Photographer Tom Maher happened upon some folk out fishing the canals last autumn. What struck him as peculiar was their modus operandi and that’s how he came across the environmentally friendly world of magnet fishing. We joined them this spring to see what lies beneath.
“I’ve found knives, screwdrivers, bolts, forks, bikes, shotgun shells, tills, more shotgun shells, car reg. plates, parts of cars, tyres, wheels…”
It’s 8am on a sun-dappled Thursday morning down on Spencer Dock and pals Richard Grant and Emma Brady are out magnet fishing. The laws of (magnetic) attraction in this instance is literally the zen of casting into the canal and fishing up what lies beneath.
“I’ve been doing it since the first lockdown,” says Grant. “You’re basically looking for treasure with a very strong magnet. I try to go out once a week but ended up out three to four times weekly. When you are out here the world just disappears.”
Emma elaborates on the thrill of slinging this hook, “It’s just like fishing, you throw it out and pull it back. I’ve found knives, screwdrivers, bolts, forks, bikes, shotgun shells, tills, more shotgun shells, car reg. plates, parts of cars, tyres, wheels…” It’s obvious at this stage that a lot is chucked into the canals, whether heedlessly or intentionally.
“The first question you ask is, how did it get in there? What were they doing and thinking of when they needed to get rid of it? What was the need to throw it into the river? And then, it could be a case of a nice day with someone making ham and meat bread rolls by the canal and the knife fell in. You just don’t know and you make these little stories up in your head.”
Both inform me that whilst still a niche hobby interest here, the world of magnet fishing is exploding elsewhere with the obligatory forums, blogs and YouTube channels. Grant cites Leigh Webber as one of the names in the game. A search later on leads me to a Newsweek article from April in which himself and a mate came across 46 safes buried in a riverbed which happened to contain stolen collector’s coins. Another wormhole link leads me to the headline: “TikTok Hilariously Shows Man Discovering ‘Buried Treasure’ is Septic Tank”. Clearly, the thrill of discovery has its viral merits too.
In terms of a big land, Grant is still in the minor league. He did find a till with €15 worth of coins recently which was chucked into the canal after a robbery. On the morning in question, he hauls out a few bikes, metal bars, a mini trampoline and some security barriers. Each item is congealed in gloopy mud and varying stages of Titanic distress. Of course, the de rigueur shopping trolley makes an appearance too.
A short while later, Grant and Brady are joined by Alan Mulligan and his girlfriend Kayley Mackey. He’s been dangling his magnets for almost six years now since he saw it on the tele. He’s even taken today off from his day job as a builder.
“I get a kick out of getting bikes and scooters out, I’ve sold a few through markets. There are little goals I would like to get, I’d like to get a safe, I’d like to get a knife, I’d like to get a gun.” When asked if he ponders how they ended up there, he scoffs, “I’m from Dublin, I know how it got there.”
And so, this foursome carry on over the next few hours – casting, dragging, pulling. They sidle along the canal edge, contently whiling away the time, peppering their routine with catch-up chats and chiding each other over catching things from the ‘rubbish’ end of the spectrum. They may end up with something they can recycle when they hack the rust off it. They may not.
Grant knows there’s also an environmental upside to their pursuit. They frequently liaise with the Council and Gardaí should the need arise. “We leave it out for collection. You are cleaning the canal because at the same time there’s fish down there, there’s other wildlife – herons, swans and ducks. You are taking metal that shouldn’t be in the river out, so it’s good for the environment.”
A few hours later down by the Luke Kelly head, they tug out a Suzuki motorbike.
It takes all four of them three magnets, three grapple hooks and Kayleigh’s Kia Sportage to haul it to the to the surface. It seems in decent nick and salvageable after a good power hose and service.
They pose for our photographer Tom, brimming with glee with their prize catch of the day. Alan subsequently discovered that the bike was stolen in Co Wicklow last September. It’s on its way back to to its rightful owner.
Words: Michael McDermott
Photos: Tom Maher