We get called into Leisureland out in Salthill for 9 AM. There are twelve tables spaced out across two basketball courts in the sports hall like we’re doing the leaving cert in some specialist school.
I only just made the cut this year; eight years of lifeguard experience in Kerry counts for nothing once you cross county borders. In Galway, I’m just a rookie who’s pushing thirty.
Once everyone’s accounted for, sanitised, and sitting at the appropriate distance from one another, they wheel out the projector. What follows is the standard issue, county council PowerPoint presentation, outlining basic hazards and perils to be found at the beach.
Three council members take turns saying almost exactly the same thing, to see who can find the most scenic route through manual handling, child protection, and workplace harassment.
It’s a few hours of arse covering so that if we put our backs out, or decide on groping as a new hobby, the council aren’t liable because they showed us the appropriate videos.
Our boss for the summer seems pretty sound. He’s mild-mannered and approachable, but, like the others, each point comes with twenty-minute digressions that end up being vaguely racist, or borderline sexist.
He says things like; ‘I have a naughty list and Sinéad over there is at the very top, isn’t that right Sinéad?’
Sinéad manages a weak smile and stares at her shoes.
The man who goes through covid-19 first aid protocol says I have ‘lovely long legs,’ which I know from the harassment video may be a grey area.
Luckily for him, I don’t have time to flag it. The training is now an hour over time and I’m late for the retail job I want to quit. I cut out through the fire exit during another detour about rosters and how to read them.
So concludes my first experience of working for Galway county council; it feels just like home.
04 July 2020
I get to Silverstrand, county Galway, almost forty-five minutes before the 11 AM start. After hearing nothing for over a month, the council called and told me today is the day.
I spent the whole morning sorting through the abundance of gear they sent out. It’s what fashion vloggers would describe as a haul. Shorts, t-shirts, a full tracksuit, rash vest, a stylish softshell jacket, less stylish waterproofs and a visor, to complete that covid-19 look that’s sweeping the nation.
I’m not used to this kind of pampering. It’s a long way from my days in Kerry: those bleak mornings when the Bossman arrived at the hut on day one of each summer with a large black bin bag.
Plonking it down in the middle of the floor, he’d watch as six of us went digging through old uniforms, still caked with sweat and dried sun cream of lifeguards’ past, fighting for the best bits.
There was always some fault to contend with for the summer, a dodgy zip or a rip in the short’s netting that promised jock rash after a few days wear.
We were the spoiled crew, the first stop on that bag’s long journey down the Kerry coastline. Hard luck to the poor unfortunate below in Whitestrand, already exiled to a beach in the middle of nowhere, stuck in faded shorts with no drawstring and a jacket from 1983.
The first day back is always a bit jittery, training the eye again, scanning the beach to see if there are any unexpected hazards to worry about, but I quickly learn that most places in Galway are ridiculously safe. There are no rip currents or surf, and the sand remains level for what seems like miles out to sea.
I get a fright early on, spotting a floating head a few hundred metres from shore. I’m up off the chair, about to make the run when that floating head decides to sit up and reveal that they’re in waist-depth water.
It earns me a raised eyebrow from my colleague, who tells me that the most we have to worry about is drama in the WhatsApp group. It’s a quiet day after that.
25 June 2009
It’s hard to remember exactly how that morning started. Probably the usual shite talk with Socky, some ongoing joke bandied about, the ritual of opening up.
It’s low tide, cloudless, the sky and sea competing over who has the better shade of blue. With the wind taking the day off, sound travels easily. Three kids paddle on the shore, their chatter reaching us from 200 metres away.
I’m creaming up my face when we spot a woman at the edge of the cliff. Through the binoculars, I see she’s sitting right where sloping grass gives way to a sheer eighty-foot drop. Ballybunion has two huts, one on the Ladies beach, the other on the Men’s, where we are.
The other hut is closer so I get onto them over the walkie and ask if they can see her.
‘Snotzer’s already on the way down,’ Dustin tells me.
A moment later I see the red of Snotzer’s uniform walking toward her. I’m not sure whether she sees him or not, but one instant she’s there, the next she’s shooting downwards.
It’s too surreal looking to process as it happens. ‘Oh. My. God,’ I say, just like Janice from Friends. That’s how long it takes her to land on the hard, wet sand.
Socky and I watch it from a distance, but Snotzer and those paddling kids felt the impact, heard the body break. They won’t be right for the rest of the summer.
Already on his way to the scene, walkie in hand, Dustin’s order comes through a wall of static: ‘one of you boys call an ambulance’.
Socky nominates himself as the clerical lifeguard and grabs the phone, so the only thing left for me to do is run across the beach to join the party.
The next part happens in flashes: Dustin shouting across the beach for me to get the spinal board that he forgot to bring with him, a beachgoer asking if we need an ambulance, the crash of the Ladies hut shutter when I throw my buoy into it and grab the spinal board.
Running to the scene feels like the longest run of my life, it’s rainbow-like, I seem to never gain any ground. If I close my eyes now, I’m still running; my breath loud in my ears, barely suppressing my panic, the cluster of Dustin and Snotzer huddled over the woman.
This is the worst part, not knowing what’s waiting at the end of the run, what we may have to do to keep her alive. As I get slowly, painfully closer, I hear the screaming. It’s pure anguish, shock, pain. That’s a good sign because it rules out CPR.
Snotzer has her in a head clamp, his eyes wide and traumatised, cycling through anything his brain can throw at him from the training manual. ‘Luke, check for secondary injuries’ he barks. It’s hard to focus on anything above the sound of screaming.
Her waist is a contorted S shape, a purple storm is brewing beneath the skin of her torso, and her jeans are the only clue left that her legs were once solid pieces. There’s a chunk missing from her left heel where she clipped the cliff. The foot has a gruesome look to it, jutting off at an odd angle with the consistency of a Stretch Armstrong.
The Guards appear and hover around, not wanting to get their shoes wet, as well as the woman’s mother, who promptly joins in on the wailing.
We roll her onto the spinal board with as much of the correct procedure as reality allows. Clipping the strap across her chest, I make direct eye contact. For a split second, she’s coherent, just long enough to hold my gaze and say ‘leave me alone. I want to die.’
As we carry her up to the ambulance, I’m sickly aware of her rubber foot. It’s skipping and lolling around to its own beat as we go, held on solely by the skin around it. Dustin and Snotzer help the paramedics, and I go back to the hut to bat off curious bystanders.
A few minutes later, they arrive back with the spinal board and we scrub the blood off it with a yard brush and industrial floor cleaner meant for the public toilets.
As quick as it’s happened, it’s over. A brief spill mopped up and swept away, the rest of the workday now sprawling out in front of us. It passes in a daze, all of us too subdued to even think of slagging the head lifeguard for forgetting the spinal board, a first-week-on-the-job rookie mistake.
At various points throughout the day we step outside the hut alone or take long, pointless walks. It’s on one of these walks that I find myself standing on the shore with Dustin, reeling about what I did wrong, what I should have done differently.
‘You have to think clinically,’ he says, ‘nobody’s dead.’
As is tradition after a big incident, we all go out after work for a heavy night’s drinking, and I don’t stop for
It’s around three in the Ladies beach hut, Ballybunion. It’s dark from the rain outside, and there are just four people walking on the beach. Inside, the table is littered with the remains of lunch; empty roll wrappers, pistachio shells, half drank water bottles, The Irish Times.
Dustin is gearing himself up, lacing up his trainers. He’s doing his best to get in the zone, though the others are a ball of giddy energy and sniggering.
He’s been cooking up his load for the last few hours, so he knows it’ll require very little effort to drop it, though fifty-eight seconds is still a hard time to beat. He talks through his strategy with Zig. He’s definitely using the disabled jacks given that it’s just inside the door, and he’s not going to lock it as this would cost valuable seconds, but he is still unsure about his route.
Zig jibes that this could cost him, and Zag agrees; as the current fastest, he’d know. Unwilling to let them into his head, Dustin ignores this. He stares out the open doorway, springing up and down on his toes, and decides he’s going to wait for the shower to pass before he does it, which is approved.
Dustin loses the jacket, reasoning that bare skin might make him more aerodynamic. This is also okayed. Zig and Zag do a quick scan of the water: still empty.
They go over the rules again: the clock starts and finishes at the hut door, route to the toilet is optional, as is wiping, but flushing is compulsory and based on an honour system.
The rain passes. Zag pulls up the stopwatch on his phone, tells Dustin to get ready. Taking his mark, Dustin adopts a running stance, hands outstretched and hooked around the doorframe for extra propulsion.
In unison, Zig and Zag shout ‘go’. Dustin sprints down the ramp and swings out of the railing at the bottom to make the hairpin turn back toward the toilets. There’s silence in the hut for a moment when he disappears from view. Zig wonders aloud if he’s going to do it. Zag spots a swimmer running on the beach after a seaweed bath and mentions it. Anticipation lies heavy on the air.
In a flash, Dustin appears again and legs it down the steps, jumping the last four. Taking a chance, he decides not to run back up the ramp, choosing instead to scale the railing and create a shortcut to the door. He lands back in gasping for air. After checking the stopwatch, Zig delivers the bad news: a minute two.
Shouting and swearing fill the hut, Zag starts laughing.
‘Hold on,’ he says, ‘you may still have second.’ They consult The Wall of Shit for the other times. Dustin swears again when he sees that second place is a minute flat and he has to settle for third.
Consoling him, Zig reminds him he still has the fastest time for the Men’s hut, clocking in under two minutes and he did it in flip flops. No easy task given a hill run at either end of the dump. Dustin blames his hangover.
18 July 2020
Getting out to the edge of Connemara is arduous. It takes two and a half hours to reach Roundstone, thanks to the winding roads and three sets of traffic lights planted along the only route.
Despite the journey I’ve been looking forward to this weekend since I applied for the position. The thought of a weekend on a faraway beach tugged at the poet in me. It’s the second nice weekend of the summer, with actual sunshine, and we’ve decided to make a right go of it.
My well-traveled girlfriend, denied the opportunity of a foreign trip this year, has jumped at the chance to come along, and we’re armed with a newly bought tent, the makings of a tasty campfire curry, two bottles of Buckfast, and some rum.
PewDiePie, my lifeguard partner for the weekend, is crammed into the back of the Yaris. He’s telling us about the hoops he’s currently jumping through to get into the army cadets. From the amount of backseat driving he’s doing, it sounds like a perfect fit for him.
He’s what we’d describe down home as a harmless young fella, and for this reason, I’m still deliberating on how to break it to him that there’s a bag of shrooms in our backpack, should the mood strike us later.
Gurteen Bay is a stunning crescent of white sand curving around a small headland with Caribbean blue waters. On a small hill just above the beach, there’s a graveyard.
It’s a weird start to the day. Firstly, we’re told we can’t camp at the campsite due to covid-19 restrictions, then we have to park away from the beach to keep the car park free for funeral traffic. We open up the hut and marvel at the surroundings for an hour.
It’s busy, mostly Dubs with expensive water toys they can’t use properly. A car slowly crunches over the gravel behind us.
We turn and see the hearse moving toward the graveyard. Mourners follow, the air thick with the shocked silence of a tragic death.
The atmosphere is difficult to describe. Sitting on the beach, on one of the nicest days of the year, watching people bathing, eating ice creams, kids squealing with delight, and in the background, a priest delivers a graveside mass for the sadly departed.
A funeral steward joins us at our perch. He tells us it’s the funeral for a twenty-six-year-old who took their own life. We console him the best that strangers can. Chatting a little, he says the graveyard reminds him of something from a western film.
When he’s leaving he says, ‘don’t ever feel like you can’t talk to someone.’
Later in the afternoon, as if to continue the western theme, a lone sea kayaker blows around the headland and slowly paddles into shore. After the campsite denies him too, he approaches us asking if we know any good camping spots.
I tell him we’re going to chance our arm behind the dunes after work and invite him to camp with us. He agrees and makes a head start. At six o’clock we eat our curry, then gather our gear.
The Lone Ranger meets us at the end of the beach and leads us to a dip in the dunes where he’s pitched his tent among free roaming cattle. We set our tents up and break out the Bucky.
Once it’s dark the universe opens up for us. Out here, there’s no light pollution, and given the good weather, no cloud cover either. It’s one of the clearest skies I’ve ever seen. With a treat like this, the shrooms must make an appearance.
Only myself and herself partake, though The Lone Ranger capitalizes on my Buckfast kindness and asks to take some home with him for after his voyage. We spend the next few hours with our necks craned to the sky, drinking in the Milky Way, the NEOWISE comet, shooting stars, satellites, and a UFO.
‘Isn’t it mad,’ says herself, ‘that while we may feel like we’re looking up at the stars, it’s just as likely that we’re looking down into them.’
In that moment of chemical alterity, our lack of orientation in the universe seems remarkably profound and plenty of theorizing ensues. The two lads quickly get sick of our cosmic insights and head to bed. Soon after, so do we.
The following morning we pack up, talk about the fun of a random night, then part ways with The Lone Ranger, never to meet again. Work is a struggle. Six hours feels like eighteen, the cost of fun higher now than it’s ever been.
On the way home that evening I have a chuckle thinking of how well things turned out for The Lone Ranger: to blow in from the sea, get fed a load of drink, and head off with a doggie bag of treats.
After a morning of quiet deliberation, refining and fine tuning, everyone has privately decided on their perfect lunch choice for the day.
Now, it’s just a case of waiting to see who caves first. Around half two, Zag nobly stands and announces ‘I’m gonna go up to Super Valu’.
There’s immediate bustle; everyone starts talking over each other at once, orders flying in every direction. Part of the Barry’s tea box is torn off to make a list, the writing microscopic to accommodate the dietary requirements of six lifeguards.
White rolls no butter ‘make sure you get them to pull the dough out’, ham ‘but only if it’s Shaw’s’, toasted wraps, various pick-me-ups to be deployed throughout the day, and contingency plans to engage if there’s no Fanta exotic, or the wedges don’t look fresh enough.
Pockets are raided, balls of change clatter onto the table, along with a few notes and two debit cards.
On seeing the list, Zig has changed his mind and tells Zag he wants the same wrap as me, ‘but without the red onion because they give me heartburn.’
At the same time I’m explaining that ‘I’m paying for half of Dustin’s lunch, which you can take out of this tenner – and bring me back the change – then you can pay for mine on the card.’ It’s a lot to contend with.
Zag clarifies a few details reading down the list and stops when he comes to Snotzer’s order. It’s already mid-July and he clocks that Snotzer hasn’t done a shop run all summer. He puts this forward to the group, prompting a flurry of demands and accusations.
Abruptly, the argument stops when a mother and her young son come up looking for a plaster. Throats are cleared, eyes avoided, binoculars looked through, and flip flops scuffed on the ground.
There’s a short respite as I rustle through the first aid kit, commenting on the grand old day out there, and tell the boy he’s tough out. It gives Snozter enough time to gather himself and prepare a defence. We wave off the mother and son, then immediately resume the trial.
In Snotzer’s opinion, his monkish daily order of potato salad and a bread roll is too minuscule to warrant him doing a full shop run for everyone else. That is not going to fly.
It’s decided that if Snotzer wants to eat today, he must make the shop run for everyone; if Zag goes, he’s refusing to get Snotzer’s order. A heavy silence follows while everyone hangs on Snotzer’s decision. Retracting his order, he chooses hunger.
This is not enough justice for Zag. Landing back to the hut, he dishes out the lunch orders to the rest of us. Leaving his own until last, he takes it from the bag and sets potato salad and a bread roll down on the table. The sound of sniggering and lowing rises above the noise of collective chewing.
Zag pulls up a chair beside Snotzer and tucks in. He makes a performance out of it, enacting the dinner scene from What About Bob?
Snotzer is about to boil over, doing his best to keep his eyes fixed on what’s going on outside the window.
About halfway through the meal, Zag says he is stuffed. He goes to the bin and scoops it in, slowly, while Snotzer sits there looking at him.
By the end of summer 2014, I’d burned out. I was taking the job for granted, had become incredibly unfit, and not up to the responsibility anymore. No longer was I buzzing from the prospect of saving lives.
Given that I was hungover all of the time, the thought actually scared me, and I spent workdays under constant anxiety that something would happen. For a time I moved on, worked shitty jobs, and played guitar in a mediocre band.
After five years, alongside the decision to go back to college, I saw a chance to return and capture some old magic, but it was different from the outset. When I’d left I was the youngest of our crew, now there were at least five years between me and the next oldest.
Gone were the crew I came up with and related to, here were a bunch of YouTubers that lived their lives through Snapchat. We got along fine and had a few laughs, but ultimately I was a relic and they were a bunch of Logan Paul’s.
To them, Zig, Zag, and Dustin were little more than the names carved into the shutter door with their serving years beneath, just like the names from the early noughties had been to me.
Every generation believes their music is the best and the same goes for lifeguard hut operational procedure. This crew had a whole new set of customs, lingo and rules. I did my best to bring back some of the old ways but nothing stuck. Things had moved on, I was just a ghost back in his old haunt.
The lifeguard credo I’d built, invested in, and lived by, meant nothing in the end, had no lasting impact, and had faded out in a comically short span of time. In a way, it was closure, the start of the goodbye to that chapter of life.
29 July 2020
A retired soldier from India once told me all about his solitary life standing guard on top of a wall along the border with Pakistan.
He spoke about how remote it was and how the only time he saw another person was when the next soldier came to relieve him of his post.
It feels like that today in Inverin, an unpopular beach somewhere off the Barna road in Galway. It’s Jenna Marbles and myself for the day. The rain ensures that us two lifeguards will be the only ones here for the shift, and that we’ll be driving the hundred metres to the bathroom when nature calls.
Another Munster head, she worked at a beach in Cork before coming to Galway. We talk a lot about the differences between Galway and our respective counties.
This leads us down a path of reminiscing, swapping old war stories from our time, stories I’ve told many times before.
For the first time ever on the job, I can think of better ways to pass the hours. Even though the work is seasonal, you can feel married to it at times. The job is either a way of life, or it gets in the way of life. With a masters deadline looming, today feels wasteful.
Jenna Marbles talks about her time in Cork and says, ‘those first three summers were the best of my entire life.’ I tell her it was the same for me back home. I wonder what I’m chasing here and come up blank. Asking Jenna Marbles if she thinks she’ll come back next year, she answers with a hard ‘no’.
The job has a sell-by date, and we’ve realised the change of scenery in a different county isn’t enough to overcome that fact.
There had been a meaty swell all week. Waves had dug a channel by the cliff and a nasty rip current had formed. Added to this, a gusty onshore wind and four-foot sets made visibility very poor. The red flag flew all week, and with it being the first nice spell in ages, people were starved of a good beach day.
Determined to enjoy their holidays, they ignored the flags and went into the water. Zig and I were in the Ladies beach hut, though Zig was preparing to go back to the Men’s beach.
As he was packing, a young boy came up to the hut and told us somebody was drowning. This happens a lot, people thinking they see things and coming to give the lifeguards a mini heart attack. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it’s nothing, so we took this with a pinch of salt.
That was my first mistake. Two pairs of eyes, paid handsomely to protect beachgoers, scanned the water and saw nothing.
Beyond the few swimmers up to their knees, it was just a cluster of surfers way out the back. Zig dismissed the report and made his way back over to the Men’s beach. Moments later another boy ran up to the hut, panting and fish-eyed, but saying the same thing. Now I was freaked.
I grabbed the binoculars and scanned again. In the slush, thirty metres beyond the line of swimmers, a wave peaked with a surfer on it.
Across his board, clinging on for dear life was a young girl, her face frozen in a silent terrified scream.
When I got out to them, there were two girls – sisters I found out later – both hanging onto different boards. The younger of the two was worryingly drowsy. Zag was surfing on his day off and paddled over when he saw me running in.
We pulled them in and brought them to the hut. Both were conscious and somewhat able to talk, but the younger of the two was dazed and had swallowed a lot of water.
We called an ambulance and treated them while we waited.
Their parents were overly grateful. I had never felt more undeserving of a thank you. The following day, the two girls arrived down with a thank you card and a box of chocolates.
A week later there was an article in Kerry’s Eye with the headline; ‘Lifeguards Save Girls on Ballybunion Beach’. Guilt coursed through me for the rest of the summer.
Over the years I have had many rescues, but that’s the one I remember most. Sometimes I wonder if the sea scares them now.
Dustin was stuck for a place to live for the summer and turned to Zig’s dad – a man with his ear to the ground – to help him find a place. Within a few days, he’d sourced a house called Cregan’s Corner right above the beach.
Prime location, single glazed windows, frames cracked and split from winters of abuse, and in serious need of a lick of paint, the house was what Zig’s dad described as ‘a bit rock ‘n’ roll.’
Inside it was a time warp to the seventies. Aged, patterned carpets, faded floral sun loungers, a green bathroom, and a brown tartan couch that had your knees kissing your chin when you sat on it. Everything coughed dust under the slightest pressure.
The kitchen had a hole in the roof, a broken window that the stray cat operated from, and a working fridge that meant cold beer.
It was the perfect squat for all of us. The only bedroom that didn’t exude serious crack den energy was the twin room beside the lounge, so we pulled all the mattresses in there and called it The Lifeguard Dorm. It was the epicentre of our universe, the perfect extension of our scruffy crew.
After days spent cramped together in a small hut, we’d retire to our dorm, unwind with a few vodka-lucozades and Buckfast, and saunter up the town.
Cregan’s became a hub for our wider circle of friends, and had an open-door policy, mostly because the back door wouldn’t lock.
The nights were always different, depending on the blend of people.We’d roar Prince and Modest Mouse with the pub band, dance on the furniture with the girls from McMunn’s, or listen to the old bouncer from the Exchange rant about how overrated The Beatles were.
In the mornings, over jambons and coffee, we’d watch Dr. Phil on the bulbous, wooden telly that only picked up RTÉ One, before rolling down the hill to work.
On quieter, rainy nights we turned to films like Top Gun and The Guardian for inspiration. Believing lines like ‘born, bred, and water fed’ were gospel, we put ourselves on par with those characters, considering deep water rescue swimming as a viable career move come summer’s end. All while we bate down joints, skulled cans, and shouted ‘change the bucket’ when water overflowed from our kitchen rain collector.
Promises were made that if any of us won the lottery, we’d buy the place and revamp it. I’m glad we never did, it would have ruined the whole mangy charm of it.
A few years ago the house was bought and the new owners took our wish out from under us. It underwent a huge redevelopment project and came out the other side as a postmodern dream.
Floor to ceiling windows overlooking the beach, and slick granite walls that draw inspiration from the nearby cliffs. A gorgeous beachfront property that was nominated for Irish home of the year in some architectural glossy.
It had grown up, changed beyond recognition, and made a proper name for itself.
16 August 2020
The Bossman calls out around six and talks bollocks for the last hour. Recently I have become his confidante.
‘I like you,’ he says, ‘you’re an adult.’ Then he launches into a bitching session about whatever lifeguard is currently pissing him off.
Thankfully on this visit, he’s more preoccupied with Jacksepticeye; a rookie this year, who is set to work the islands for the first time this week.
A quiet young fella, fresh out of school, he has never spent longer than two nights away from his parents. The island trip is shaping up to be the coming-of-age tale of the summer. The Bossman starts filling his head with images of exotic tourists, telling him to go as mad as he can.
‘In another ten years,’ says the Bossman, ‘when you’re settling down with someone, don’t be looking back at this as a missed opportunity. Get everything out of your system now.’
I watch the poor young fella squirm as he goes on; ‘if Luke and myself had our time back, we’d only be mad to go out there.’
It’s a sufficiently creepy blessing to hear from a much older man, and Jacksepticeye is embarrassed into silence.
I’m having a bit of a moment too. I’ve clearly been bracketed off into the has-beens camp for a while now, but this is the first time someone else has said it out loud.
There it is front and centre; confirmation that my summer lifeguarding in Galway is the farewell tour. If I keep working a beach, I’ll always be looking back, remembering how things used to be. I’m not old enough for that yet.
Time to move on and make memories elsewhere. I’ll turn thirty on the beach and draw a line in the sand.
Luke Brennan is a writer from Kerry. He has an MA in writing from the National University of Ireland, Galway. His work has previously appeared in Banshee. He lives in Limerick.