The Victorians may have been credited with popularising the idea of seaside retreats and ‘taking’ the salty air, but people have been drawn to our coastline for far longer to revive, recover and rejuvenate.
Multiple studies have shown that those who live close to the sea are happier and healthier. One of the latest reports, conducted by the ESRI last year, finds that there is less depression among older people enjoying a view of the sea than those who don’t.
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Even when removing factors such as the relative prosperity of those who live with a sea view – especially in Dublin – the report’s author, Anne Nolan says, “There still is a positive additional effect from living close to the sea… and those with a view of the sea had a much lower risk of depression in older age.”
But is life in the blue zone all it’s made out to be? Do those who have made their lives along our rugged coastline really feel it has helped their mental and physical health? And what are the downsides? Is the Atlantic really as special in the depths of winter? We toured the country to find out.
Café owner, Strandhill, Co Sligo
It may have been a quarter-life crisis, but at 25, Dubliner Jane Chambers gave up her cushy job at Barclays Bank and decided to move to Cornwall to learn to surf.
“I took a notion. I’d been travelling, saw the whole surf culture and thought, ‘That looks great!’ Oh, and the guys are good-looking too.”
She mastered the board and met her future husband, Myles, in Cornwall too. After years spent travelling, the pair were determined to set down roots next to the sea.
“We were in Dublin for a while and would drive to the West at weekends to go surfing but Myles got fed up of that and said, ‘This is too grey – if I’m going to give up the sunny climate of Cape Town, I have to be able to surf.'”
They settled upon Strandhill in Co Sligo and they run a café, Shells. It’s right on the beach. “We always have a view of the Atlantic,” she says. “And you’re always able to make a bit of time to get out in the air or to jump into the water. And when you jump into the ocean, it makes you feel alive – even more so in winter when it’s so cold.”
Both her children, Arlo (four) and Otis (11 months, pictured right with Jane) were born in Sligo and Jane feels it’s home for them now. “It’s a simpler, less stressful life,” she says. “There are no commutes. The ocean is very calming. And there are different aspects to enjoy all year round. Winter is great for surfing and it’s also the time when, as locals, you feel you get the place back to yourself again.”
It hasn’t all been plain sailing. Jane says the storms are much more severe than she would have experienced growing up in Dublin and she misses minor aspects of daily life. “I miss that thing about being anonymous in a city,” she says. “I love going to a café up there and nobody knows your business.
“But Strandhill has been really good to us and being next to the ocean every day makes us feel extremely fortunate.”
Photographer, Sandymount, Dublin
Most people would make sure to stay indoors when storms arrive, but not Sean Kavanagh. He grabs his camera and heads outside in order to capture the “drama” of Dublin Bay. “Storms make for great photos,” he enthuses, “even if the family are saying to me not to go out in it.”
Since moving to Sandymount in 1984, Sean – originally from Boyle, Co Roscommon – has noticed that the frequency of storms has increased. It might, he ventures, be a by-product of global warming.
“Dublin has the most fantastic setting,” he says. “The bay is accessible to everyone and there really is something to be said about walking or cycling alongside it. You find yourself so engrossed in your environment that you forget everything else. I’ve no doubt that it helps with your mental health.”
Two years ago, along with daughter Niamh, he published a book of photographs of Dublin Bay through the seasons. “The idea was to capture what a wonderful amenity it is and how people engaged with the water in so many different ways.”
Now 69, and retired from his UCD job, he says he savours the opportunity to drink in the views. “I’ve gone up to Howth Head at sunrise and been able to see the Welsh mountains because they’re backlit by the sun. The view southwards over the city from there is really spectacular, just as it is from the other side, on Killiney Hill – and you’ve got the water glinting in front of you.”
But while he says there’s great pleasure to be had with coastal living, its built environment always requires upkeep. “I walk out to the Poolbeg Lighthouse along the South [Bull] Wall two or three times a week, but it’s really not being maintained. Cracks are appearing everywhere.”
Picture: Damien Eagers
Professional surfer, Tramore, Co Waterford
Craig Butler is one of the greatest surfers Ireland has ever produced and, this September, he will be vying for his eighth national title.
Surfing is in his veins. “I first started at five. I was the fat little kid who would paddle out on a mini foam board and get in the way of all the adult surfers. I just loved it from the moment I first tried it.”
The 24-year-old can’t imagine life away from the ocean. “It’s part of who I am,” he says. “I went backpacking around New Zealand for three months a few years back and didn’t have a board with me – I almost went insane. I need to feel that the waves are close to me and I can go out when I want.”
Craig says he has suffered from depression in recent years and momentarily turned his back on the water and his surfboard. “I shouldn’t have done that – and when I went back to it, I realised just how important the ocean is to me.
“If I’m feeling down, I can always throw on the wetsuit and just go for a swim. It’s the best release ever. I feel safer out on the water than I do on land. I feel completely free when I’m surfing – I’m the one in control. There are no rules or regulations – but that’s not to say I don’t respect it. I know just how dangerous it can be.”
When he’s not surfing in Tramore or in the famed surf spots along the west coast, Craig works as an instructor at the family surf school and shop. He says he loves to see first-timers learning to catch a wave.
“I feel so lucky to live here and I can never imagine leaving,” he says. “I know city life is not for me. I love going to sleep with the window open and hearing the waves. It’s the perfect sound to fall asleep to.”
Photographer and tour guide, Bundoran, Co Donegal
Mickey Smith is a photographer who specialises in capturing the majesty of surfing and it was a video he made about the spectacular waves on Ireland’s west coast that led Ian Mitchinson to completely change the direction of his life in his mid-30s.
“I saw the film he had made about the waves of the Wild Atlantic Way and it just affected me really powerfully,” he says. “I was living in South Africa and had two young kids and I literally stood up, walked to the next room and told my wife that we were moving to Ireland.”
The declaration didn’t come out of the blue for Celeste Mitchinson. Since having children, the pair had talked about leaving South Africa for a safer country. Within six months, the family was in Ireland and, after a short stint in Strandhill, Co Sligo, they settled upon Bundoran, arguably Ireland’s surf capital.
“We just love it here,” Ian says. “There’s something extraordinary about being able to get up in the morning, go for a run and, if the waves are really good, to run home and get the board. There’s no better way to start your day and there’s something about the salty air and the sound of the ocean that makes you feel at peace.”
Having spent most of his life in the sunshine of South Africa, winters in the Wild Atlantic Way can be difficult to get used to. “If I’m honest, they’re really tough,” he says. “Winters are long and they do take a lot out of you and it helps if you can get away for a short time and rejuvenate.
“But the storms are exciting. You really do feel as though you are living somewhere wild and elemental. It makes you aware of how small you are in the scheme of things.”
Picture: James Connolly
Musician and meditation teacher, Lahinch, Co Clare
Originally from Limerick, but living in Dublin for most of this decade, Susan Quirke and her husband, social activist Rúairí McKiernan, decided to swap the pressures of city life for a rural, coastal idyll last December. There have been no regrets. “We’re living near Lahinch in a beautiful home overlooking the ocean.
“I have family in Clare and found that I kept coming to Clare to rejuvenate. I experienced a couple of very stressful years in Dublin and burnt myself out working. The housing crisis also had a role to play. As a result, I went on a deep dive internally to tune into where I was out of alignment in my own life and what needed to change.
“My own daily meditation practice was key to this and that practice has radically changed my life, igniting the vision to move west.
“I was yearning to live by the sea surrounded by nature, to be closer to family, to create deeper community roots and cultivate a more peaceful, creative way of living.”
That connection to the Atlantic has informed her forthcoming debut album, Into the Sea, which will be released under her stage name, Susie Q. “The energy coming off the waves pouring into Lahinch is pulsing with power and beauty,” she says.
“I feel it seep into the cells of my body. It cleans out my mind, brings peace into my heart and has expanded my creativity. There is something about the power of the ocean and the quality of light here that I have never witnessed anywhere else on the planet.”
Susan says she is not fazed by the ferocity of storms that roll in off the Atlantic – including one that led to a power outage in her home – but she says she is concerned about how climate change affects her adopted county. “The global climate emergency is real and urgent, and Clare is reportedly one of the counties in Ireland at most risk of coastal flooding, which is concerning.
“We can never know what life will bring, but at this moment in time there is nowhere I would rather be.”
Picture: eamon ward
Fish smoker, Skibbereen, Co Cork
“I was a blow-in!” Sally Barnes says, cheerfully. That was the tag the locals of West Cork would give to the influx of British and continental people who made this rugged part of the country their home in the ’70s and ’80s.
Sally – who spent her formative years in Scotland – pitched her tent near Skibbereen in 1975 and hasn’t looked back.
“It was paradise then and it’s paradise now,” she says. “The ocean is really beautiful here. I love just looking out at it – I never get bored of it. And no matter what the season, I find it completely relaxes me.”
She has more reason than most to love the waters here. “It’s my larder,” she says. “I’ve been completely dependent on it for my livelihood. Almost all the fish I source is brought into Skibbereen and Union Hall, so when I’m smoking it, I know it swam in the ocean close to here.”
Sally is convinced that living near the water has helped her health – as well as her quality of life. “The air is so pure – I don’t know how people can live in cities and breathe all that pollution.
“And there’s so much foraging you can do on the shoreline. I love to collect sea lettuce – it’s an amazingly powerful food that’s full of micronutrients.”
She insists she can’t think of many downsides to living on the coastline but acknowledges that if you work with the bounty of the sea, as she does, there’s a likelihood that you will soon realise just how much manmade harm is being caused.
“We’ve been doing our best to destroy it,” she says, “of basically using it as a toilet or dumping ground. Look at all the plastic that’s in it now, even 10km down at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. Is that the legacy we leave our children?”
Lesley Kehoe and Gordon Bond
B&B hosts, Great Blasket Island, Co Kerry
Several generations of Irish schoolchildren had to – depending on your point of view – study or endure the memoir of Peig Sayers during Irish class. But a young couple from Co Kildare are getting to experience something of the life Peig would have had on the Blaskets as they spend six months of the holiday season managing self-catering accommodation there.
Lesley Kehoe and her boyfriend, Gordon Bond, gave up their jobs – and the sort of creature comforts most of us take for granted – and relocated to the Great Blasket Island in April. There’s no electricity on the island, which has had no resident population since the 1950s. It’s two kilometres off the Kerry mainland, although they say it can sometimes feel far more remote than that. They say they love the experience of back-to-basics living.
“It makes you think about life completely differently,” Lesley (27) says. “We’ve come to realise that a lot of the stuff we think we need, we don’t need at all. This is real life: it’s not a life spent online all the time. It’s something where you’re in the moment and just really appreciating it for what it is.
“The beauty here is really spectacular and the colours change all the time. The ocean can look completely different from one day to the next and the skies are spectacular, but we don’t constantly feel the need to take photos of it. We just want to enjoy it.”
For Gordon (28), there’s a great comfort in not having to undertake the tiring daily commute from Kildare to Dublin. “There’s no gridlock here,” he chuckles. “It’s just a completely different pace of life, even though we’re very busy with guests coming to stay.”
Both feel a connection to the natural world they just hadn’t known before. Gordon says the change of season from spring to summer was intriguing to witness at close hand, while Lesley has been fascinated by the island’s sizeable bird and seal population.
The couple say that being largely disconnected from the outside world has helped their relationship. “There are so many distractions in normal life,” Lesley says. “Here, you can find yourself spending ages just captivated by the way a bird flies. You notice things you wouldn’t otherwise do.”
Although the job concludes in September and they will avoid any harsh winters, they haven’t been immune from stormy conditions. Storm Hannah battered the island at the end of April. “It was a red warning and the waves were absolutely huge,” Lesley says. “Normally, people wouldn’t get to see that because those sorts of storms would happen in winter when there’s nobody on the island, so it was something that we will carry in our memories.”
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