I noticed a young copper beech in full leaf, beside the road at Balcunnin, yesterday evening. There was a wild, west wind blowing. The tree swayed and tossed. It seemed to flare as the wind caught the bronze leaves. It put me in mind of seaweed in a swirling current. I thought of Van Gogh, who painted the wind and poor Shelley, who looked down through the crystalline waters at Naples and saw…. ‘the oozy woods, that wear the sapless foliage of the ocean, know thy voice and suddenly grow grey with fear…and tremble and despoil themselves…Oh hear!’ He was talking to the west wind. He was a poet of course, so that’s all right. I learned that poem in school, like most people and often thought of it when approaching The Springboards bathing place. …’and saw in sleep, old palaces and towers…quivering within the wave’s intenser day…all overgrown with azure moss and flowers…’ It is a pity for Shelley that he lived before photography and scuba diving. I don’t think he was a swimmer, but he caught something of the fascination of the underwater world. At low tide you saw pillars and steps, all overgrown with weed. On a hot day, the weed sizzled in the sunlight. It was no doubt, fanciful to think of a sunken Roman villa or the remnants of a Greek temple, mourned by a melancholy poet, but we had to make the most of what we had.
When you reached a certain level of proficiency, you were allowed go to The Springboards. When you got really good, you were allowed swim to The Girder, a metal structure, not unlike an oil rig, fifty yards out from the steps. When you got brave, you could dive off the high boards. There were boards at ground level and, for some years, three springboards on pillars. The height was scary enough, without springing even higher. My brother spoke severely to me. ‘You’re bending your knees before hitting the water. It looks bad. Do something about it.’ I was bringing shame on the family. Worse than consorting with loose women, frequenting dens of iniquity and smoking cheap, Spanish cigars, I was bending my knees, before hitting the water. I worked on it. Unfortunately, between the high board and the water, there was plenty of time to forget all good advice and revert to a tangle of limbs and an unseemly splash, or worse still, a belly flopper. Painful and moreover, embarrassing if there were any spectators. There were always spectators. They were more likely to applaud a belly flopper than a perfectly executed swallow dive. If there were girls around, their laughter was shot through with scorn. In the endless, subliminal quest for strong genes for their future offspring, a belly flopper, in their eyes, definitely scored nul points. Unless, of course, you had done it on purpose. ‘Did you see my bomb dive? I did that on purpose. Ha ha ha!’ Indeed.
I saw Eddie Heron diving off the high board at Blackrock baths. He towered above the gazing onlookers. His speciality was the swan-dive. He flew, like a winged Victory. He entered the water like an arrow, with hardly a ripple. He moved like an otter under the surface, only to emerge again and climb to his lofty eyrie .’And with what motion moved the clouds!‘ The tower seemed to sway. Leni Riefenstahl caught such images, but the images in my memory need no editing. We waited. He did a little experimental spring. Be careful up there! He flew again and again, a jacknife, a pyke, a somersault, a swallow dive and never a belly flopper. It looked easy. Just hold your nerve and don’t bend the knees. I read in the paper not so long ago, that Eddie’s house had been burgled and all his trophies and medals stolen. What sub-human degenerates would maim an old man in such a way, a man who raised the spirits of all who ever saw him fly?
The Cullen brothers were effortlessly, the best divers. We always stopped to watch. They took the best suntans, in the days when it was still legal to get a tan. You could resent lads like that, if they hadn’t been so amiable. It might be thought that we were lazy sods, lying about in the sun all summer long. Not so. It was necessary to turn over every twenty minutes to get an even colour. Most of the time there was a sharp sea breeze and the best spots were taken. Rheumatism was a constant danger. Even hypothermia, although I don’t think the word had been invented at that time. There was Maurice White, with his bloody dogs and his water-polo ball. It’s no joke to have a red setter drying himself nearby after an invigorating swim. It was no joke to get a whack in the face from a polo ball, when Maurice explained the finer points of the back-flip. It’s not funny to have a dog swim after you when you are doing a Johnny Weismuller out to the girder and scrape all down your back. It’s humiliating to find that the blasted dog is a better swimmer. ‘Don’t worry. He won’t touch you.’ All dog owners say that.
There was a drift net not far from the girder. Don Cullen saw something flashing in the water. Like an osprey he dived from the top and swam to the net. He found a fish struggling in the mesh. I think it was a mackerel or perhaps, a sea-trout. With no thought for his own safety or that of his future progeny, he stuffed the fish into his togs and swam ashore. ”That’s me lunch,’ he declared in triumph. I envied him the fish but most of all, I envied him his dive. Leni would have been proud of him. Mae West would have had a double-entendre about being glad to see her.
Those are gentlemen swimmers of pre-war vintage, in the long bathing costumes of a more modest age. Strict segregation of the sexes was observed until the mid nineteen fifties. Barry Mason, who photographed everyone and everything in Skerries for a generation, asked ‘Why?’ Because bathing was always segregated. There are notices. Can’t you read? Three of the twenty four hours are reserved for ladies. Enter at your peril. You may sit outside on the rocks and observe from afar. You may worship from afar, if you wish. ‘But why?’ asked Barry. ‘Why can I not go for a swim with my wife or my daughters, in our favourite bathing place?’ Eh, I don’t know. The notices were taken away. Elvis and Bill Haley arrived at the same time to assist in the destruction of civilization, as we knew it and swimming was desegregated. Harry Belafonte sang about the banana boat and The Springboards became an island in the sun for everybody. The sky has not yet fallen in.
Pride, however, goeth before a fall. I went down for a swim with the son of some visiting friends. He was brainy and well spoken but inept at diving. I went nonchalantly out onto the high board, just to put him in his place. There was a wild, west wind blowing and fairly high waves. I dived. (One of the cooler lads used to say ‘dove.’) All right then, I dove. A wave caught me in mid flight and tweaked my spine. I heard the click. My companion helped me out. He was most solicitous (well spoken) and sympathetic. I haven’t doven (?) from any height greater than a foot since then. I have however, a trophy, Skerries Swimming Club. Boys Under 14 Twenty Five Yards Championship. Regatta 1953. This makes me ‘an award-winning writer’ like all the best people. Ta dah..! I am inordinately proud of it, even though it isn’t big enough to act as an egg-cup. I will kill any sub-human degenerate that tries to take it away.
Following a tragic diving accident on The Bull Wall, Dublin County Council took down all diving boards in the county. Poor Shelley drowned and was cremated with the timbers of his boat. There is a certain poetic harmony to the idea but nowadays he would need planning permission and a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency and The Fisheries Board etc. etc..I went down early one morning to find the place strewn with carnations. A former swimmer had asked that her ashes be sprinkled in the waters. I waited out of decency,for the next high tide to carry everything away.
May she rest in peace among the azure moss and flowers.