Litter-picker Pat McPhilbin says the gulls in Galway are living a comfortable life picking at bin bags

Litter-picker Pat McPhilbin says the gulls in Galway are living  a comfortable life picking at bin bags

Sunrise begins around 5am in Galway at this time of year. Footpaths are revealed, painted in the remnants of last night’s events – takeaway boxes, coffee cups and empty cans are the big hitters.

Local gulls, who are very early risers, scream their approval and set to work. They have little interest in the loose items, convinced the best is hidden in the plastic bin bags that traders and residents have left out for collection.

A gull inspecting the rubbish from a torn bin bag at Millenium Park, Galway

Litter pickers from the city council hope to avoid what they call a duplication. If the gulls tear open bin bags after their unit has cleaned up a street they will have to start over. Pat McPhilbin, who has worked as a litter picker for 35 years, believes they have got worse.

“With the fishing out there, there’s no fish in the sea,” he says. “They’re all living the comfortable life in the city. The food is fresh, the burgers are free – there’s good nutrients in it. And they’re getting fat.”

Waste is managed in pairs. In the sweeper, a truck mounted on a vacuum that hoovers up any debris it encounters, Kenneth is the driver for the morning. Pat McPhilbin is five yards ahead on blower duty.

He is methodical in his work, tackling every corner in Eyre Square several times over. The blower churns awkward items out on to the road for the sweeper to devour. An occasional thumb or nod is the signal to move on to another area. It takes about an hour to cover the square.

Pat McPhilbin at work in Eyre Square

“When I came in first there was no sweepers,” Pat recalls. “I started down in Shop Street. Two bins, a wheelbarrow, a pushing shovel. I had that for about 15 years. Then they started bringing in the sweepers and modernised the whole system.”

A lot has changed through the decades. Cans, and recently disposable vapes, have grown more prevalent in morning collections. Going back a few years, the Celtic Tiger had its own trends. “During the boom times,” Pat says, “the amount of Jack Daniels whiskey I poured down the drains. There must be fumes going down there.”

Galway wakes up in dribs and drabs. The buses start rolling in shortly after 6am, ferrying workers out to medical factories, Boston Scientific and Medtronic. There are plenty of commuters but none say hello. As Pat describes, they are “all on their phones” and “out with their coffees”.

He worries for the city’s more vulnerable people, fearing the culture of looking out for each other has become a thing of the past. “If I meet people down in Woodquay, which I do, I talk to them. They’re in their 80s, 90s, you make them feel important. That’s all. They have no one else. The city can be a very lonely place to live in.”

The number of homeless people in Ireland recently rose above 14,000, according to an update from the Department of Housing. Galway Simon Community have said they are “stretched to keep up with demand”. At this time of morning it is hard not to notice the number of people sleeping rough.

“For the homeless people it is hard,” Pat says. “It is tough. We’re in a new era now with people sleeping out. I haven’t got all of the answers. I don’t know what’s going to happen…For the past two years it’s bad. It’s out of control.”

Towards the end of the morning Pat speaks about his mother. Until recently he lived with her in their Mervue home, providing for her and helping her care for his father, who was bedridden for the last eight years of his life. She died before Christmas.

“I come down here in the mornings and it’s a lonely job, and now I’m thinking of this,” he says. “I’m thinking of her every day…We lost her very suddenly. So I’m trying to come to terms with it and I’m trying to meet the lads and keep my composure and do the best I can. That’s the way it is.”

In two years’ time Pat will retire from litter-picking. He will have more time to focus on his photography – he has collaborated with historian William Henry, a man who shares the same love for the city. Pat hopes he will embrace his retirement but he knows he will miss the job.

He goes back to the early days of his role. Wearing the crest of Galway City Council, walking down Mill Street with a sense of importance – discovering “the old part of Galway”.

“I got to love it,” he says. “My heart is in it.”

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