EUGENE O’Leary would go to the ends of the earth for his daughter Helen, who passed away aged 19.
So last year, on Helen’s birthday, August 15, Eugene undertook a mission of gratitude by walking from one end of the country to the other.
The father of six walked across Ireland with a buggy from the Atlantic sea to the Irish sea, 225km from Slyne Head in Galway to Howth, in County Dublin, all in aid of Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin.
The hospital looked after Helen from when she was a child, after she was born with a congenital heart defect.
“I wanted to thank the hospital who did so much for my daughter,” says Eugene, who estimates that he has raised in excess of €100,000 for the children’s hospital doing long-distance charity walks and cycles at home and abroad.
“Helen and I were very close,” says Eugene, from Whitegate, who now lives in Howth. “She was very close to me; we were like twins!”
Helen, Eugene’s second youngest daughter, was a daddy’s girl.
“She sure was,” says Eugene. “Helen supported me in all I did. She was my greatest fan.”
Helen idolised her dad.
“She never had any doubts,” says Eugene. “She’d say, ‘you can do it’ dad! You go for it. When she died my world ended.
“Helen was a great person, a high achiever, excelling in all she did. She was head prefect at her school in Sutton, Santa Sabina, and she was named pupil of the year as well, achieving one of the highest awards in the school.”
Helen was the apple of her father’s eye.
“She was born with a heart defect,” says Eugene.
“At just six weeks old, Helen had a cardiac operation.
“When she was three years old, she had an operation to repair her aortic valve, which wasn’t a success. By the age of five, she was going downhill fast.”
The little girl got a new lease of life when she got a mechanical heart valve.
“She took off like a house on fire! She was flying,” says Eugene.
“Helen was on the blood thinner, Warfarin. Attending Crumlin hospital every month, she was tested regularly and her dosage was adjusted accordingly to avoid any danger of clots.
“Because of Crumlin Children’s Hospital, Helen had a fantastic life. They looked after her until she was 18.”
Because of Eugene’s fundraising efforts for the hospital that treated his daughter, every sick child has a fighting chance to ensure brighter days to come.
Tragically, Helen didn’t live to adulthood.
“She got a pain in her stomach in the dead of night, one Saturday night,” says Eugene.
Helen passed away on February 15, 2002, aged 19.
“The wall of one of her arteries in her heart had thinned, causing a rupture in her stomach.”
Eugene was heartbroken when he lost his beloved daughter.
“I was very down,” he says.
He was at a loss.
“I had taken early retirement at 60, working at Dublin port.”
But there were brighter days ahead for Eugene.
“After Helen’s funeral we had tea and sandwiches in the local pub,” says Eugene.
“The local Detective Garda Sergeant, Gary Kelly, tried to cheer me up. He said; ‘Did I see you cycling?’ I used cycle to work every morning. Gary asked me to take part in a charity cycle for St Francis Hospice in Raheny. I never did 80 miles before.”
But his daughter had verified that he could ‘do it’. And he went for it.
“I went to South Africa cycling for the Hospice after raising €6,500,” says Eugene.
No-one had any doubts that he would get to his destination.
“I did a spin cycle on the pier every day for six weeks,” says Eugene.
“I saw a for-sale ad in the newspaper for a stationary bike. I bought it.
“My former employer sponsored me and a local builder. I needed €4,500 for the trip to South Africa, but I raised over €6,000.”
It was the start of a new lease of life for Eugene.
“I did a whole heap of charity cycles for the Hospice,” he says.
“I went to Hungry the following year, then to Monterey, California, Flagstaff Arizona, Niagara Falls, Georgia, France, Athens, Portugal, Sweden, Finland, Italy, and the Arctic Circle.
“I went all over the world, sometimes doing solo cycles. It helped me grieve for Helen.”
He clocked up some mileage.
“I did!” says Eugene.
“Cycling up to the top of mountains nearly killed me. I decided to walk instead.”
Eugene took to the road on foot to raise funds for Crumlin Hospital.
“I started with the Portuguese leg of the Camino de Santiago,” says Eugene.
Helen was with him every mile.
“On one of the hikes I took a second pilgrim’s passport in Helen’s name,” says Eugene. “I got it stamped along the way. Helen accompanied me all the way.”
The super-fit septuagenarian was well prepared for the walk from Galway Docks to his home in Howth Harbour, 140 miles.
Where did the buggy, attracting attention along the way, come from?
“My neighbour had a second baby and her husband treated her to a brand new buggy. She offered me the old one,” says Eugene.
“It’s handy for carrying my camping gear and supplies. The buggy has big old wheels and it just glides along,” says Eugene.
“I had read about a man in the UK, John Burchill, who walked with a baby’s pram. He was roughly the same age as me. I borrowed the idea from him.”
The Cork-born Man with the Pram was welcomed everywhere on his travels across Ireland.
“I stayed in student accommodation and in farmer’s houses,” says Eugene.
“Everybody was really kind to me. The manger of student accommodation in Athlone put me up in a lovely apartment overnight. He invited me in and gave me tea and cakes. I slept in a comfy bed with a duvet and soft pillow, and he paid for my dinner in the local hostelry as well as donating €50 for Crumlin.”
Their paths had crossed before.
“He told me that he had put money in my bucket when I was doing the spin cycle on Howth pier for the South African cycling trip! It was a real coincidence.”
Eugene went the distance.
“I averaged 30 miles a day,” he says. “One day, I did 37 miles. I wanted to complete the trek in eight days.”
It was an amazing feat.
“Yes,” says Eugene.
“Walking from the Atlantic to the Irish sea was something I wanted to do.”
Did he suffer any pains or aches on the epic journey?
“I worked on ships for years,” says Eugene. “I kept fit cycling and walking.”
There is no stopping him now — he’s already embarked on his next challenge.
“After cocooning and the restrictions were lifted, I came up with the idea that I would walk 5km from my house in Grace O’Malley Park to Baldoyle and back, 10km day, 1,000km in 100 days to raise funds for Crumlin.
“I have three routes mapped on GPS. It’s very accurate. That’s my goal for 100 days.”
Eugene thinks about Helen every day. Grief, like love, lasts forever.
“I still miss her,” says Eugene.
“You never get over the loss of a child. It comes back to bite you at times, especially when you come across people that Helen was in school with and was friendly with. Her best school friend is a nurse in the Mater Hospital. Helen used to go on holidays with her and her parents. So it hits you when you meet people like that. You come across connections with people who were the same age and who went to school with her.”
Life goes on.
“Raising money for Crumlin Hospital, having a goal to walk so many miles, gave me something to live for, something to aim for.”
Eugene, like his daughter, is a high-achiever.
“When I retired at 60, I ran five Dublin City marathons!”
Where does he get his incredible stamina from?
“I started when I retired. Not when I was young. Everybody who started long distance cycling or running when they were young got worn out! I never did.”
Eugene is an inspiration to young and old alike.
“I sometimes give talks to older people, telling them what can be done when you drag yourself off the sofa and get out there and become active rather than vegetating,” says Eugene.
“I do that. And I’ll continue doing it until I depart for the Happy Hunting Ground.”
And no doubt his darling daughter, Helen, his greatest fan, is with him all the way.
To donate: www.justgiving.com/ campaign/themanwiththepram