beau and Tessa, and he sought advice on the health front.

“The late, great Dr Dennis Cotter told me to shape up physically. Or face the consequences of age and lethargy.” You never argued with the doc! He told me to keep moving.”

Steve began walking and running with the park runners of Glengarriffe and making friends with the great outdoors; he made new friends.

“I was still wearing my ski suit!” says Steve. “I was heavy and unfit. My weight had ballooned.”

There was a reason for that.

“Mary is a phenomenal cook!”

Steve, competitive by nature, took up a challenge from his pals two years ago to take the plunge for a Christmas swim with his buddies.

“I was kind of embarrassed and reluctant at first,” he admits. 

“But I’m thick-skinned and even though I was scared I went into the sea for 15 minutes. We ate home-baked scones and had a natter afterwards. The social element was brilliant. I got the bug!”

And he got fit.

“Dr Denis would say we should have swimming in the sea on prescription,” says Steve. “I began swimming in the sea every week and often daily.

“I wasn’t making much headway 20ft away from the shore, but that didn’t deter me.”

He was surrounded by water and by others who looked the part.

“In the cold weather, the women wear cosy hats with bobbles on them in the sea. Looking at the bobble-hats in little clusters chattering together in the water is great fun.”

Now Steve doesn’t feel like an old fart anymore. 

“I’ve never felt so young!” he says. 

"I can’t believe the age I am. I feel younger now than when I was 40. I’m wearing trendy clothes! I’m more limber now. Mary is delighted. She’s doing her own 1,000 steps a day challenge.”

The tide has turned for Steve.

“Swimming and running are the best things I’ve ever done. The community feeling is wonderful. 

"Find a swim whatsapp group near you. Don’t jump in yourself. Join others who know what they’re doing. You’ll enjoy being part of a group and the sociability of it.”

“You can teach an old dog new tricks!” says Steve, laughing. “I am a life-long learner. I now have a healthy respect for the sea and a better appreciation of my own health, physically and mentally.

“Come on in. The water’s lovely!”

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