The Forty Foot: Dublin’s ‘snot-green, scrotum-tightening’ winter swimming spot

I’m part of a tribe. That swell of women facing all those knotty mid-life issues of tumbling collagen, empty nesting and where to put your HRT gel, which somehow makes submerging yourself in freezing cold water a balm. It’s a way to test your resolve, shock your mind out of whatever ails it, and bond with other women.

When you dip your toes into cold-water swimming, you soon realise there’s a community out there. And finding a beloved local swimming spot is a unique but guaranteed way to cut to the heart and soul of a place. It’s also impossible not to start chatting with strangers.

Last week in Dublin – possibly one of the most talkative cities in the world – the nearby Forty Foot bathing spot on the south side of Dublin Bay was calling.

Having studied James Joyce’s Ulysses during my English degree many moons ago, I’d like to claim that my first encounter with this famous Dublin swimming spot was with protagonist Buck Mulligan’s description of the water here as “the snotgreen sea”, but embarrassingly, I can’t.

What I can reference is Sharon Horgan’s brilliant Apple TV series, Bad Sisters, which brings this beloved swimming spot into focus. Horgan uses The Forty Foot as a place for the sisters to confide and conspire to bump off the eldest sibling’s abusive husband. She captures the deep affection for the site: “I didn’t really understand why people would jump in this freezing cold water for pleasure, but once I got in, I noticed that – especially when women got in the water – as freezing cold as it was, but they would just tread the water and chat, just have these conversations, and I thought, that’s where they can plot the murder. This is like their sacred place.”

Despite its fame, there are no fancy changing facilities at the Forty Foot – just a couple of portable loos nearby. It’s literally a concrete causeway shelving gently into the sea with a rag tag of covered white concrete benches and a few hooks. Most swimmers find a perch on the rocks.

The rudimentary changing facilities (Photo: Derick Hudson/Getty Images)
The rudimentary changing facilities (Photo: Derick Hudson/Getty Images)

Saturday morning at 11am is a traditional swim time and as I turned up, it was pretty damn busy for this time of year. There was a buzz in the air. All ages and walks of life were there, from arty Dublin mums with block fringes and a toddler on their hip, to shivering teens with phones poised to create a Reel, and tattooed men in their 70s, one with a Fanta-orange swim cap and a wry look in his eye when he spotted my hotel bathrobe. I hoped his tiny bathers would be enough to conceal the “scrotum-tightening” effect of the waters, to borrow the words of Joyce.

According to Lorna of local tour company Fab Food Trails: “Young people have the wild swimming bug. They like to go at sun rise and sunset, but it’s the Christmas Day swim that’s a huge tradition where hundreds of people turn up, including Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar one year.”

As Horgan says: “You go out on Christmas Eve. You get really tanked up. Christmas Day morning you go and jump in this freezing cold water to shock the hangover out of you!”

One of the reasons this is such a popular spot is its sudden water depth. You can have a proper dive in, though I witnessed some painful belly flops by older men, while most women navigated the concrete steps. With the Irish Sea hovering around 11°C in Dublin Bay, I braced myself, holding onto the blue railings and waded in, the sense of history and camaraderie fortifying me to head for the protruding rocks. As you swim you can look back at Dublin and see the old Poolbeg Power Station towers made famous by U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)” video.

Jane post-swim (Photo: Supplied)
Jane post-swim (Photo: Supplied)

Yes, it was bloody cold, but a wonderful experience to be in the spot where Joyce himself swam, looking up at the Martello Tower where he stayed for six days in September 1904 aged 22 , and where he set his opening chapter of Ulysses. He shared the spartan accommodation with Oliver St John Gogarty and Dermot Chenevix Trench. On the final night Trench had a nightmare about a black panther, firing two bullets from a shotgun to kill it.

Their accommodation is now the James Joyce Tower and Museum, where enthusiastic volunteers show visitors artefacts and recreate the black panther moment before leading you up the stone spiral stairs to the rooftop with its views over Dublin Bay.

Swimming began here in the 19th century when the place was known as the Forty Foot Hole (though it’s only about 20ft deep, or it could have been linked to the 40th Regiment of Foot first stationed in Ireland in the 1760s). It was used exclusively by men and became a popular spot for nude bathing. There remains a surprisingly new looking sign that still declares this a “Gentlemens Bathing Place”.

The gentlemen's bathing place sign (Photo: Jane Anderson)
The gentlemens [sic] bathing place sign (Photo: Jane Anderson)

By the 1970s, women rebelled. On 24 July 1974, about a dozen female equal-rights activists of the Dublin City Women’s Invasion Force grabbed their placards and took the plunge off the rocks in a valiant “swim-off”, allegedly met with abuse and male genitalia. Yet it wasn’t until 2014 that the Sandycove Bathers Association officially ended the ban on women club members.

Getting to the Forty Foot is cheap and scenic. Catch the DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit) for only €2 in central Dublin from Pearse Street for the 24-minute ride to Sandycove/Glasthule that hugs the south coast of Dublin Bay. You can also reach it on an hour’s flat bike ride using NOW DublinBikes, the city’s self-service bike rental system.

If you stay on past Sandycove, you come to Dalkey, a sought-after neighbourhood that’s a bit like an Irish Amalfi coast (there is a street called Sorento Road). Bono and The Edge have houses here, just minutes apart from one another.

After a swim, head for a hot toddy in Dalkey’s Finnegan’s, where Bono and his wife Ali took US First Lady Michelle Obama and her daughters for fish and chips. Check out the 2023 documentary film, Bono & The Edge: A Sort of Homecoming with Dave Letterman featuring the song “Forty Foot Man”, supposedly inspired by the Forty Foot.

I strolled north from the Forty Foot along the pretty promenade into Dun Laoghaire, thinking how nice it would be to have a swim and a natter with Joyce’s wife Nora Barnacle and also the fictional Molly Bloom. Sharon Horgan and her Bad Sisters would be cool too.

Warming up in Bibi's Cafe (Photo: Jane Anderson)
Warming up in Bibi’s Cafe (Photo: Jane Anderson)

I headed to Bibi’s Café and warmed up with croissant French toast with mascarpone (€9.50) with a side of bacon (€2.50), and a Green Love juice concocted of all things “snot green”, from kale to parsley. Sitting in a window seat, I watched yachties from nearby clubs flitting around the cold bay. Had my toes not been numb, I would have followed brunch with an ice cream from neighbouring Teddy’s, a local institution.

If you don’t fancy taking the plunge this Christmas Day, save it for 16 June, Bloomsday, when the water temperature should have risen a whole two or three degrees to a balmy 13C. Vagina-tightening indeed.

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