“How’s the water?”

My apologies for not having posted in so long, the exams are over now though and I’m back in the land of the living at last! I’m pretty much a full-time swimmer for the next three months which is a nice change, though it’s not that easy at the moment with water temperatures well below average for the time of year…

Open water swimmers all around Ireland and the UK go to great lengths to avoid the tabooed use of “the ‘c’ word”, i.e. “cold”. The current unwillingness of the water to heat up reminded me of a great word that is possibly confined to use by a particular generation of swimmers on the River Blackwater in Fermoy.

When asked “How’s the water?” or “What’s it like?”, my grandfather, Leo Bartley and other such swimmers would often give the ambiguous answer “‘Tis holding”. This would leave the innocent enquirer none the wiser as to the actual conditions.

What exactly is meant by the word “holding” depends on what the water has been like over the last few weeks, so it’s completely meaningless to anyone who hasn’t been swimming in the area long-term, let alone those who don’t swim at all! I had planned to do a 3 hour training swim in the river this morning but had to get out after 1 hour 45 minutes. I think “holding” was appropriate in the negative sense here as it hasn’t warmed up for ages. “Holding” is a good thing in August and September though when it should really be getting colder. In summary, “holding” is a very welcome temperature in Autumn, but not so welcome in Spring!

Other words used locally to avoid saying “cold” include: fresh, refreshing, bracing, hot, boiling, gorgeous, beautiful, te, too warm, roasting and many, many others. This is possibly a reflection of a habit of doing a lot of talking about swimming and maybe not so much actual swimming!

Knockananig Reservoir

I’ve written a lot about my swimming “home”, the River Blackwater, but not much about my other regular training spot, Knockananig Reservoir. This small artificial lake is located near the top of a hill a few kilometres outside the town of Fermoy and was originally used as the main water supply for the town. Dave Mulcahy and I have been swimming here since 2008 and have been making great use of this facility when the River is unswimable.

Photograph – Owen O'Keefe

Knockananig Reservoir, Fermoy as seen from the northern bank.

First, a quick note on that unusual name (for the benefit of readers outside of Ireland). It is pronounced pretty much as it is spelled and is an anglicisation of the Irish. The actual meaning is disputed but there are three main schools of thought. The official Irish name is Cnoc an Eanaigh which means Marsh Hill, this seems plausible as the area is quite badly drained. Locally, including on roadsigns, this is mistaken for Cnoc an Éan(n)aigh which a few claim means Hill of the Birds, but no such construction exists in Irish so it’s probably incorrect. However, the pronunciation of the latter may be a clue as to the true meaning. A native of the area, Ciss Geaney, told my grandfather and others that it was “Fair Hill, ’twas ever known as Fair Hill”. The Irish for Fair Hill (a “fair” as in a market where livestock, etc. is traded) would be Cnoc an Aonaigh and recent work by an Irish place-name etymologist has established that this is most likely the correct name for the area. Ciss, by the way, was 110 years old when she died in St. Patrick’s Hospital, Fermoy in 1996 – she was Ireland’s oldest person at the time.

Photograph – Owen O'Keefe

Dave Mulcahy swimming in Knockananig Reservoir in Summer 2012.

In English, locals refer to the Reservoir itself by a myriad of names including the Water Works and the Res, but to name a few. The lake was converted into a coarse fishery after a new concrete reservoir was built closer to the town, but it has become a popular location for other forms of recreation, especially on those rare summer days! Swimming (as a sport) only started here on New Year’s Day 2008, when Dave Mulcahy and I decided to try swimming around the lake as the Blackwater was in flood. We managed the 500 m circumnavigation of the lake and have been using it is a secondary swimming location since. Blackwater Triathlon Club have also caught the bug. The lake can freeze over in the depths of winter but can soar to over 20ºC after a week of sunshine!

Photograph – George O'Keefe

Swallows build their nests under the pump bridge in the Reservoir and are a comforting sign that summer is upon us.

While those of us who use the Reservoir get much enjoyment out of it (even if that involves doing a 17 km training swim), it can be a sad place at times: in August of last year, one of my good school-friends took his own life here, as did his mother the year previous. When swimming here, I always try to remember the enjoyment that he got out of this place in earlier years rather than the pain that it brought him over the last two. The water leaving the lake is called Cregg Stream and this flows down the hill and, before long, finds it’s way into the Blackwater on the banks of Cregg South.