Photos by Cónal Thomas

Conor Maguire drops a red rescue can onto the sand, lashes his boat to his quad bike with thick rope and speeds off down Dollymount Strand.

He hops off and unhooks his boat, but leaves it parked along the shore. Just in case.

It’s peak swimming season right now and for 21-year-old Maguire that means staying alert. “Keep your eyes on the water,” he says.

There are six full-time lifeguards at Dollymount this season, including Maguire. But some say that’s not enough.

As the city’s beaches fill up, and as locals stay longer each evening, councillors are calling for more flexible lifeguard hours. That would require more lifeguards, though, and Dublin City Council isn’t getting the number of applications it needs.

Last week, at a meeting of the council’s arts committee, independent Councillor Damian O’Farrell asked if the council has enough lifeguards for the busy swimming season.

It doesn’t, said Richard Shakespeare, the council’s head of planning. It has been tough to get the number it needs to watch over the council’s beaches.

“That’s just a fact of life,” Shakespeare says. “We go out, we recruit and we can’t get enough of them.”

O’Farrell says he raised the issue before, several years ago. He was told the council would sort it, and would be more flexible around the shifts that lifeguards have to do, he says.

When the beaches are busy, the city needs more lifeguards, says O’Farrell. “When the weather’s really good I’m expecting [later shifts] too,” he says. 

On Dollymount Strand, Maguire radios over to lifeguards Aisling Carroll and Niall Finnegan, stationed two kilometres away on the Bull Wall.

Cloud cover obscures today’s sun. Drain flies hover over a nearby gull carcass and slices of washed up kelp.

Maguire sits in a chair in his small red and yellow metal beach hut watching the horizon, which is bracketed by Howth Head to the west and Dalkey Island to the east.

“The cliché is you see things before they happen,” says Maguire, who studies athletic therapy in Athlone, and has worked as a lifeguard at Dollymount Beach for five years. He qualified when he was 16.

The job demands that you really concentrate, he says. Training with Irish Water Safety – the body responsible for lifeguard training – involves pool training, open water training, as well as exams.

Daily shifts at Dollymount Strand start at 11am with a briefing from Bull Island Manager Pat Corrigan and run until 6pm, including overtime if the beach is busy.

“There’s times when we’ve to make a line down to our boat,” says Maguire. He picks up his binoculars to check the horizon where an elderly man has stripped off for a dip. “We’re certainly kept busy.”

Emergencies are more frequent at Dollymount Strand than one might think, says Maguire. But there’s no pattern as to who needs rescued.

Maguire forms part of a six-person lifeguard team out here. Two are more recent recruits, and that can be intense. “But easing that pressure [on them] is part of my job,” says Maguire.

Other beaches in Dublin have struggled to find lifeguards when they need them during the busy season, too.

Fingal County Council has taken on 35 lifeguards this year.

They’re young, though, so there can be issues with availability in June, says Fingal County Council Water Safety Development Officer John Hartnett.

Many are sitting the Leaving Certificate and other examinations, he said.

Roger Sweeney, deputy head of Irish Water Safety, says there are three main reasons people aren’t interested in becoming lifeguards.

It’s a lot of responsibility for people who are young, he says. And there are more jobs elsewhere at the moment, so the numbers who might have considered it are dropping.

Finally, there’s been a cultural shift too, says Sweeney. Trained lifeguards realised how useful their skills were and that they could do it overseas. So some have left.

Sweeney says Irish Water Safety is looking ahead though. Water safety is now part of the school curriculum, which should dampen fear of open water.

“We’ve some of the most magnificent waterways in the world,” says Sweeney. “But there’s been an unhealthy fear of the aquatic environment.”

At last week’s meeting, Labour Councillor Aine Clancy also called for more clarity around council lifeguards, beach safety, a report on recent fires and “the whole operation” of Dollymount Strand. “It’s the jewel in our crown,” she said.

The council needs more lifeguards, though, said Shakespeare. “A lot of the time we don’t have the number of lifeguards to safely do what we should be doing.”

Shakespeare said he’d look into the matter, with a full report due by September.

On Dollymount Strand, Maguire steps out onto groomed sands edged up along his lookout hut. Lifeguarding is a team effort, he says.

It’s intense. “But as long as someone’s eyes are always on the water,” says Maguire, it’s manageable.

Wind whips up along the strand and echoes off the drum barrels that are used as bins, dotted along the beach.

Once the summer is over, swimmers are on their own out here. “We’d never really go past the end of September,” says Maguire. “We are only here for the designated bathing season.”

Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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