“THE sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever”, wrote French oceanographer Jacques Yves Cousteau, summing up an experience that many can relate to. Many of our earliest memories relate to long days on the seashore, sandy toes and tingling skin basking in the sun and saltwater. Unfortunately, Irish weather deters all but the hardiest among us from diving into the waves outside of our meagre sliver of summer each year. A growing number of Corkonians however are embracing the sea, making sea swims a weekly ritual, rain, or shine.
Rise and Swim is a voluntary collective of sea swimming enthusiasts, established by local yoga teachers Emer Harrington and Kitty Sheehan. Both harbouring a deep affinity with water, the women were passionate to share this love with others, encouraging people to join them for sunrise swims on Friday mornings.
Taking place weekly since January, their numbers have grown from two to almost 40, with swimmers joining to dip their toes at Fountainstown and Inch beaches each week. While many of us are still fast asleep, these early risers don their togs and run into the ocean to greet the rising sun. So what, you may ask, is the appeal?
For many, it is a chance to reconnect with nature amidst the hubbub of modern working life. Ballinlough native Emer moved home to Cork in 2017 after spending eight years working in the fast-paced world of corporate communications in London. Missing home, and longing to be closer to nature and the sea, she trained to be a yoga instructor and now teaches full time at Himalaya Yoga Valley Cork and runs Yoga day retreats in East Cork.
“Growing up, I was lucky to spend summers in Crosshaven, running wild with my brother and sister and our friends jumping off the rocks in Churchbay and spending hours on end in and out of the sea at Myrtleville.” she recalls.
“I have great memories of beach trips and sea swimming.
“It was only when I lived for years in a built up city without that exposure to the sea, I realised how much I missed it. When I moved home, regular beach trips became part of my routine of self care, alongside my yoga practice.
“It soothes me, boosts my mood, gives me space when I need it and really brings me home to myself.”
Kitty, who hails from Lisgould, found that sea swimming gave her crucial head space while dealing with work related burnout.
“I initially qualified as a mental health nurse in 2006 and worked in various settings for 10 years but in 2017 my path took an unexpected turn and I left nursing permanently.
“Going for weekly sauna and sea dips played a key role in my recovery and in making the tough decision to change career path.
“No matter what way I was feeling prior to my dip I always felt better afterwards. It was my way of trying to re-calibrate my fragile nervous system and it really worked.”
Now working as a disability adviser to students who experience mental health difficulties while studying in UCC, Kitty also teaches yoga in various locations around Cork.
The pair began to swim together last year, making trips to beaches across Cork part of their regular schedule. It was on one such “sea escapade” that the idea for Rise and Swim was born.
“On one of our escapades to Rocky Bay last January, while basking in the Wild Atlantic Way Seaweed barrels, we were having a chat about the sea and its many benefits for both of our mental well being.” Kitty explains.
“There are swimming groups popping up in the west of Ireland and in Dublin and Wicklow, so we thought why not Cork where we have so many beautiful beaches?
“We decided to fire ahead because even if no one turned up we would still do it ourselves and feel the benefit of a weekly sunrise dip.
“The early morning seemed like the perfect time to do it, as you really jolt yourself awake and are ready for whatever the day has in store.”
Creating an instagram page (@riseandswimcork) has played a huge role in spreading the word to people, and inspiring confidence that anyone can take the plunge.
“The photos and stories every Friday really seem to make people smile and we get messaged a lot from people wanting to join,” Emer says.
“A lot of people say they are interested in going for a swim, but feel nervous about it.
“It’s so much easier to push yourself out of your comfort zone when you have people standing side by side with you, ready to run into the waves.”
Rise and Swimmers are not unique in discovering the magical benefits of water. In his book “Blue Mind: How Water Makes You Happier, More Connected and Better at What You Do”, marine biologist Wallace Nichols ponders why we are so drawn to the sea each summer.
“Whether searching the universe or roaming here at home humans have always sought to be by or near water. We know instinctively that being by water makes us healthier, happier, reduces stress, brings us peace.”
Those who take the plunge and swim appear to receive these benefits in heavier doses, with researchers now discovering tangible evidence for what many sea worshipers have always known- being in water is good for you. On a physical level, swimming, like all cardiovascular exercise, promotes better health.
A growing body of research is also linking sea swimming in particular with a reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression. The cold water immersion that comes with a dip in Irish waters has the physiological effect of reducing heart rate, and releasing feel-good endorphins, calming the central nervous system. Many devotees cite the simple idea however that while floating in (or locally more likely dipping in and running back out of) the ocean, your problems seem smaller.
As yogis, Kitty and Emer are acutely aware of the importance of giving ourselves time to decompress, and attest to the power of sea swimming in cultivating a mind/body connection.
“To me sea swimming is part of my Yoga practice,” Emer says.
“It gives me space and time to myself, connects me to my breath, brings me straight into the present moment and fully aware of my body and senses.
“It calms my mind and lifts my mood like nothing else, which to me is yoga.” “You are more connected to yourself and your surroundings, relaxed and miles away from the busy mind,” Kitty adds.
“I like the way someone explained it to me recently; “It’s like pressing “control alt delete” for your nervous system.
“You literally come home to yourself.”
Rise and Swim is open to anyone who wishes to come along, and Kitty and Emer encourage everyone to have a go. Participants do not need to be expert swimmers, though it is recommended that you have a level of confidence with water. Many people paddle in waist high, or have a quick dip and get out again.
Swims usually take place at 6.30am on Friday mornings at Fountainstown and Inch Beach, with hopes of starting a third swim at the Dock Beach in Kinsale soon.
If interested, you can find all the information about weekly swims on Instagram at @riseandswimcork where the girls are always happy to answer comments or messages.
For those looking for a deeper dive into all of the goodness that the sea provides, Kitty and Emer are hosting a weekend sea swimming and Yoga retreat in Inch Hideaway, East Cork, from September 20 to 22. The weekend is an opportunity to spend time in nature, swim in the sea, do yoga, eat good food, meet new people and enjoy some time out. Contact them on Instagram at @yogawithemer or @yogawithkittysheehan to
A poem by Rise and Swim
member, Dee O’Leary
The soft hush of the dawn
A golden breeze
The hazy sky
Carpet of rushes
Twinkle with dew
Driving these roads
The peace disturbed
By my presence
As if I interrupted
A morning meeting
Stretch over the sand
The call of the dea
The call of the wild
The souls communion
With a splash and a shriek
With fear and delight
The sea brings us home
To ourselves, teaching us
To surrender the struggle
To flow like a wave
How lucky to find
Such glorious moments
Glimpses of Magic
Before the world wakes
Before the day begins.