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"Diving for dead bodies is an experience unlike anything else in this world" - a lifetime in the Garda sub-aqua unit

“Not everyone can do this job, to put it mildly” – Tosh Lavery spent 30 years working as a Garda diver.

Tosh2 Training for the first every Garda diving unit, Dalkey, 1974. Tosh Lavery is second from left. He says the suits they wore were totally unsuitable for open water diving Source: Penguin Ireland/Tosh Lavery

WHEN THE CHIPS are down, or disaster strikes, the Garda diving unit is invariably one of the first on the scene.

First established in 1974, the unit, which currently numbers between 10 and 20 gardaí, spends its operational life trawling through the backwaters of Ireland looking for murder weapons, the proceeds of crime, and, inevitably, human bodies.

Retired Garda sergeant Thomas ‘Tosh’ Lavery spent 30 years in the unit and was one of its initial recruits 40 years ago.

Now 61 and 10 years retired, he says the role of a diver (in what is now known as the Water Unit) is not for everybody.

“When I first went in, I was a fair swimmer but basically I was posted in Ballyconnell, Co Cavan at the height of the Troubles and I wanted to get away from the border, there was no grand career decision in it,” he told TheJournal.ie.

But a career it became for the Waterford native. His recently released memoir ‘Tosh’ details a hard life lived behind the scenes. It certainly doesn’t sound like it’s for the faint-hearted.

Toshhighresjkt Source: Penguin Ireland/Tosh Lavery

“It’s something an older man should do, not a kid or a recent recruit,” he says.

I went in and it became a career, but I don’t think any man should spend more than 10 years in the unit. You lose your life and life is there to be lived. I missed out on more moments of my youth because I was on a dive down the country. It doesn’t make sense.

The unit can be deployed at a moment’s notice, and most of its work is done behind the scenes, something Lavery doesn’t agree with.

From Ireland’s greatest maritime disaster, the explosion on the Betelgeuse off Bantry Bay which claimed 50 lives, to the bombing of Lord Mountbatten’s boat off Mullaghmore, he was there for them all. And he became something of a legend when it came to the finding of dead bodies.

The one thing you can say for the sub-aqua unit – they are guards who are invariably liked. We bring the dead back to their families, and its a service they have the height of respect for.

Tosh4 Recovering the engine of Lord Mountbatten's boat the Shadow V, Mullaghmore, Co Sligo, August 1979 Source: Penguin Ireland/Tosh Lavery

The gardaí should be taking advantage of that – it’s exactly the kind of PR story they need. But when was the last time you saw the diving unit in the national media? You don’t, unless you’re invited.

Lavery’s own hard-living lifestyle eventually took its toll on his marriage. An incredibly hard drinker, he finally quit alcohol in 1988. The drinking went hand in hand with the job.

“You need someone to explain to young men what they’re getting into when they sign up to the unit. We had no-one to tell us what was in store for us. And it needs to have money thrown at it,” he says.

Surprisingly, being a top-notch swimmer or diver isn’t necessarily that important when it comes to being in the water unit.

Diving for bodies is like nothing else in the world. It’s done almost always in nil visibility, feeling your way around. You don’t need to be an incredible swimmer, it’s not done at speed, but you need to know what you’re getting into and you need to be able to get into the water no matter what.

Tosh5 Lavery (in water) at the scene of a car driven into the Grand Canal, Harolds Cross, Dublin Source: Penguin Ireland/Tosh Lavery

He says that without doubt not everyone can handle the psychological aspect of the job, of searching for the dead.

I can say, hand on heart, that it never affected me. It was just the job. But beyond a shadow of a doubt I was unique in that respect.

The small scale of the unit (when Lavery retired in 2004 there were four sergeants and about 16 divers in the unit as opposed to the one sergeant when he began – nowadays he understands there is only one sergeant once more) may surprise people.

“I wouldn’t say there’s a queue to get into it to be honest. There’ll always be those who want the adventure, but four days straight trailing around in black water, with your mind playing tricks on you, that’s a long way from a nice sergeant posting in a quiet country station,” he says.

Tosh3 Tosh Lavery at Whiddy Island off Bantry Bay, Co Cork, 1979, scene of Ireland's worst maritime disaster. 50 people died when the oil tanker Betelgeuse exploded while unloading its cargo Source: Penguin Ireland/Tosh Lavery

These days the equipment is a little better – when Lavery joined sub-standard wetsuits, no lights and a rope to guide you back to dry land were the norm.

There are still no special privileges for diving gardaí however, although there is now an underwater allowance for those taking on the job.

“I took to my job like a duck to water, I loved my job, lived for it, but if I had my life over again I would not stay in that role for too long.
It took me a long time to realise, when I spent years not getting promoted, they didn’t want to promote you because you’d leave the unit. And it’s very hard to find people to do that line of work who do it well.

Tosh6 Searching at Hollywood Lake, Monaghan after a skating accident claimed the lives of two young girls, New Year 2001. Lavery is in the water on the far left Source: Penguin Ireland/Tosh Lavery

Throughout his career Tosh recovered many hundreds of dead bodies. He says the job is a mindset.

Under the water in a search unit is like being in space. You don’t need to be a swimmer. I saw lads who were brilliant swimmers and next to useless as divers. You’re better off not having bad habits picked up in some diving club, I don’t care what degree you have.
I count the greatest achievement of my career the fact that I never had a Garda fatality while I was in charge of the unit, despite a couple of close shaves.

These days Lavery concentrates on helping the families of the missing in Ireland, something a career spent searching for the lost has driven into his soul.

I loved my job, I loved the machismo of it, but mostly I loved being able to present a grieving family with a body to bury.
That was what mattered to me most.

Tosh Lavery’s book ‘Tosh’ is available now from Penguin Ireland

Odd Job: Garda Diver

What does it pay? Standard Garda salary applies albeit with an ‘underwater allowance’ on top

How many are there? Probably in the region of ten at present, although this has not been confirmed by the gardaí

What qualifications/experience do you need? You have to be a guard, although being an expert swimmer isn’t especially necessary. A measure of physical fitness and psychological fortitude are a must

Do you know someone with an unusual occupation for our Odd Jobs series? Email the author below.

Read: A handy number: Life as a hand model pays up to €135 an hour

Read: Dread being a bridesmaid? This woman does it for a living…

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