Deaf Life23rd July 2014

Irish Women Swim into the History Books

A group of deaf women from Ireland have made history by completing a cross channel swim that began at the top of a mountain.

by Sarah Lawrence

A group of deaf Irish women have swum the English Channel, becoming the first such group to do so and raising funds for the Irish Deaf Women’s Group in the process.

The idea came about in April 2012 when Lisa Finn Carroll and Bernadette White were climbing Mount Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales, with a group of other deaf people. Bernadette recalled how her father used to tell her as a young child what a good swimmer she was and how, one day, she would swim the channel.

Bernadette asked Lisa how well she could swim. Lisa told her she enjoyed swimming but was not an internationalswimmer. Nevertheless, Bernadette asked her if she would like to swim a relay with her across the Channel. Lisa remembers, “I told her why not but at the same time, in my head, thought it was talk and no action and thought nothing more about it.”

The following November, however, Bernadette contacted Lisa to ask her if she could find out how they could go about swimming the channel and if deaf people were allowed to do it. Bernadette contacted the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation and found that they could undertake the swim, after which Bernadette contacted six more women to join the team, four of them international swimmers.

The remaining members of the team were Dee Byrne, a deaf teacher at St Mary’s School Dublin and an international swimmer. Nora Duggan, at 22, was by far the youngest member of the team. From Kerry, Nora is a student and also an international swimmer as is Patricia Heffernen, a civil servant from Galway, now living in Dublin and Michelle McLaughlin from Tipperary now living in Co. Meath. The final member of the team is Bridie Power, a civil servant in Wicklow but originally from Donegal.

The group agreed that they would meet every Wednesday evening in the Deaf Village, Ireland, an inclusive, state of the art complex in Dublin providing facilities for both deaf and hearing people. The group quickly agreed that they would use their marathon swim to raise funds for the Irish Deaf Women’s Group, an organisation founded 20 years ago with the aim of empowering and providing equality among deaf women.

The group began training in Deaf Village Ireland’s pool but soon realised they also needed experience of swimming in the open sea and so began entering sea races despite concerns about problems their deafness might cause at such events. They also began organising fund raising events including blindfolded food tasting, cake sales and a dog show. They were soon competing in sea races every weekend with some of the team picking up trophies along the way and when the racing season ended in October they continued to train in the sea every weekend.

One such training session ended in drama when sea conditions suddenly became very rough and the team struggled to get back out of the water. Fortunately, the only results were a few cuts and bruises.

As well as raisingfunds for their own venture, the cost of a support boat for the channel crossing alone was €3000, the team also did two one off events for other charities. The first raised funds for Beaumont cancer clinic in Dublin in memory of Patricia Lynch, a deaf woman who died of cancer. The second raised funds for a school in Ethiopia which is supported by Fr. Stephen Monaghan, described by Lisa as, “a very close dear friend of the deaf community”, as well as a lot of members of that deaf community.

Interest in the project began to grow on Facebook and funds started to come in although Lisa says most of the support was from deaf people, adding, “Not much from the hearing world.” Then, someone came up with the idea of a nomination game. Lisa says, “A deaf guy was asked to get in the sea with us to show how hard he was and we filmed him.” Surprisingly, he enjoyed it and challenged a friend to do the same thing. Soon videos were coming in from all over the world showing people venturing into cold seas and their reaction and before long the group’s Facebook page likes had shot up to 1675.

Still the serious training continued and eventually the team did the 2 hour non-stop swim needed to qualify for a cross channel attempt. There was just time for one more event before the team headed to England and over 100 deaf people got together for a ‘fun’ sea swim.

Then the team anda few of their supporters arrived in Dover and a waiting game ensued until sea conditions were suitable for the crossing. While they waited the team swam in the sea three times a day rubbing shoulders with others who were also planning to swim the Channel.

The clock was ticking because the team couldn’t stay in England indefinitely and just when they thought that conditions were right they got a text from their pilot, Eddie to say it had been postponed once again. They were forced to move out of their chalet accommodation and 12 people ended up sleeping in one house.

After another postponement it emerged that Eddie was worried about communicating with the swimmers if the water was choppy because of their deafness. The team convinced him they would cope, however, and they finally received a text telling them to be at the harbour at 5am on July 7th. Lisa recalls, “We broke down and cried, we started hugging everyone, even the barman we didn’t know.”

They were actually at the harbour by 4am. Although the weather was good, sea conditions were choppy but at 6:02am Dee Byrne began the first leg; each swimmer spent an hour in the water at a time. All the swimmers admitted to being nervous as they swam their first strokes but the further they swam the better conditions became and it was eventually Dee along with Nora Duggan who made land on the French side of the channel. After 14 hours 10 minutes and 44 seconds they had become the first team of deaf women in history to make the crossing.

The return crossing, aboard the boat, was a little quicker and after three hours they were back in Dover where their supporters were waiting for them with champagne. That’s not the end of the festivities, however. On 6th September, over 400 people are expected to attend Deaf Village Ireland for a hog roast and the handing over of a cheque for the funds raised by the amazing swim. The final sum raised is still unknown but let’s hope it’s a fitting celebration for a remarkable group of women.

If you would like to make a donation to help them reach their target of €10,000 you can still do so at

Article by Sarah Lawrence

posted in Community / Deaf Life

23rd July 2014