Wild swimming with teenagers in West Cork, Ireland

Updated: Mar 15

We have been swimming in or near the wild Atlantic for eight summers in the sometimes-turquoise sea under the West Cork mountains.
Our children were young when we first went there and now they are teenagers.



We used to just swim at Barleycove beach and Snave pier but, because of Covid, have ventured off to find more secluded and fantastically named coves, pools and piers. Canty’s Cove, Zetland Pier, Creevan in Iskanafeelna and Pooleen in the Glengariff river to name but a few.

The children don’t need buckets, spades and swimming aids any more. Hours are not spent helping them change and get into wetsuits. With teenagers, it’s logistically easier but no longer are they so perfunctory about how they get into the water.


Now there are questions and conditions. How many people are swimming at the same place? Too many, not swimming. How many jellyfish are around? Too many, not swimming. How cold is it? Too cold, not swimming. Can they jump in? They don’t want to jump in. No splashing, unless they’re the ones splashing. The rules are fluid so we’ve given up trying to understand. If they want to come in, they’ll come in. If they don’t, you can’t make them.


However, after all the fussing and fretting, when they get in that water, they are back to how they were eight years ago. Laughing, jumping, splashing and joking. Still playing games with their godmother in the waves at Barleycove. Still jumping off the piers and jetties and still daring each other into various deeds, such as swimming naked one unusually warm morning.


They would still rather spend time in the water at Crookhaven than sit and wait for us to finish our pints of Murphy’s and seafood chowder outside the pub in the harbour. Now that they are stronger swimmers they might follow us more, as we try to swim a distance, or they want to explore something, such as the caves at Canty’s Cove.


There is something about swimming in the sea, something constant and comforting, nostalgic in a way. It has the power to turn my teenagers back to being those fearless, unselfconscious and excited children they were all those summers ago. Much as I love how they are in the present, it is so nice to have them back how they once were, even for just a brief moment.


Some notes on the swim spots


Barleycove

Barleycove is a long stretch of sand, especially when the tide is out. The sea is often an amazing aquamarine colour. There is a hotel at one end and a car park on the other where a very convenient coffee van is resident during the summer. The toilets, however, also being by the carpark are not the most convenient, as the walk from the car park to the beach is quite long. Nevertheless, it’s very popular in the summer time, although never heaving like some of the beaches in Devon and Cornwall, such as Woolacombe. It is fantastic for children as the waves are brilliant fun and there’s a river that flows down to the sea which mine love even into their teenage years. There is a surf school in the summer and the beach is manned by life guards. It’s not such a good place to swim distances.




Canty’s Cove

The first time we tried to get to the cove we couldn’t find the turn. However, after our perseverance we found an amazing cove with a pier and a ramp. It was obvious that this place must have been where smugglers would have come to hide their loot. There are lots of small caves to hide goods and a tiny island a few metres off the shore to hide any boats. The kids loved exploring the caves especially the biggest one which you can swim through. The only issue is that it did feel colder to swim. One theory was that being on the north side of the promontory it doesn’t get the sun until later in the day.



Zetland Pier

Zetland pier can get quite popular in the summer because it’s easy to park and also easy to get in the water. There are amazing views out over Bantry bay, especially at the top of the hill before you get down to the pier. At low tide, secret beaches are exposed across the small bay and behind the rocks adjacent. It’s a wonderful place for younger children as they can walk quite far in the water before it gets deep. Teenagers can try the challenge of swimming out to the island and back. It is a privately-owned island so they don’t like you getting out at the island though. We are lucky to know the owners and got a chance to explore it one summer. Zetland can be good for spotting a few crabs and starfish.


Iskanafeelna

A hard place to get down to as the road becomes a track and then there is limited parking. However, this does make it a very quiet place, as if it’s your very own cove. If the kids were more compliant walkers, we could have tried walking to down to it. It’s sheltered by a small island, on which I have been told is a mass rock. I have been told that the island was where people would come to take the Catholic mass, during the time when it was deemed dangerous. It does feel very secluded, so you can see why they would choose this place. There are convenient concrete stairs built into the rocks so it is easy to get into the sea. It’s a good swim over to the island and back and the kids spent time by the stairs trying to encourage the dog to swim. Be prepared to share your changing room with cows, though, as they can climb right down to the water’s edge from the field above.



Snave pier

Popular with solo swimmers and families alike, as well as swim groups. It seems like lots of people come for an after-work swim during the summer. You can get in by the stairs or if you want to get used to the water, or look more sophisticated, walk slowly down the slipway. You can swim across the cove or further out into the bay. The buoys are good markers for swim routes. There is a great view of Whiddy Island.


Fiona's swims in Ireland have inspired her to keep swimming in open waters back home, although the Thames does not provide the same sense of adventure, and hasn't yet inspired her teenagers to join her....