Emer McLysaght: Turns out I was right to be terrified of quicksand all along

It haunted my childhood and now the soupy sand has made a reappearance

Of all the things I was terrified of as a child, quicksand was the consistent front runner. It had many competitors: volcanos and more specifically lava, badgers and indeed any hole in the ground a badger might possibly reside in, dinosaurs, the Bad Man.

The volcanos and lava fear was created via an evil tale from an older brother who told me he was pretty certain they existed “up where Daniel O’Donnell was from”. In fact, he said that was where the dinosaurs lived too. I imagined this hellscape in Donegal where giant beasts sailed down rivers of molten rock specifically to target me. Whenever I visited my Granny (who was Donegal-adjacent), I was unconvinced the British soldiers who patrolled the streets and back gardens would be any use against their prehistoric force. Reassurances from my parents and repeated viewings of Jurassic Park eventually quelled my fears.

The Bad Man was a tricky one because nobody could predict the movements of the Bad Man (bad men are everywhere, am I right? #NotAllMen) and it was common to be told that the Bad Man would get you for any number of minor disobediences

Growing up in the countryside we believed ferocious badgers were a constant threat. Putting sticks in our wellies to mimic the sound of breaking bones should we be attacked was common practice.

The Bad Man was a tricky one because nobody could predict the movements of the Bad Man (bad men are everywhere, am I right? #NotAllMen) and it was common to be told that the Bad Man would get you for any number of minor disobediences. I believe this practice has somewhat died out in a bid to stop terrorising children – although everyone still knows that a suspiciously slow white van is only looking for trouble.


One of the many reasons I’ve chosen not to be a parent is because I’m afraid I would become consumed by the certainty that every move and decision I made was creating some kind of neurosis in my child. What if I instilled a debilitating fear of dogs in my little angel by shooing a neighbour’s yippy dog off my nasturtium bed? (In this unpleasant fantasy I’m fantastically green-fingered.)What if I created a monster by allowing either too much or too little screen time? What if I never reached the screen time sweet spot, for the love of God?

There was an afternoon of screen time in my young life that changed me irrevocably. It was a showing of Invaders from Mars on either RTÉ One or Two (other channels were not available). Invaders from Mars is a 1953 science fiction film in which unsuspecting civilians are sucked underground via a sandpit and placed at the mercy of grotesque aliens hiding below. I was terrified. Every step I took became a matter of life or death. My lifelong fear of quicksand had begun and was coddled along by similarly horrific scenes in The NeverEnding Story – Artax sinking in the Swamp of Sadness – and the Swiss Family Robinson – a zebra sinks much to the delight of approaching hyenas. The list goes on and on.

Fast forward to September 2021 and I am on a beach outside Clifden with my friend, Esther. We’re reliving our youth exploring rock pools and then remembering how old we are by complaining about the grip on our sandals and idly chatting about the cost of hip replacements. “Look, Esther! Minnows!” I exclaim with glee and turn to see the extremely smooth sole of her sandal start to unmistakably sink into the soupy sand beneath.

“Quicksand!” I gasp as she steps backward, lifting her foot with, in fairness, very little effort. I look down at my own feet. My hideous holiday sandals – previously mentioned on these very pages and boasting a more substantial undercarriage, thank you very much – are also on the verge of heading south towards the invaders from Mars.

My old fears, long dormant, were prodded awake. I returned to our lodgings and immediately Googled “quicksand + Ireland” and was bombarded with headlines of doom. “Quicksand warning signs to be installed at notorious north Dublin danger spot”, “Irish mum rescues young son, 3, from deadly quicksand”, “Quicksand warning from one of West Cork’s most popular beaches”.

If my brush with death has taught me anything, it's that quicksand is an extremely cheesy metaphor for life

In fairness, everyone involved was rescued and I learned that the danger of quicksand actually comes from the rising tide and the risk of drowning rather than being sucked down into the bowels of the earth. Most people unlucky enough to encounter the sloppy sand will go waist deep at worst, which still sounds absolutely terrifying if you ask me. If Esther and I had hung around in exactly the same spot for another three to four hours who knows what trouble we might have been in. Ankle-deep damsels in distress, no doubt.

If my brush with death has taught me anything, it’s that quicksand is an extremely cheesy metaphor for life. Don’t stand in the same spot for too long. Don’t struggle too much and it will be easier to get out of a tight spot. And if you find yourself waist deep in the soupy sand, ask for help to get out before you drown. Oh, and buy shoes with a decent grip.