Warning: this article mentions suicidal ideation. If you are affected by any of the issues raised, you can call Console’s 24/7 suicide helpline, 1800 247 247, or the Samaritans helpline, 116 123.

On Saturday afternoon in Ballyboden, Eoin Ryan sat at his kitchen table by a white wall on which he had hung a large blue photo-on-canvas image of wooden overwater bungalows reflected against a tranquil sea.

The tiled floor was strewn with pink plastic prawns, which his two daughters had been playing with a few minutes earlier.

They are props from his upcoming one-man show, Trawled, which was one week out from its Dublin debut in the Tallaght Theatre.

The show is a re-telling of Ryan’s harrowing experience working on a prawn trawler in the Coral Sea between Australia and Papua New Guinea some 20 years ago. 

It revisits the extreme bullying and isolation he suffered over six weeks.

It was so bad, he contemplated taking his own life, he says, and revisiting it now as an 85-minute performance is immensely difficult. “I should be dead.”

“But I think what is important now for this story is the good that it can do,” he says. “It’s a life experience and it’s how somebody dealt with it, and the consequences of how they dealt with it.”

It may not seem relatable, being trapped on a trawler, in waters heavily populated by sharks, he says. “But in some way, the boat is reflective of somebody’s bedroom, their house, their school.”

“So it’s a question of what good can we get out of this, and I think the shadow of it has been eclipsed by the light,” says Ryan, “the message that you can ask for help.”

Adventures and cereal

Ryan had been living in Australia when he decided to apply to work on the trawler.

He was 24 years old, he says now, 24 years later, and he had no experience whatsoever as a fisher.

For a long time, he had simply written off his urge to try his hand at this work by assuming that he wanted to go on an adventure, he says.

But as he developed what would eventually become the script, he realised that the urge stemmed from a far more everyday source: a box of Corn Flakes.

Eoin Ryan with Corn Flakes. Credit: Michael Lanigan

Next door, in his living room, a box of Corn Flakes rests on a shelf. Like the prawns, it is a prop in the show, he says. 

“I remember seeing a picture of Machu Picchu on a Corn Flakes box, and being amazed by it,” he says.

The Lost City of the Incas had, as a kid, made him want to travel, he says. “And I went to Australia to find my spark, and that’s when I needed to save the money to fly on to South America to see Machu Picchu.”

Hence, he says, he lied about his experience and applied for the job. “So in some ways, I can blame Corn Flakes for the whole thing.”

A pariah

Initially, Ryan says, he took to the sea well. “I was enjoying it. I was even contemplating staying out longer than the original six weeks.”

Inexperienced as he may have been, he was willing to work and learn, he says. “I was turning into a useful fisherman.”

It was an adventure at first, he says. “You were wide-eyed and it was risky, but sure it would be grand, you know? And then the circumstances changed.”

After the boat nearly capsized one night, and later he ended up in a drunken brawl with the skipper, resulting in two broken ribs, Ryan decided he wanted off the trawler, he says. 

“The skipper gave me three choices. He said I could fight him, and send me home in pieces. I could swim to the mothership, which was a long way away,” he says.

“Or he said, I could stay,” he says. “And when I was given that choice, it was no choice. That was very isolating.”

All of a sudden, he was on board a boat with three other crew members, and no friends, he says. “They now consider you a traitor, and they’re not the most emotionally stable people. So I had to work under the threat of getting beaten.”

He wonders now what would have happened if he had asked his crewmates to back down from bullying him, he says. 

“But the answer is that I don’t know. I really don’t because back then, that would’ve been a sign of weakness, and they probably would have disrespected you more,” he says.

“Now, asking that is a sign of strength,” he says. “And that’s what I hope people will see from all of this, that you can say, ‘I need a leg up right now, I need help.’”

He was eight days out from leaving the trawler for good when he was at his absolute worst, he says. 

“My mind was completely unstable,” he says. “I knew I was heading down the path of suicide, because I couldn’t keep up what I was doing. I had deteriorated too far.”

The term “karoshi” comes to his mind, a Japanese word which translates to mean “overworked to death,” he says. “I had made a decision, and then after speaking to God or the universe, or I don’t know what, I fell asleep.”

The sleep could have been for a minute at the most, he says. “But that couple of seconds was the difference between walking out the door onto the back deck, and not. So I’m lucky to be here.”


After years of reflecting on the ordeal, Ryan says he was able to make his peace with it.

The decision to adapt it came gradually over time. By chance, he says, he had kept a foolscap diary of his time on-board. “I kept an account of pretty much every day until it got pretty dark for me.”

As he would recount it to people over the years, he was encouraged to write it down, he says. “So then I decided to write a book in 2017.”

He printed 700 copies, but didn’t get around to doing anything with them. All of his time was devoted to running an events business, he says. “And they were sitting in my attic.”

The urge to dramatise it came after he was invited to give a Tedx Talk in Wexford, his home county, he says. “The content of what I was writing about, I realised that you couldn’t just speak it, it had to be performed.”

His talk was 17 minutes, but he saw in it a full-scale drama, which he would develop with his co-director Gabriel Graves.

Graves says the play is special in how so much of Ryan’s lived experiences fit so perfectly with the metaphors used for a person undergoing a mental-health crisis. 

“You are surrounded by sharks, and you’re in a literal isolated environment, it works well as a metaphor as well for people alone in a difficult situation,” he says. 

Even if the particular narrative could enlighten audiences about life out at sea, he says, “the experience can resonate with others in their own specific way, and how they approach these big questions that will impact the rest of your life”.

Fundamentally, Ryan’s message is that there is no shame in asking for help while in a crisis, he says. “It’s a privilege to be able to share that, because for all intents and purposes, I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t be talking to you, telling my story.”

Michael Lanigan is a freelance journalist who covers arts and culture for Dublin Inquirer. His work also appears in Vice, Totally Dublin, TheJournal.ie and the Business Post. You can reach him at michael@dublininquirer.com.

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