Words by Maureen McCoy, photography by Paul McCambridge

For many wild swimming is enough of a challenge to swim in the sea once a week, others push that out to daily dips year-round but 5 or more dips a day, in their 81st year is quite the odyssey!

Paddy Conaghan, an 80 year old from Arranmore, set himself an epic wild swimming challenge starting on 4th December 2021 – to circumnavigate Ireland, living out of a small van and taking a swim in the sea at as many beaches or piers as he can each day. So far the journey has seen him taking 5 or more “ducks” under the water each day. 

Old Van

The reason he set himself such a task? To raise awareness of mental health issues and in doing so funds for Gemma’s Legacy of Hope, a local counselling service in the Rosses area and Islands of Co Donegal which helps children from the age of 5 up, young adults and adults.

With his initial target of €1000 truly blown out of the water – only three weeks in and the go fund me page has almost hit €50,000, this humble man is fast becoming a legend.

New Van

We met with Paddy as he was traveling from Clare to Kerry on Christmas Eve. 

At 08.40 on Christmas Eve at the car park at Glasheen beach, Doonaha, Co Clare Paddy pulled up in his silver van. It was a grey morning, the had light barely lifted and the sea was tumbling a wash of seaweed and sand into the cove below. The scene prompted Paddy to take the precaution he has been using for many of his “duck dives” – secure a rope to a sturdy anchor point and hang onto it tight!  As he laid out a length of the rope he said; “I don’t like the look of it so I’m going to hold onto this. Will you be alright? I’ve no rope for you.” 

Despite the less than attractive seaweed washing machine I was well within my comfort zone. What I hadn’t expected was for Paddy to storm down to the waters’ edge, rope firmly in hand, walk into knee depth and then barrel himself into the surf! That’s the best way I can describe his technique. He did a body roll into the waves that would have made a judo master proud! I stood mid-thigh in the surf as it dawned on me that I wouldn’t have the luxury today of my usual slow (admittedly faffing) gentle method of easing in.

At Cappagh Pier, 09.30 Paddy decided to dive from the steps. By the time he had climbed down and swirled a space in the seaweed debris caught at the base, a small crowd had gathered to cheer him on. No hanging around, Paddy climbed four steps up and launched himself into the air to the tune of “We Wish you a Merry Christmas”. 

Thanks to the ladies who gave us the cheery chorus and Fionnuala who had porridge ready for Paddy and sorted him a ferry ticket across the Shannon which would shorten the days driving by a couple of hours.

A quick dash to Kilmer and we caught the short ferry ride to Tarbert in Co Kerry, next stop Salleen pier. 

Not the most auspicious of swim sites and with the tide just changing it was advised not to go out too far. 

Dan and Fionnuala were in the water to join Paddy, keen to meet this octogenarian as he made his way through the county and a tall man, Johnny Block stood on the slip guiding us on the least slippery route in.

On to Littor beach with the sun beginning to develop some strength as we weaved our way west.

Cautious of slipping on the steep wet tarmac Paddy told me “I’ve had two new hips I can’t afford to fall.” Once on the beach though he wasted no time getting to the water’s edge. He began to rummage in a large blue shopping bag, pulling out a small wooden oblong with a scrap of paper pinned to it – a list of the stops so far today. Next, a slightly bigger plank with a large Polyfilla tub attached, a phone-shaped hole cut in the base. This rustic contraption houses his phone as he takes his videos.

Four swims before lunchtime – the prospect of breaking his record number of swims in a day was looming.

‘Don’t STOP Believin’

Next stop Ballybunion 

Nun’s Beach was on Paddy’s wish list but he hadn’t reckoned on the steep climb down to that beautiful cove. As we gazed down at the pristine sand below, I know he was disappointed but there was simply no way it was feasible for him to try to scramble down and back up those steep cliffs – even with titanium hips. But Ballybunion has a lovely strand, separated in two by a small rocky outcrop with the last remains of the castle stood above; ladies beach and men’s beach, so we took our duck at each of these.

Paddy explained he likes to dive through the waves and swim 8 or 10 strokes before surfacing – so people donating to the charity “get value for money”. He encouraged me to do the same. (No worries of cold water shock as we’d had so many dips by this stage in the day, but if you are doing one-off dips/dunks or ducks underwater please be sure to acclimatise properly first.)

Two more beaches and the record would be broken, we had just enough time to make it to Ballyheigue  then Banna strand before the light would fail. With a new record firmly in the bag Paddy was keen to celebrate – a well-earned pint of Guinness and a very tasty meal at Kate Brownes in Ardfert went down a treat. Thank you to the manager who kindly squeezed us in.

Christmas morning was to be Fenit, so we parked up and got an early night, the next day was to hold two swims in the morning followed by a steak dinner, cooked over the camp stove and served on the beach with a glass of Prosecco – alternative Christmas! 

21 day matured Aberdeen Angus steak btw!

Ringing in the New Year on the Ring of Kerry

Paddy’s Rossbeigh fan club!

Just a week after Christmas, wildswim.ie joined Paddy again for several days in Kerry.

Wasting no time at Valentia harbour…

Our first day on the Iveragh Peninsula, saw Paddy do a modest 5 Ducks but Paddy had a plan for the following day. He announced to us he wanted to hit a new record; to beat the 8 we had previously achieved on Christmas Eve!

What a task!

We planned for 10 Ducks but after a local tip off we managed to slip in a nearby bonus beach Reencaheragh, smashing the record by 3…11 Ducks in a row!!….All despite gale force winds and rain.

Glanleam on Valentia



Jack O’Connor, Kerry manager had the coffee ready for Paddy at St Finians Bay

St Finian’s Bay

Reenroe Bay

Ballinskelligs, Waterville, Derrynane Beach, O’Carroll’s Cove, Whitestrand and Kenmare Pier.

Thanks to all those who welcomed and waited for Paddy, served coffee and to Marie-Anne, Catriona and co who treated us to a gorgeous curry to end the day, room and board too!

Catching up with our old friend at Valentia, Eileen joined Paddy on several of his dips. No stranger to repeated swims in a day; we last saw Eileen in Wicklow 2019 on the 7 Swims Challenge, so she was delighted to show Paddy the best that the island has to offer. Paddy was treated that evening as a hero with a room and dinner at the Royal Valencia Hotel.

We’d like to wish Paddy a very Happy 81st Birthday! 

Enjoy your “ducking” on this special day, we hope you have a cavalry of well-wishers to keep you going and see you very soon! 

As Paddy continues his odyssey he is nearing Cork and “turning the corner” of the Wild Atlantic Way when he will begin the eastwards leg towards Waterford. As he travels, swimmers are waiting to meet him, duck under the water with him, provide moral support, meals and encouragement. 

https://www.gofundme.com/f/ducking-driving-for-gemmas-legacy-of-hope – Ducking & Driving for Gemma’s Legacy of Hope

https://www.facebook.com/Gemmaslegacyofhope/ – @Gemmaslegacyofhope

https://www.instagram.com/gemmas_legacy_of_hope/?hl=en – gemmas legacy of hope

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