I was nine when I struck my first blow for feminism.
Just outside our town, on the Bunree River, we had two natural swimming pools. This being the era of Episcopal bans on mixed bathing, the larger of the two was the boy’s pool and the smaller one was for girls and infants. It is an interesting reflection on the morés of the day that while six feet of water was considered necessary for young males to swim in, two feet was enough for females.
One summer’s day in 1952, my friend Helena and I climbed out of the baby pool, as it was called, and dragged on our clothes over damp bodies. The glorious sunshine had turned to rain, as it often does in the West, so we jumped on our bikes and headed for home. Our swim had not been satisfactory, for we had grown since the previous year and the water was far too shallow for us now.
Our journey took us past the boy’s pool. As we approached, we noticed the last of the lads leaving for town. The place was deserted.
The same idea occurred to both of us at once. Stopping our bikes, we waited until all the swimmers had crossed the bridge and disappeared from sight. Then we gazed at the pool. Raining or not, it had never looked so enticing. It was a perfect rectangle – long, wide and deep, with a nicely-placed outcrop of rock for diving. Hawthorn trees and the sound of a waterfall from the old mill lent atmosphere to the scene.
We looked at each other, as girls have looked at each other from time immemorial, when deciding that there is neither rhyme nor reason to some male authoritarian rule. Then, without a word, we threw our bikes into the brambles by the roadside. Leaping across the low ditch, we tore off our clothes with unmaidenly abandon and pulled on our soaking swimsuits.
Together, we plunged into the forbidden waters and broke, with indescribable joy, the first taboo of our lives. We felt brave and free, pioneers in a new land. The sun came out and a perfect rainbow formed above our heads as we splashed and dived like baby seals.
Over the days to come, other girls joined us. The boys voiced no objections. By the time it reached the ears of parents, priests and nuns, it was too late. The sternest Jansenist stickler for public morality couldn’t but melt at the sight of so many children of both sexes splashing about merrily among the bees and butterflies. Adults started to come down from the town for the first time and sit around, keeping an eye on the younger ones.
Soon, Mayo County Council heard of the pool’s popularity and gamely threw in its sixpennyworth. They built a much-needed wall and fronted it with wide steps, rather like an open-air theatre, where people could sit and enjoy the sunshine while watching their children in the water. Small improvements were made to the pool itself without spoiling its natural look.
My friend Helena and I often viewed the scene with a proprietorial air of pride and achievement. It would be many years before we heard of Simone De Beauvoir or Dr. Germaine Greer, but when we did, we would recognise kindred spirits.