Artist Vanessa Daws writes about the latest instalment of her project, Swimming A Long Way Together, and how you can get involved... but bring your togs.

I'm a visual artist and a long-distance swimmer. I have always swum, not competitively or particularly well, but when passing a body of water, be it pond, fountain, lake, river or sea, it’s hard for me to resist the urge to take a swim. In more recent years I began to train to swim for longer distances, these swims were part of my art projects, including swims to and around Lambay Island in Dublin Bay, and in 2018 I was the first known person to swim the Length of Lough Mask in Co Galway.

My art practice revolves around swimming. I gather research for the projects through swimming, conversation and chance encounters. I work with film, sound, drawings, sculpture and creating live art events with different communities, in different disciplines, all connected through a particular body of water. In the past few years I have created projects in watery spaces as diverse as the frozen Pirita River, Estonia; the Rideau Canal in Canada; The President’s Fountain, Bulgaria, and the M50 Aqueduct in Dublin to the Bogs of Ballycroy, Co Mayo.

Vanessa attempts to swim the English Channel in 2019 (Pic: Tom Chapman)

In 2019 I spent over 12 hours in the English Channel trying to reach France. Unfortunately, the winds and tides had different ideas that day, and I was being pushed towards the Calais Approaches, this is where the ferries go into the port, so my boat pilot had to stop my swim.

It was while researching the English Channel that I came across Doloranda Pember’s book In the Wake of Mercedes Gleitze that she had written about her mother Mercedes’ swim achievements, and I instantly became fascinated by her story. Mercedes Gleitze was a pioneer long distance swimmer who undertook many challenging 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.

When passing a body of water, be it pond, fountain, lake, river or sea, it's hard for me to resist the urge to take a swim.

My new art project Swimming a Long Way Together, curated by Rosie Hermon, draws inspiration from Mercedes Gleitze as part of its wider celebration of swimming and swimming communities. It is a durational art project that is creating a series of large-scale live events and exhibitions in Dublin, Cork, Galway, Donaghadee, Dover, Brighton, and hopefully France. Each location retells some of the story of this incredible woman, and reflects on contemporary experiences of swimming as a practice of endurance, for wellbeing and as a collective and social pastime.

In 2019, Vanessa spent over 12 hours in the English Channel trying to reach France

In 1930 Mercedes Gleitze came to Cork where she swam around the Eglinton Street Baths for 30 hours continuously to a large crowd of around 4500 people, breaking the Endurance Swim record at the time. Musicians, actors and performers, including the well-known music hall comedian Fred Curran, came to perform for Mercedes on the pool deck to keep her spirits up as she swam.

From 3.30pm pm on Friday October 1st at 3.30pm until 9.30pm on Saturday October 2nd we are reimagining Mercedes’ Cork Endurance Swim as a community effort relay swim in the swimming pool at Midleton College, Co Cork. People can go onto our website and book swimming slots throughout the 30 hours, the idea being that there is always at least one person swimming throughout the duration. There will be a rolling program of performance on the pool deck at the same time.

Mercedes Gleitze

In the final run up to the Cork Endurance Swim it’s all systems go, lots to organise still, but I have a brilliant team helping me. Midleton College have been so enthusiastic in their role as hosts for this event, and thanks are also owed to Water Safety Ireland and the Arts Council of Ireland for their support. We’re very excited to be bringing together dozens of swimmers, artists and audience members in this celebration of swimming and homage to the incredible Mercedes Gleitze.

For further information on Swimming a Long Way Together and how you can get involved, go here.