OCEAN HERO Mairéad Staunton on the beach at Old Head, Louisburgh, last Thursday morning. Pic Conor McKeown
IT’S 8am at Louisburgh’s Old Head and the sun is rising above Mayo’s majestic Atlantic waters.
The weather is cold but unseasonably calm. The beach and surrounding areas are clean and almost unspoilt.
Or so it seems.
We’re here to meet Mairéad Staunton, a former principal of Lankill National School and a member of the Keep Our Beaches Clean group. She was recently awarded the Individual of the Year Award at Clean Coast’s Ocean Hero Awards for her efforts.
At this time most mornings, Mairéad plunges into Clew Bay’s icy waters with the Mná na Mara swimming group, one of several that have sprung up in coastal areas since Covid-19 came to our shores.
Down at the pier we meet Mairéad and Lucy Love, a fellow member of Keep Our Beaches Clean, a group of volunteers dedicated to keeping the local beaches litter-free, founded by Louise Hastings. Last month, their efforts were duly recognised at the Ocean Hero Awards when they won first place in the Beach Clean Bubble Award category.
We are immediately struck by Mairéad’s modesty, and she insists that she not be the centre of attention for this feature piece.
Dressed in dry robes and armed with their litter picking equipment, Mairéad and Lucy bring us on a walking tour of their litter pick.
It soon becomes clear that that this well-kept beach is not as pristine as we first thought.
Just along the short jaunt from the pier to the car park, Mairéad and Lucy have already gathered up cigarette butts, a sandal, a glove, a bag of dog poo and a can of cider that was tossed in the bushes.
“We’re out here nearly every morning, and we still find stuff that’s been there for a long time,” Mairéad says.
Down at the sand, the litter pickers discover a face mask, a child’s soother, some fishing net and a small tyre. These are just some of the random items that are tossed along the shore by careless revellers and the great Atlantic itself.
Tides and snowballs
With the morning litter pick done, Mairéad sits down with The Mayo News to tell us about how she developed such a love for the water.
A daughter of 1951 All-Ireland winner Joe Staunton, Mairéad was never the keenest ocean swimmer despite having grown up in Kilsallagh, not far from where we are sitting. “I was a person who’d get into the tide once a year. I was a real chicken,” she says as the Atlantic waves crash gently against the shore.
Then came the lockdown of March 2020, which confined the nation to within 2 kilometres of our homes. Luckily for Mairéad, the serene, glistening shores of Old Head fell within her radius.
“My friend had been in the habit of going to the pool regularly and then the pools were closed,” she explains. “But the weather was so nice that time in the early lockdown that we said we’d have a swim.
“We had another one, and it began to snowball, a few other people started joining us. It became a daily habit. We made no promises; we said ‘just one day at a time’. But here it has developed, we’re almost two full years doing it.
“It’s an amazing way to start the day,” she adds.
“We get in at 8 o’clock every morning and you come out just feeling refreshed and energised. My brother refers to it as ‘the jump leads’.
“Often when I’m getting out of the bed for the swim in the dark I say to the bed ‘I’ll be back’. But you never feel like going back.”
Even though the Atlantic is free at the point of access, Mairéad still felt that she owed something to the ocean.
“Just to pay back a little bit I said I would just tidy up a bit and I’d pick up whatever I could see around me. I’d do that every morning.”
The former school principal is clearly a popular figure around Old Head, for our conversation is occasionally interrupted by passers-by saying hello.
Message in a bottle
MAIRÉAD and her colleagues will sometimes organise bigger morning clean-ups along the likes of Old Head, Talamh Bán (Thallabawn)and Carrowmore Beach.
It was on the latter shoreline in December 2019 that Mairéad made the astounding discovery of a message in a bottle that came from the other side of the Atlantic.
Contained within it was a letter from a man name Randy. He had tossed the bottle into the water from the shores of South Carolina on the day his deceased wife Melinda’s ashes were scattered to the ocean.
As fate would have it, Randy and his family were travelling to Melinda’s home place to commemorate her anniversary when Mairéad got in touch via email.
“This family had a habit of throwing messages out into the ocean, and he had a record of every bottle he got back,” she explains.
“He sent me an email on New Year’s night, and when I printed it, it was 19 pages long.
“This family have a very strong Christian faith. He believed there was nothing accidental in me finding the message, she adds.
“They scattered the ashes on May 6 in 2018 and the letter arrived a year-and-a-half later in Ireland, on the weekend that they were going to her anniversary. They attached great significance to the timing of it. They felt it was a message from Melinda.”
Keep it clean
KEEPING Clew Bay’s beaches pristine is clearly a labour of love for all those involved in Keep Our Beaches Clean.
However, Mairéad insists that the job of keeping the beaches clean rests not with her, nor her group, nor Mayo County Council – which she says is very supportive of their work.
“The tide is moving all the time. I forgive it for bringing stuff… but I don’t forgive people for waste that they leave on the beach, because there’s no need for it,” she says.
“It’s not anybody else’s job to get rid of your waste. Everyone should have a little container in the car to hold their own waste until they get home to their bin.”
For Mairéad and Keep Our Beaches Clean, keeping the environment clean is a matter of pride – just as it should be for all those blessed to visit or reside in our great western homeland.
“It’s a beautiful place to live, and I think we should do our best to respect it,” she says. “You have a lot of people saying they love Mayo, but I think besides waving a flag they could do other things to love it. Just keep it nice.
“We’re a tourist economy, we’re expecting people to come here and spend money, and we need to do something to show it off at its best, and I think it deserves to be looked after.”
Surely a sentiment we can all agree with.