Words Maureen McCoy Photos Paul McCambridge
“Old men ought to be explorers” – these words from T.S. Eliotts’ East Coker epitomises Paddy Conaghan and his efforts have been recognised world-wide!
Votes from swimmers around the world declared Paddy; WOWSA Man of the Year 2022 for his epic journey circumnavigating Ireland in a small van and “ducking” into the sea at every pier he could get to (and many beaches too). Some days he did five such “ducks”, some nine and on his biggest day he managed twelve. All in the depths of winter.
His journey started 4th December 2021 and he returned home to Arranmore Island, west Donegal just before Valentines day in February 2022.
Raising an incredible amount; over €100,000, for Gemma’s Legacy of Hope certainly put Paddy on the map and most of us will admit it is quite a feat of endurance to live out of a small van and hit the winter sea several times each day – doubly so when you celebrate your 81st birthday on that road – respect!
In Ireland’s and Arranmore’s eyes, Paddy was already man of the year so it’s wonderful to see the rest of the world give him the same recognition!
Paddy, however, is not one to “sit on his laurels” basking in his celebrity. As soon as he was home, he was planning his next adventure.
When the word came through that he had been nominated for the WOWSA award, Paddy was on the road again. This time travelling clockwise, he aims to duck at every beach he can gain access to. He has mapped out over 500 in his A4 notebook which he calls “the bible”.
This research is only a fraction of the preparation Paddy has undertaken for his adventures. Firstly, he spent his entire working life doing physical jobs, from picking spuds at 14, to construction and then tunneling. He has been all over the world, tunneling under it and on his days off, walking the mountains above.
When home he would be out on the sea fishing but swimming wasn’t his thing. So he spent a year teaching himself to swim, dive and deal with the cold before setting off on his first journey. Taking a barrel, he filled it with cold water and then added huge blocks of ice to drop the temperature further.
“I got in at 5’C and thought I’d see if I could do 5 minutes. That was okay so I thought I’d try longer; 10 minutes and I did that. So, I thought, I’ll be okay.”
Weekly ice barrel sessions, daily dives in from the pier and multiple gym sessions each day in his own barn-gym;
That’s what it takes to prepare for 3 months on the road taking numerous dips a day.
Paddy himself calls his epic task an adventure, “If I did it in the summer it’s just a holiday.”
This is no holiday! We’ve been meeting with Paddy regularly since Christmas Eve 2021 and on that day we knew we’d be kept on our toes. Jumping out of his van at 8.30am and striding straight to the waters edge, a rope lashed to the railings and in we went, crashing waves and seaweed tripping us up, Paddy just barreled into the water, we’d have to follow suit if we were ever to keep up!
Another birthday celebrated on the road, Paddy is 82 years young and putting a lot of us to shame!
An added challenge this time round is to be strict about only sleeping in the van, last time he allowed himself to be persuaded to stay in a few peoples homes or took up the offer of a hotel but this year he is determined to keep his own space.
He eats well, plenty of fish, vegetables and potatoes, occasional meat and very few sweet treats. At the end of the day a pint of Guinness goes down well or a wee nip of whiskey, sipped slowly and savoured.
Paddy has incredible support from Elaine who believed in him from the first concept. Elaine set up the donations, facebook and Instagram pages, manages all these and fields phone calls from media and well-wishers. “I’m his key-board warrior!”
All while working full-time, studying for a degree and looking after her own young family – “It’d be easier if I was on the road with him!”
Congrat’s on your graduation Elaine!
See more on youtube; Don’t Let the Old Man In
Ducking; to submerge underwater and remain for approx. 10 strokes… head down bottoms up…(Mo’s def)
Adventure; an unusual and exciting or daring experience (Cambridge Dictionary)
WOWSA; World Open Water Swimming Association
Paddy takes local advice on where to and where not to swim. In rough conditions looks for the safest place and if necessary uses a rope with a strong by-stander to hold it. When we are with him, we are film-crew, life-guards and above all friends.