The Liffey Swim

Jack B. Yeats (1871-1957)

The Liffey Swim, 1923

Oil on canvas, 61 x 91 cm
Presented, Trustees of the Haverty Trust, 1931

In The Liffey Swim Jack B. Yeats captures the atmosphere and thrill of an event that has been part of Dublin’s annual sporting calendar since 1920. The swim, held between late July and early August, was promoted in 1923 as ‘the biggest free spectacle of the year in Dublin’. The competitors raced from Victoria Quay to the Butt Bridge, a mile and a half downriver, where prizes were awarded to the first six home. In the uncertain atmosphere of Dublin in the early 1920s, the Liffey Swim was a celebratory event, in which citizens, regardless of age or class, could participate in either a competitive or supportive capacity. The early races were even scheduled to take place in the evening to allow people to attend after work.

In his painting, Yeats invites his audience to engage with the event by cleverly placing them among the people.  The crowd leans forward, drawing the viewer’s eye to the swimmers, who have reached a key point in the race and surge towards the finish line. By distorting the perspective, Yeats allows his picture to encompass the entire occasion.   In the foreground, spectators jostle for position, while people on trams crane to catch a glimpse of the race.  It is likely that the character in the brown fedora is the artist himself,  and the woman wearing the elaborate yellow hat his wife Cottie. Yeats was awarded a silver medal for The Liffey Swim at the Paris Olympic exhibition in 1924.

View a selection of paintings from the Yeats Collection