Submersion. The feeling of being completely immersed. Being held by the water which surrounds you but at the same time being held by nothing and having the feeling of complete weightlessness.
Diving into chemical clear water to the unwelcome glare of sunlight bouncing off machined tiles and casting shadows through frantic, kicking legs. Rising to the surface and being greeted by the sting of chlorine and the screams of children. Having to shower before and after you swim. The water making people’s skin appear washed out. The rigour of swimming laps. As children we seldom experienced swimming in indoor pools, we knew another world. Our world was made up of a medley of smooth stones, knee-deep river mud and the occasional fear of stepping on a crayfish or an old hook discarded by a careless fisherman. Diving into frigid water and being enveloped by a sandy plume of alluvium, which soon settled to reveal the landscape of the river bed, littered with tree branches, aquatic plants and oddly the occasional breeze-block. We were accustomed to breaking the surface and being greeted by towering trees, not bright acrylic folding chairs and time-checking, fidgeting parents. We swapped huge roof lights for the entire sky, walls for the open air and all the noise of the surrounding world.
The spot where I learned to swim as a child is small, hence ‘inch’, a sandy bank of the river protected by an island that splits the river and slows the current. The small stretch of water in front of the sandy bank is only about thirty centimetres deep but gets deeper the further a person moves to the left or right. My initial memories of swimming here come from my early childhood, my brother and I paddling around and splashing our family dog. Without warning the heavens opened and rain started to pelt down, raindrops turning the waters surface into a kaleidoscope of wavering shards of light, but we just kept swimming. To anyone watching, we would have come across as feral, swimming in the bitingly cold river as it poured rain, but we didn’t care. This was our place, here we felt safe. The fact that the river bank was so close and the current so mild always provided me with a sense of comfort with being in the water. Years after I learned to swim at this small stretch of river in Kildare, I discovered my love for swimming in the sea. Cliff diving and surfing became a huge draw to the coast for me. The elements stopped being an issue and started being a draw.
The Inch is not just an area enjoyed by my own family. In fact the entire town is welcome to use the land on a few simple conditions; clean up after yourself and don’t chase the sheep. During the summer months the area is packed with people swimming and eating picnics. Come dawn and dusk fisherman line the banks. The low water levels in some areas combined with the long runs make the area the ideal place to fly fish. During winter the area is quieter but is still a popular area for people to walk. This is all made possible due to the mutual respect between land user and land owner. The man who farms the land has made it known that as long as people follow the few rules the area will always remain an extension of the town. This has ensured the space has evolved. Instead of being the single purpose farm land that the site was initially intended to be, over years of human interaction it has become a multipurpose public space enjoyed by all of the local community irrespective of age. The space functions not only as a good spot to swim or graze livestock but instead stands as a conduit for social interaction. This small stretch of river in rural Kildare has brought people together. It has managed to do so without the presence of the usual social trappings – not as much as a park bench has been added to the area and hopefully it never will. The untouched nature of the landscape has been drawing people in since well before my time here and with any luck it will do so long after as well.
No matter where I end up I’ll always remember this place. The physical experience of moving through as familiar as my own reflection. How the steep hill makes a person start moving faster upon descent, as if spurred on by their first sighting of water. How the land bellow is full of the snaking patterns of ditches, old and new. The ground pockmarked with rabbit holes, the occasional crater of a badger’s den. The smell of salt from a marsh to the east. The clean air that comes up from the river and blows across the land. The few solitary trees standing tall and proud. The excitement of reaching the dip in the bank and the hasty undress. Sand between my toes. The first jump and the slap of skin and water. The initial cold and cloudy water. The unknown ground at your feet, constantly changing as you move. The occasional smooth stone or strange embrace of an aquatic weed around your leg. The ascent to the surface, only damp sunlight and the bubbles of your escaping breath guiding you upwards. Finally surfacing surrounded by towering trees leaning in at you from the bank at either side. The return of noise, sudden and intense. Leaves floating down the river and catching against your skin. Eventually these things all fade and all that remains is a hurried dry and the warmth returning to my cheeks, a powerful longing to return already rising inside me.