Yesterday my friends at the Antrim Guardian asked me if I would be interested in writing a feature on the three prominent hotels which once stood in Antrim town. Okay, I said, although I wasn’t sure how much information I could find. Whilst browsing an online newspaper archive (of which I am keeping secret as it’s the best. Fellow writers/historians contact me for the link!) I discovered this remarkable woman, Mercedes Gleitze, who just so happened to be stopping at the Massereene Arms hotel in Antrim. It was in 1929 when Gleitze came to Antrim with the purpose to swim Lough Neagh. I can see the lough from my window, but for those of you unfamiliar with the map of Ireland – you have probably noticed a hole in the middle of the province of Ulster – that is Lough Neagh. Aside from it being a source of fresh drinking water, the currents are notorious and the water is icy cold. Swimming across it was no small feat.
Gleitze arrived in Antrim with two friends and her Irish captain. I can only imagine the buzz it created through the town, this was in 1929 after all, the Antrim Castle had burnt down seven years prior to her visit, and visits from remarkable guests were all but fizzling out. The locals swarmed around the hotel, posing for photographs and collecting autographs. The national press came, too. After the fanfare, Gleitze was briskly escorted to a motorboat for a cruise of the Six Mile River which flows into Lough Neagh. She observed the waters and decided she would prefer to swim the breadth just to get an idea. Greased up and led into the lough by this keen gentleman (see photograph), she attempted her goal. I should also add that Rolex had become a sponsor of Gleitze and she endorsed their waterproof Oyster watch. Look closely at the photo below, you can see a Rolex dangling from her neck. Gleitze was the first celebrity to promote the brand.
Such a strong swimmer, Gleitze swam at a gentle pace all the while chatting to the men in the boat. However, she paused halfway through to sip a glass of milk, after which she floated on her back before setting off again. Speaking from experience (not that I’ve attempted to swim the lough) on the sunniest of days the gusts of wind can be powerful, so falling victim to the breeze Gleitze started to struggle. After twenty hours in the water, and swimming eighteen miles, she was brought ashore to loud cheers. After posing for press photographs, the exhausted swimmer collapsed and was rushed to a nearby house.
Gleitze’s endurance is amazing: in 1927 she became the first woman to swim the English Channel…on her eighth attempt. In 1928 Gleitez unsuccessfully attempted to swim the North Channel, each time succumbing to hypothermia. In 1930, she swam Hellespont in two hours. In 1931, she swam across Galloway Bay in nineteen hours and across Sydney Harbor. She swam in Cape Town, South Africa in 1932 to bring the total number of marathon swims to an incredible fifty-one with twenty-five of her swims taking at least twenty-six hours to complete. With the money she earned from her swimming career Gleitze opened the Mercedes Gleitze Home for the Homeless in Leicester. It ran from 1933 until it was bombed in WW2.