There is a fascination about achievement unearthed — when the extraordinary meets the ordinary; about the juxtaposition of celebrity and the commonplace.
Almost a century ago, Mercedes Gleitze was one of the biggest names in endurance swimming. She was the first known person to swim the Straits of Gibraltar and the first British woman to swim the English Channel.
This weekend, a series of swims she made in Galway will be honoured by artist Vanessa Daws who is creating a gorgeous, aquatic homage to Gleitze.
Mercedes Gleitze was born to Heinrich and Anna (born Kurr ) Gleitze in 1900 in the English south-coastal town of Brighton. She and her two elder sisters came from German heritage and Mercedes spent time with her grandparents in Herzogenaurach in Bavaria and two years studying at the Maria Stern Convent School in Nördlingen. Her father was a German immigrant from the county of Göttingen. He was a baker and her mother taught languages.
With her bilingual background and education, Gleitze became a secretary and stenographer in central London exploiting her talent for languages. In her spare time she started swimming in the River Thames. Her first significant record was for 10 hours 45 minutes she spent swimming in the Thames. This was the longest time for a woman in 1923. She attracted attention when, at the eighth attempt, she became the first English woman to swim the English Channel, on 7 October 1927
Born in Brighton in 1900, the youngest daughter of economic immigrants, Mercedes recognised in herself a talent for sea swimming, and made up her mind to turn this inherent gift into what was, in those days, an extraordinary career as a female long-distance swimmer.
Hers wasn’t an over-night success story. It took perseverance. For example, Mercedes made eight formal attempts before becoming the first British woman to conquer the English Channel, and it took her six attempts to become the first person ever to swim across the Strait of Gibraltar.
Her swims were covered extensively by the media of the day, and she became a role model in the emergence of the ‘new women’ of that era. As a young, working class woman, without influence or financial support, she set up and managed a unique sea career.
Mercedes spoke publicly about wanting to bring honours to the country of her birth by virtue of her swimming achievements, but apart from that she was also one of the first women from the sporting world to institute a charity with the money she earned from her aquatic activities. During her years working as a typist in London, she witnessed at first hand the poverty all around her caused by the high unemployment of the times.
She felt a strong empathy with these unfortunate families, and it gave her added motivation to make a success of her swimming career. She planned to use any prize money to help at least a few of the homeless, hungry people in Britain, and she eventually achieved her objective in the city of Leicester, in collaboration with a scheme run by the Leicester Rotary Club.
This weekend in Galway, Artist Vanessa Daws is creating a gorgeous, aquatic homage to Gleitze, with a swim procession from Salthill Ladies Beach to Blackrock on the evening of Saturday June 11 from 7pm, as the Irish finale to Vanessa’s Swimming A Long Way Together project.
Galway swim in 1931
In 1931, on a Sunday August 3, Mercedes Gleitze swam from Inis Meáin to Awleen Bay in Spiddal. The 20-mile (as the crow flies ) swim took her 19 hours and she was the first swimmer to make this crossing.
The intended destination was Salthill 22km away and a large crowd had gathered to wait for her to swim in. To make amends for not finishing in Salthill and disappointing the crowds, Mercedes gave a “demonstration swim” at Salthill the following Tuesday.
Inspired by Mercedes’ demonstration swim, Vanessa Daws is creating this unique swim procession, featuring local swimmers, art installations and accompanied by live music, in celebration of Mercedes’ accomplishments, creativity and joie de vivre.
This public event will follow a more private commemoration of Mercedes’ Galway activities, as Vanessa and the Atlantic Masters Swimming Club swim the 22km as a relay team from Spiddal to Blackrock.
Swimming a Long Way Together is a joyful celebratory ambitious and aquatic project by artist Vanessa Daws, drawing inspiration from 20th century pioneer swimmer Mercedes Gleitze.
With events across the island of Ireland, Swimming A Long Way Togetherhas unfolded as a series of large-scale, live, immersive, multi-disciplinary events and exhibitions in Dublin, Cork, Donaghdee and now Galway.
These communal moments are retelling some of the story of the incredible Mercedes who undertook many challenging swims in the 1920s and ‘30s around Ireland, and reflect on contemporary experiences of swimming – as a practice of endurance, for wellbeing and as a collective and social pastime.
Swimming a Long Way Together has emerged out of the artistic practice of Vanessa Daws, a visual artist and long-distance swimmer living in Dublin, and her own pioneering swims, which include the 22km length of Lough Mask in Co Mayo.
Swimming, journey, encounter, conversation and Vanessa’s first-hand swimming experiences are the starting points for her works, a process she describes as ‘Psychoswimography’, a watery drifting and re-imaging of place. It was during Vanessa’s preparations to attempt to swim the English Channel that she first came across the fascinating history of Mercedes.
Vanessa’s art practice explores place through swimming. Swimming as part of the research, process and live event. ‘Place’ being the watery space that is navigated and swum through and the social space created by this shared activity. Vanessa uses film, sound, drawing, publications, sculpture and live events to create her work.
The open water swimming community is well connected, a global and borderless network. Vanessa is interested in how the history of long-distance swimming traverses invisible frontiers and how interconnected histories can be shared through swimmers’ stories from around the world. In the past few years Vanessa has created art projects in watery spaces as diverse as the frozen Pirita River, Estonia; the Rideau Canal in Canada; The President’s Fountain, Bulgaria; the Pacific Ocean, Santa Barbara; the M50 Aqueduct in Dublin to the Bogs of Ballycroy, Co Mayo.
“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 work investigates where this drive to swim, to immerse oneself in water comes from.
“Is it the sheer thrill of the unknown; to feel the water on our skin, the cold on our head, adapt our breathing and to feel we exist?” said Vanessa Daws www.vanessadaws.com PROJECT PARTNERS AND SUPPORTERS include Atlantic Masters Swimming Club, Galway City Arts Office, Midleton College, Water Safety Ireland, The Glucksman, Dublin Port Company, Dublin City Arts Office, Temple Bar Gallery and Studio, The LAB, Maynooth University, Swim Ireland, Dublin Swimming Club, Fire Station Artist Studios, The Chunky Dunkers, Ards and North Down Borough Council, Ultimate SUP Northern Ireland, Safer Waters Northern Ireland, Pier 36.
Swimming a Long Way Together is funded by the Arts Council Open Call Award 2021.