Swimming a Long Way Together
2021 – 2023
Curated by Rosie Hermon
20th Century Pioneer Long Distance Swimmer
Swimming a Long Way Together draws inspiration from pioneering swimmer Mercedes Gleitze as part of its wider celebration of swimming and swimming communities.
As a durational art project, it unfolds over a the next few years with a series of large-scale live events and exhibitions in Dublin, Cork, Galway, Donaghadee, Brighton, Dover and France. These expansive moments retell some of the story of this incredible woman, and reflect on contemporary experiences of swimming – as a practice of endurance, for wellbeing and as a collective and social pastime.
Mercedes Gleitze undertook many challenging and pioneering swims in the 1920s and ‘30s, across Ireland, Britain and beyond. She was the first British woman to swim the English Channel, the first person to swim the Strait of Gibraltar, and she also completed record-breaking endurance swims of up to 47 hours in public swimming pools. From humble origins Mercedes became celebrated for her swimming achievements, huge audiences would come to cheer her on or to greet her whenever she emerged from the water.
Mercedes loved music, her long swims were often accompanied by either a gramophone or people singing to her; helping to create a festive atmosphere and raise her spirits as she swam. With this in mind, Swimming a Long Way Together echoes some of these forms as a way of thinking collectively about watery spaces, bringing history into a dialogue with present-day communities & experiences. Music and performance plays a large part in Swimming a Long Way Together project. Musician Ruth Clinton wrote a song “As easy stop the sea’ for the project, the song follows a swimmer on a long-distance journey through the water, as they learn about community, patience and tenacity from the nonhuman inhabitants with whom they share the sea and the sky.
Swimming a Long Way Together Launch on the River Liffey, Dublin
Swimming a Long Way Together was launched on August 20th 2021 in the River Liffey. A group of swimmers, towing large illuminated sculptures swam up the River Liffey to Temple Bar Gallery. Here they swam in formation around synchronised swimmer Aoife Drumm as 4 piece harmony singing group ‘Landless’ sang from a boat ‘As easy stop the sea’.
The following day a ‘Swimposium’ event took participants on a day-long journey across Dublin Bay, with swims, talks, sounds and performance along the way. The Swimposium echoed the swimmer’s embodied experience of duration, across time and distance, and investigated the connection with physical and psychological space of the ocean.
The invited speakers straddled the creative, health academic and swimming worlds, opening up a discussion on swimming, its impact on the body and its role in communities. The Swimposium speakers were: Philip Hoare, Anna Maria Mullally, Lisa Cummins, Rosie Foley, Easkey Britton, Hannah Denton and Ronan Foley. Introduced by Cliodhna Shaffrey and chaired by Kari Furre.
Here is a PDF introducing the Swimposium speakers’ research subjects: Swimposium Speaker Information
Cork – 30 Hour Endurance Swim and Performance
In 1930 Mercedes Gleitze swam for 30 hours continuously at the Eglinton Baths in Cork. Mercedes broke the endurance swim record at the time and there was music and entertainment on the pool deck as she swum, thousands of people who came to watch her swim.
Swimming a Long Way Together’s own ‘Endurance Swim’ was a reimagining of Mercedes Gleitze’s Cork swim in the ’30’s, as a collective and community effort. Groups of swimmers were timetabled to swim continually throughout the 30 hours, while a rolling program of musicians, storytellers, DJ’s dancers and bands performed on the pool side for the entire duration. Thanks to the generosity of Midleton College for the use of their swimming pool for the entire 30 hours.
Between 1928-1929, Mercedes attempted to swim across the North Channel eight times, the North Channel is between Northern Ireland and Scotland. Mercedes was the first person to ever attempt this swim. Today the North Channel is still known as the most difficult channel to swim with the cold water temperatures, strong currents and the Lionsmane jellyfish, and although Mercedes never completed the swim, her many attempts are a testament to her perseverance and tenacity.
Marking Mercedes’ eight attempts to cross the North Channel, the Swimming a Long Way Together event took place at eight locations around Donagahdee, connected to her story and Donaghadee’s swimming history.
Location 1 – Robbie’s Point Shelters
The event started at Robbie’s Point, a rocky corner, just outside the Donaghadee harbour walls, this is where the iconic archive photo of Mercedes entering the water with massive crowds watching was taken Robbie’s Point is still used today as the starting point of North Channel crossings.
There are two shelters at Robbie’s Point, for our event each shelter had a sound piece in it.
I also painted drawings of swimmers on the walls of the Shelters.
Location 2 – The Green
The Donaghadee Ladies Choir performed some watery themed songs on a green overlooking the North Channel.
Location 3 – Room 1 at Pier 36
Mercedes stayed in this room in the Royal Hotel overlooking Donaghadee harbour, this hotel is now called Pier 36.
There is a wooden boat called ‘The Mercedes’ that was part of the support flotilla for Mercedes’ North Channel swims. This boat is now retired on the shore of Strangford Lough where a chorus of birds sing to it every dawn and dusk of each day under the watchful eyes of the aeroplanes leaving Belfast airport.
I projected a film I had made with archive footage of Mercedes in the North Channel edited with film footage of my own English Channel swim attempt and under water footage, onto the wooden hull of the Mercedes boat. This film was then back projected onto a four poster bed in the room that Mercedes had stayed in for location 3 as part of this event.
The sound for this film was field recordings of the birds and aeroplanes on site by the boat at Strangford Lough, and Doloranda Pember, Mercedes’ daughter, reading part of an interview for the Linconshire Standard that Mercedes had given about her North Channel swims.
Location 4 – Kelly’s Steps
Deborah Dickey bag-piped 8 ‘Mercedes Swimmers’ across the road. One at a time the swimmers appeared from inside Pier 36, all dressed the same, and to rapturous applause were escorted across the road to Kelly’s Steps where they entered the water and swam across the bay.
Location 5 – Green by the Slipway
Musicians Ruth Clinton, Cormac Mac Diarmada, Méabh Meir, Susan Hughes and Marie-Therese Davis-Hanson played traditional music on the green as the Mercedes Swimmers arrived.
Location 6 – Donaghadee Community Centre
Anna Maria Mullally, a lecturer in Media Studies at the Technological University of Dublin and Jane Wright the chair of the Donaghadee Historical Society gave talks about Mercedes Gleitze and women’s swimming in the early 20th century.
Location 7 – Donaghadee Harbour
For the finale musicians Ruth Clinton, Cormac Mac Diarmada, Méabh Meir and Susan Hughes played and sang ‘As easy stop the sea’ which was written by Ruth Clinton.
As they sang on the harbour walls, the final ‘Mercedes Swimmer’ swam into the harbour accompanied by a giant sup decorated with boat lanterns.
Location 8 – The Donaghadee Lighthouse
An animation of a perpetual swimmer projected onto the Donaghadee lighthouse.
A small clip of film of the animation: https://vimeo.com/736491393
Image: Swimmer animation. Photo by Brian Cregan
Galway – Swim Procession
In 1931 Mercedes Gleitze swam from Inis Meáin to Spiddal. Her intended final destination was Blackrock, Salthill, 22km away and a large crowd had gathered to wait for her to swim in. But the tide was turning against Mercedes and after 19 hours of swimming she was getting cold, so it was better to complete a swim and finish on land than be pulled out short.
To make amends to the crowds who had waited to see her swim in, Mercedes gave a Demonstration Swim between Blackrock Diving Towers and Ladies Beach two days later.
For our ‘Swim Procession’ the swim element was shortened due to very strong winds in Galway on the day. The original idea was for swimmers to swim point to point from Ladies Beach to Blackrock Diving Towers, while Ruth Clinton played the pump organ along the prom parallel to the swimmers. The swim was held in the shelter of Blackrock Diving Towers instead.
The event started with Kate Duingan from the Adhoc Choir warming up the swimmers at Ladies Beach with songs including ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ one of Mercedes’ favourites.
Then the swimmers followed the pump organ up the prom to where scar band Big Jelly were playing on the beach while the swimmers entered the water at Blackrock Diving Towers; here they swam across the small bay as a Swim Procession.
After the swim, writer Orla Mc Govern read her beautiful commissioned poem called “Demonstration Day” about a child who watched Mercedes’ Demonstration Swim at Blackrock in 1931, and dancer Laurie Link-Gordon performed on the beach while it was read.
There was a sound piece installed in a bus shelter along the Swim Procession route, with readings from newspapers back in 1931 read by Doloranda Pember, Mercedes’ daughter and Diarmuid a swimmer from the Atlantic Masters, as well and contemporary swimmers from Inis Meáin and Fergal Somerville from Dublin.
The Soundcloud link: https://soundcloud.com/user-182078240/galway
The finale of our Galway event was the band Landless, singing the song “As easy stop the sea” at Blackrock Diving Towers.
The Swimming a Long Way Together will create live art events Brighton – Mercedes home town and Dover – home of English Channel swimming in 2023.
Lyric FM Culture File.
‘Swimstrokes’ essay about the Swimposium from Ronan Foley Health Geographer at the Department of geography at Maynooth University
Swimming a Long Way Together is supported by the Arts Council of Ireland Open Call Award.
Photos by Brian Cregan