I’ve been a naturist for many years, but it has only been in more recent times that I’ve been able to indulge and enjoy, a little more freely, here at home in Ireland. I suppose we can put this down to, in part, a very tangible shift in attitudes since the Celtic Tiger years, essentially the turn of the century. We could all theorise about it, and there’s many reasons we could suggest as to why but perhaps an influx of people from abroad led to a more cosmopolitan Ireland.
It’s certainly one theory posited in respect of broader society, explored in Tom Inglis’ book Meanings of Life in Contemporary Ireland: Webs of Significance (published in 2016).
This attitudinal shift, I think, suddenly made the very concept of naturism more acceptable. Granted, we have arguably the very best beaches in Europe and, thanks to a relatively sparse population, it always meant you could readily find an isolated beach, even at weekends, in summer, to strip off and have a quiet skinny dip. But it was a ‘guilty secret’ type of thing. Now, I’d say we -as a community- are much more visible and certainly accepted as existing and (in the main) acceptable to society at large.
From a point where it would generally have been a shout of ‘naked people, call the gardai!’, we’re now in a place where it’s a shout of ‘hey, naked people, fair play to you in this weather’.
That is a huge leap of attitude in just a few short years.
During the pandemic I started wild and open water swimming, mainly because pools were closed and I love to swim. It seems like it’s a thing embraced more readily by ‘women of a certain age’, as it was providing clear health benefits in the years around the menopause. I found myself chuckling when I started doing it, for the reason that many of us were new to the concept, and the thoughts expressed were not that much different to a public debut as a naturist. (‘Is everyone looking at me? Am I too fat, saggy, wrinkly, old?
As 2021 unfolded, the wild and open swimming (textile, I should add) was taking place 2-3 times a week and, for some of the people involved, seven days a week. We coalesced into a ‘group’, Whatsapping the next dip, the next location.
And by the time International Skinny Dipping Day arrived (second Saturday in July) I had promoted it within our group, and also on numerous Facebook pages dedicated to open water swimming.
I was pleasantly surprised by the response to it across numerous platforms. Several open water groups would go as far as posting photos of themselves grinning to the camera, chest deep in water, swimwear held aloft.
I deliberately absented myself from that Skinny Dipping Day back last July for the reason that it then offered a ‘ladies only’ morning swim in Lough Neagh, and the Whatsapp page buzzed with excitement after the event with most of the group having indulged in it.
A different story had I, or other males in the group, been there. One constant was that ‘it feels so free, so liberating’ in the comments made to social media. Of course, as a naturist, I understood fully what they meant. Better, I felt, to simply plant an acorn and watch the oak tree grow! Even if it would just be a sapling until becoming a full grown thing.
Skinny dipping subsequently became a semi-regular occurrence within our group and others when weather and opportunity presented itself and all done with a particular sense of joy when it occurred. It even reached the point where I could do swimming with the group, haul of the swimming briefs in the water and swim on, fully nude, for my own delight.
‘What’s that on your arm, James?’
‘That’s my cossie!’
‘You’re skinny dipping…oooh…what a good idea!’
Next thing, some of the ladies would be swimming around with their own costumes wrapped around their arms, prior to wriggling back into them prior to exiting the water. But it demonstrated an openness and willingness to at least experience it in mixed company -another small breakthrough! On the basis of ‘softly, softly, catchee monkey’ my idea was to keep planting the seeds and allowing the oak tree to emerge, as if by their own thought.
There were some who resisted, of course, but, in direct contrast to actual naturism, where men are more willing to adopt the lifestyle, it was the women who demonstrated a greater openness to the concept of the skinny dip, the men less so. Through our Whatsapp group I did try to get some of my fellow group members to participate in last Novvember’s ‘Dickie Dip’ but there were sadly no takers, even amongst an all-male group. Still, I think I could end 2021 by popping on a hard hat and hi-vis jacket (nothing else, you understand!) and declare ‘the foundations are in!’
Once again, I feel this represented a bit of a shift in attitudes from, say, 5-10 years ago. People were very open to the idea of nude swimming, without ever imagining themselves to be ‘naturist’ as such.
During 2021 my partner, Julie -who was aware I was a naturist prior to us even meeting- decided it was the year when she would embrace naturism. We were able to climb in the Mourne Mountains last summer, to Lough Shannagh, where Julie swam naked for the first time and -once again- those words about it feeling so free and liberating emerged!
Whilst in the water, a solo female hill climber arrived. Despite having about a mile’s circumference of shoreline to sit down for a cuppa from a thermos, she chose to sit down pretty much next to our clothes!
‘We’re skinny dipping and about to get out!’, we eventually called to her.
‘I don’t mind’, she called back.
So on her first ever naked swim, Julie had to emerge from the water in the presence of another. I was marginally more blasé about it.
As we dressed, this newcomer said she envied us, that it was something she had always wanted to do!
‘No time like the present’, I called back. Julie and I departed the lough when dressed, but I’d love to think that the lady did indeed enter the waters for the first skinny dip of her life.
Once again, it felt like there was an attitudinal shift, with people expressing desire to skinny dip, at least once in their lives, where several years prior people would have been desperately searching for a phone signal on the mountains to inform the police!
A couple of weeks later, Julie and I were back in the Mournes to skinny dip at the Bloody Bridge River rock pools, with her loving every second of the experience. And thus, a new naturist was born!
As we emerged into 2022, our (textile) open swimming group was eager to seek out new locations, and day trips to the likes of Carlingford (Co. Louth) have already been undertaken, swimming from the beach at the yacht club there, and further days out at Templetown (also Co.Louth) more than once.
Julie and I would have a knowing look between ourselves during these trips, the unspoken being that ‘we’ll come back on our own and swim properly’ (i.e. without costumes). And thus, we’ve already revisited Louth, to Shelling Hill beach (adjacent to Templetown) where a brief skinny dip took place. Brief, only because the weather was appalling!
As we emerged from the icy Irish Sea, into a fairly persistent downpour, a dog-walking couple walked by, and their only reaction was ‘that must be blooming cold in there this morning’. No sense from them of ‘oh! You’re both naked!’ Our body language was one of ‘naked swimming is normal’ (it is!) and theirs was essentially one of ‘that’s a pretty normal sight for a miserably wet Saturday morning’. Attitudinal changes!
Sometimes, in naturism, I feel it’s a case of us as a community sometimes fearful of ‘causing offence’ without actually testing that theory. People, I’ve found, are much more open and accepting of naturism and naturists than we are ourselves presenting ourselves to a textile world.
Obviously, I’m not advocating that we champion the lifestyle on O’Connell Street, but I suppose I am advocating that we occasionally test the waters (literally and metaphorically) in the vast, beautiful landscapes we’re lucky to call ‘home’.
The island is filled with forests, hills, mountains, loughs and a coastline just begging to be utilised for naturist purposes, with the likelihood that we’re accepted as part of the landscape and beach experience as readily as an ice cream dribbling up your wrist under an August sun.
Ireland has changed, I feel, and we, a naturist community, should feel confident enough to embrace that change and continue to make further strides to the ones already achieved in recent years.
Me? I’m off to Lough Neagh again in the morning with Julie to swim as nature intended and, let’s face it, as generations of Irish people probably did swim in the centuries leading up to the 20th century, when it all became wrapped up (literally) in costumes.