An article from a Co. Cork newspaper about my Buggy Push from Dublin to Cork. Hard to believe it’s almost five years ago!
“The road less travelled by: Eugene O’Leary
Veteran fundraiser walks from Whitehall, Dublin to Whitegate Co. Cork for Chernobyl Children’s Trust
Whitegate native Eugene O’Leary has the most unusual tan-lines we’ve ever seen.
Now living in Howth, Eugene just walked from Whitehall, Co. Dublin to Whitegate, Co. Cork to raise funds for the Chernobyl Children’s Trust – one of many charitable endeavours he has undertaken, writes Becky Grice.
Known in some circles as ‘The Pedalling Pensioner’, the 72 year old has swapped his bike for a buggy (kindly donated by the niece of one of his former workmates), and covered the 300km-odd distance in a week, camping out most nights and arriving in his hometown of Whitegate last Saturday afternoon, where he was welcomed by his two brothers, Denis and Jimmy, and his sister Mary who all still live in the area. Their support is unwavering – as is that of his friends, family and wife up in Dublin who, Eugene admits, ‘Thinks I’m a bit of a nutcase.’
When we sat down for a chat with Eugene last Friday evening in Midleton, prior to the final leg of his journey to Whitegate, he was in fine form. Making great time on the road – covering around 30 miles per day – he arrived ahead of schedule in Midleton and, last Thursday, spent his first night in a ‘proper bed’ since leaving his home the previous weekend.
Dressed in his Chernobyl Children’s Trust t-shirt and sipping from a glass of sparkling water, we can’t help but notice the impressive tan-lines on his upper arms. ‘That’s nothing,’ he smiles, ‘take a look at this!’ With that, he places his hands palm-down in front of us. His knuckles to his fingertips are snow white. ‘It’s from gripping the buggy all the time,’ he laughs.
Eugene has been fundraising for numerous charities for almost a decade – and every step, every mile, every euro raised is done so in memory of his late daughter Helen, who attended St. Brigid’s Cardiac Ward in Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin, before being transferred to an adult hospital at the age of 18. Tragically, Helen passed away at the age of 19, but Crumlin’s love for and care of Helen during her time there has never been forgotten by Eugene.
A chance meeting with Gary Kelly, a Garda Detective Sergeant, led to Eugene hopping on his bike in aid of St. Frances’ Hospice in Raheny and, from then on, he’s never looked back.
While the Mother Superior in ‘The Sound Of Music’ might have advised us to ‘climb every mountain, ford every stream’ – Eugene’s taken it literally.
Having run the Dublin City Marathon five times, Eugene has always been an active man. Over the past decade he’s walked and cycled the length and breadth of Ireland (literally), as well as taking part in charitable events abroad. In Umhlanga, near Durban in South Africa, he discovered a warm welcome – in all senses of the word – as a centuries old debt was repaid when the local people, remembering how a group of Irish miners from Tipperary, helped them defeat the British during the Zulu Wars, offered support and local knowledge. ‘There’s a long promenade there called the O’Connor Promenade and the nearest village is actually called McCarthy’s!’ Eugene grins. It seems you really never are far from home.
A passport bursting at the seams with international stamps – including Hungary, Italy, Canada, the USA, Finland, Spain, Portugal and even Santa’s Village in the Arctic Circle – has ensured Eugene has plenty of stories to tell – and the pictures to prove it.
There’s the time he crossed the Finnish / Swedish border, determined to get a photo of himself with a sign saying ‘Welcome to Sweden’, only to discover the only sign for miles around read ‘IKEA.’ The time he spent hours trying to find a reindeer and was immensely disappointed when the one he did find ‘didn’t look like one of Santa’s at all. It had shed its antlers and was one of the scabbiest looking things I’ve ever seen’ The time, in Kemi, Finland, when he decided to ‘sleep out’ in the forest and became a veritable feast for the local insect population (he now carries a can of DEET wherever he goes), or the time he was escorted into town by the local fire brigade.
Eugene’s fundraising odysseys for the Chernobyl Children’s Trust stem from his relationship with one man, namely Simon Walsh of Whitegate, who’s been actively involved with the charity for many years. Simon’s grandmother, Mary Rumley, was like Eugene’s ‘second mum’ and Eugene has visited Belarus to see the work being done on the ground in an area that, to this day, still lives under the brutal aftermath of the Chernobyl Disaster. ‘I’d gone over to do a fundraising cycle,’ Eugene states, ‘and this children’s home needed a new roof as, due to wiring catching fire, the shower rooms and laundry were completely unusable. People were working until two and three in the morning by torchlight to get the job done. There’s 230 children living in this one building and I wanted to do more – they needed more showers because, the way things were, there was only the opportunity for each child to get one shower a week. Back in Ireland, a local restaurant owner held a fundraising dinner because he’d seen me doing charity cycles on the stationery bike on the pier in Howth. He raised €4,000 and that was the roofing materials paid for – all the labour was voluntary.’
Working with Max, an interpreter, who’s visited East Cork numerous times with the East Cork Chernobyl Children’s Group, Eugene’s time in Belarus made him realise how worthwhile everyone’s fundraising is. ‘I gave Max €100 as a donation to the children’s home,’ Eugene recalls, ‘and, the next day, I was presented with two bin-liners full of nappies, cloths and babycare products – and then I was given a receipt. I couldn’t believe the traceability that goes on. Every penny is accounted for and every penny is spent where it should be spent.’ He recalls one young man offering to help out with the roofing work but, because he was wearing Crocs, was unable to participate. ‘I sent him away to put on some sturdier shoes,’ Eugene notes, ‘but he kept on coming back with the same ones, again and again. In the end, I said it to Max and he didn’t even bother asking the young man what was going on. Instead, Max just said, “They’re the only ones he has.”‘
Having set foot in countless countries, walking hills, valleys, mountains, forests and even the occasional dual carriageway in his never-ceasing determination to raise funds, it’s strange to think that the early part of Eugene’s life was spent on less than firm ground.
Leaving Whitegate in his late teens, Eugene went to work as a Lighthouse Keeper for 11 years. An isolated, yet worthwhile, existence, Eugene – with a young family – then ‘went fishing for a while’, before landing a job as Captain of a ship, the Carrig Rennan, in Cobh, with Marine Transport. ‘We were transporting steel primarily from Haulbowline to the UK,’ Eugene recalls. After that, he took up a position working with the Port Radio Station in Dublin.
We look confused. Do ships have their own radio stations? Is ‘We Are Sailing’ played on a regular basis?
Thankfully, before we dig the hole any deeper, Eugene kindly explains: ‘It’s like air traffic control for ships.’
After the passing of his daughter, Helen, Eugene took retirement and, since then, has devoted himself completely to raising funds for those in need. His early days may have involved offering a guiding light to those in peril on the sea, but his mission now shines just as brightly.
Recently, Eugene completed the Camino de Santiago, or Pilgrim’s Walk – in this case, cycle – a journey to the shrine of the Apostle, St. James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwest Spain, where tradition holds that the remains of the saint are buried. Many walk the route as a form of spiritual path – a pilgrimage, so to speak. For Eugene, every step or every mile going forward, gave him the opportunity to think of the past. He doesn’t listen to music on his travels. Instead, he appreciates the beauty of the world around him, whether the ‘butterflies and the bees’ or a night spent staring at the stars. ‘In Dublin, there’s too much light pollution,’ he muses, ‘so to lie down and be able to see all the stars in the sky at night is really quite something.’
In the play ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ by Tennessee Williams, the despondent heroine Blanche Dubois notes, ‘I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.’
While Eugene is neither despondent nor female, Ms. Dubois’s words ring true.
Whether being handed a Mars Bar in the middle of nowhere; being offered a lift (he politely declines); getting the best room in a hotel because someone met him on the road and called ahead to the next town or, as during this walk, losing his mobile phone and sending the people of Kilkenny into a frenzy, determined to get it back to him – they did, Eugene is constantly reminded that having faith in human nature is not a pointless exercise.
Next month, he hopes to complete the Portuguese Camino Walk armed with, amongst other necessary items, his DEET and a bottle of baby shampoo. ‘The sewage pipes got blocked in Belarus and this young fella was sent down to unclog them. You can imagine what he looked like – and smelled like – when he came back up, so I handed him a bottle of baby shampoo. He took a tiny bit and started rubbing it on his t-shirt. I said, “No, no, it’s yours! Use as much as you want.” He used the whole bottle. It took forever to get the suds to stop! Still, it’s a handy thing to bring with me!’
Eugene arrived in Whitegate last Saturday, August 15th, perhaps bowing his head in silent remembrance at the Whitegate Memorial, where those who lost their lives in combat are immortalised, including members of Eugene’s family. The day had even more resonance for Eugene – it was his late daughter Helen’s birthday – and, like those who wished him well, offered sustenance or suggested turning left at the crossroads instead of right, she was with him every step of the way.
Perhaps the most fitting line to encapsulate Eugene’s ongoing fundraising comes from the poet Robert Frost, who once wrote, ‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.”