By Rose Barrett
Eugene O’Leary may have turned 78 in January – but he is utilising his time in lockdown to plan yet another adventure.
The dad-of-nine from Howth, who is a former lighthouse keeper, is crowd funding so he can head on his travels once again, this time to the idyllic Azores Islands.
Intrepid explorer Eugene told Dublin Gazette: “During my younger seagoing days, I often passed the Azores Islands. I was always fascinated with the white houses on the skyline with their red and orange tiled roofs. I was determined I would go back some day. “
Never a man to be idle, Eugene has decided to do a walking tour of Terceira, located around 1,000 miles west of the coast of Portugal.
He said: “I’m hoping the Covid-19 restrictions will be lifted by the end of August when I plan to walk the 57 mile circuit of the island over five days, with a couple of days to enjoy the local atmosphere and culture too.”
Originally from Whitegate in Cork, Eugene has lived in Howth for the past 46 years.
“I started out as a trainee lighthouse keeper and joined the Irish Lights in 1961,” he revealed. “I was stationed in virtually every lighthouse around the coast, with my last duty being at Hook Head, before I retired in 1973.
“I joined a fishing crew for a year and a half before I went to work with Irish Sea where I furthered my education and qualified as a Ship’s Captain. I worked at sea for 10 years but as my family was growing and Claire doing all at home, I then got a job in port control at Dublin Port. I retired when I was 60.”
Eugene and his wife Claire had nine children, but sadly an infant Claire died at three months; a daughter Sharon died aged 24 of Hodgkins Lymphoma cancer and another daughter Helen died aged 19 in 2002.
Their remaining children are all here in Ireland – Vicky (Wexford), Janice (Balbriggan), James (Swords), Hugh in Balbriggan with Eugene and Jenny living at home.
“My serious fundraising history commenced after Helen’s death,” said Eugene. “Our youngest child, Helen was born with a congenital heart defect. She had a mechanical heart valve inserted at Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital at the age of five and went on to be a high achiever: Head Prefect and Pupil of the Year in her Leaving Cert year.
“She was also my greatest fan and supporter. To date, I’ve raised about €100,000 for Crumlin, mainly through participating in their annual overseas 500k cycling events, 100k a day over five days.”
These cycles have taken Eugene to several continents including South Africa, Europe and the US.
He continued: “In January, I completed a 1,000k walk and raised €7,500 by walking a 10k daily round trip, from the church in Baldoyle and back to Howth, staying within the safety guidelines.”
Eugene also did solo cycles for Crumlin Hospital, from Faro to Evora in Portugal, then across Spain to Pamplona before cycling over the Pyrenees to Bergerac in France.
He pedalled the Camino de Santiago, along with cycling along the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland into Sweden, then down the coast of Finland, before crossing to Helsinki, his last big cycle. Several times, he hiked the Camino Finisterre from Santiago to Muxia and on to Cape Finisterre.
Two buggy pushes across Ireland along with a dinner for 60 people hosted by The Oarhouse in Howth raised another €5,000 for the Chernobyl Children’s Trust, to re-roof the showers and laundry rooms at the orphanage which had been destroyed by fire.
And there’s no sign of Eugene easing up on his fundraising ‘workload’. In recent years, he did several local buggy pushes from Drogheda to Howth, including the ‘Howth Peninsula Steeplechase’, pushing a baby buggy from one church to the next, all in aid of Howth RNLI.
At 78, Eugene feels his big adventures may be slowing down so this could be one of his last. He has budgeted for two nights’ B&B (e100) and a modest allowance for food over seven days at e15 per day.
He said: “I have my flight to Lisbon and onward to Terceira Island paid for, so I’m just fundraising for my flights home with TAP airline and basic expenses. That brings the total needed to around €350. All donations, however small will be really appreciated!”
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