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25 May 2022

Anraí Ó Domhnaill discusses the ups and downs of his magnificent voyage

A truly heroic and remarkable journey around the coast of Ireland

Anraí Ó Domhnaill discusses the ups and downs of his magnificent voyage

A mammoth ninety-seven days of finswimming around the coast of Ireland in challenging and erratic weather conditions came to an end on Saturday as Anraí Ó Domhnaill (Henry O’Donnell) arrived at Carrickfinn after completing a magnificent expedition. 

The idea for the expedition came to fruition in 2006 when Mr O’Donnell, a qualified diver, led a relay swim for charity around the country. At that point, Mr O’Donnell, was inspired to finswim around the country - an event which would combine his swimming skills and vast diving experience. 

The expedition became a reality and Anraí decided that he and his team would like to raise funds for two worthy charities, the Irish Cancer Society and Water Safety Ireland. 

There was a scientific element to the expedition as well as the PIER Project, NUIG,Galway monitored the swim under the stewardship of Professor Dervla Morris and Doctor Liam Burke. 

He said: “I was directly participating in the programme with them - the expedition had a scientific element to it as well.”

Extensive training

The event took an enormous amount of planning; to prepare Anraí had to undertake one year of training, swimming in various weather conditions, sea conditions, working out rescue plans and safety strategies for the expedition, safety was the number one priority for Anraí and the team, at all times.  

Training was also given for finswimming in conditions where Anraí may have been sleep deprived. Anraí said such training would have come into action when they had to catch a 2am tide for weather conditions. He also recognises that the team had to work under the same difficult and adverse conditions. 

“I am only a cog in a wheel. It was very, very tough on the crew as well. We had a crew that had to endure what I had to endure. They had to be well prepared, have the vessel ready and be kitted out. This type of expedition shouldn’t be attempted unless you are one-hundred per cent prepared and safety always has to be the number one priority.”

The journey begins

At 2pm on September 17, 2020, a prepared and excited team took off from the north side of Castlefinn blue flag beach. The weather was absolutely stunning, the crew enjoyed  Mediterranean type weather as they set off in a clockwise direction towards Bloody Foreland. The swim was being technically tracked and distance was being measured on a daily basis. 

The team enjoyed their first moments at sea with dolphins swimming by, smacks of jellyfish floating past and the beauty of oceanic life began to present itself to them. Anraí recalled the sunlight underwater creating imagery similar to twinkling stars on a midnight sky. They encountered blue sharks near Tory and as they traveled further they were met by fleets of basking sharks. 

Challenging times

However, by the second and third day, the team were quickly reminded of their training and were cognitive that challenging times lay ahead. Anraí recalls that the Tory Sound was one of the more formidable areas he had to traverse but appreciates his crew helped immensely; he had Tory men onboard; skipper Willie Duggan, Pádraig Ó Dubhgáin and Brendan Toland.

“We based ourselves on Tory for a few days at the start even though we continued progressing. Tory is an island close to my heart, I would have been swimming out to Tory over the years doing charity swims. This inspired me to a certain extent. We were so happy to be able to meet the people of the fantastic island. Even though we were on the expedition, we had time to sing a few old sean-nós songs and spoke to students at the school on the island in an informal educational talk outside. That was very special as the children were very excited to hear about the sea creatures they had on their own coast.”

Onward bound

Anraí’s daughters were onboard for the first phase of the journey, Róise Ní Dhomhnaill and Gráinne (lifeguard).

The team progressed around Malin Head enjoying the majestic seascapes, past the famous Fanad lighthouse and towards Rathlin Island. Anraí found the swim through Rathlin Sound extremely challenging although conditions were favourable. Around the coast of Northern Ireland, people came out to support as much as the pandemic began to take hold. 

At all times, the team had to ensure that their navigation was being relayed to marine organisations. Every few days, the team would have briefings to discuss issues, such as progress and equipment. They progressed down the Irish sea into the north channel which was particularly cold, dark and dreary and at times Anraí couldn't see his hands in front of him as he swam. The Giants Causeway began to appear, starboard side, as they used the tidal flow to their advantage as they voyaged past the famous Antrim coast. 

They operated, at times, quite a distance off the coast, in particular off the east coast. They soon could see the Mountains of Mourne. Later, the team could see the Sugarloaf mountains in the distance and the Dublin mountains. 

Choppy

The Irish sea was calmer than the west but that didn’t mean it made it easier to finswim as when the water is choppy it presents its own challenges.  

Travelling around Newry and Drogheda, the team enjoyed amazing support from people. They had to acquire special permission to get into Dublin as Marianas were closed due to the pandemic. The team enjoyed reaching the significant landmark of Howth harbour. Anraí enjoyed a swim of honour at the Forty Foot in Dublin. Restrictions were in place and everyone was carried out in line with restrictions, at that time. 

“This happened along the coast within the perimeters of safety. We were all covid checked. We couldn’t allow anyone other than the crew onto the vessel. If we got onto port we had to plan ahead we got supplies delivered to the pier and picked them up at a certain point. The expedition had to comply with all restrictions operating at sea which we did,” he recalled. 

Beidh a chuid fhéin ag an fharraige 

They travelled past the famous Arklow bank and towards Rosslare southeast bound. Having calculated tides correctly they passed Tuskar Rock and that is when the swim became extra challenging for Anraí. He had to maintain extreme concentration as the current flowed in one direction and a secondary current from the starboard tried to twist him around: “This is where the training comes in, you need to know how to manage that - the sea is a powerful force of nature, it is beautiful and formidable but you need to treat it with disrespect.” 

He recalled an old Irish proverb, ‘beidh a chuid féin ag an fharraige - the sea will claim her own.’

The Tory men on the crew were used to the changing moods of the ocean and were excellent additions to the crew. 

Tribute to those lost at sea

At Kilmore Quay, the crew paid a fitting Christmas day tribute to all those who lost their lives at sea. Anraí recalled the stories of tragedy at Hook Head: “There was so much tragedy there - that was special for the community but it was special for us too as a team. It was another element to the expedition and to acknowledge all those lost at sea in tragic circumstances.”

The sub aqua team at Hook Heaven were so helpful to the team and the finswim crew were exceptionally grateful. 

Pandemic brings expedition to a stop

They left from Kilmore Quay and based at Dunmore east. Pandemic numbers began to increase and the expedition members couldn’t get the supplies they wanted and their efforts were becoming extremely restricted. In the end, it was agreed, like many other expeditions on a global scale to discontinue; “We had no choice but to stop because of disruption to the expedition. So many expeditions had been wiped out at that point. The team was resilient and wanted to keep the mission going so much but it wasn’t to be. We feel proud to have moved it on - we feel that the team was very respectful to everything that was going on. A hold was put on it at the end of January 2021.” 

Expedition starts again


The expedition got back on track in September 2021 having lost eight months. They began, once again, off the coast of Bunmahon, Waterford.The team were speaking Irish on the voyage and enjoyed visiting the Waterford Gaeltacht. The team also had a GAA ball, a sliotar and a hurling on their boat and a high point of the expedition was when Mick O’Dwyre gave them a signed football. 

Eugene de Buraca and Brian Fleming of the Irish Coast Guard were also pivotal players in getting the expedition started again.

The famous Ballycotton lighthouse in Cork also signalled a significant milestone on their journey. The crew enjoyed seeing all the famous lighthouses along the coast on their voyage. Soon, they came around the head of Kinsale, heading for the most southerly point of Ireland. However, the weather took a turn for the worst and one day they were only afforded a five-hour window of finswimming as a rainstorm hit. The team had now left the ancient east behind them and were beginning to travel west on the Wild Atlantic Way. Anraí swam past Toe Head and it was then he could see the Portuguese Man of War in the ocean. Anraí wasn’t afraid of the deadly sea creatures, he understood how to navigate safely around them. It was October 2021 and the crew were enjoying one week of calm weather: “It seemed like someone had turned on the good weather for a week - we made such good progress.”

Commemorating those who dies at sea

In Skibbereen, Anraí took time out to speak to the Irish Olympic rowing team and felt it such an honour to be asked to speak. His nice leg of the journey brought him to the famous Fastnet Rock, Carraig Aonair where once again the conscientious team held a  commemoration for all those who lost their lives tragically at sea. 

It was a special moment as they headed towards Mizen Head, then on towards Fair Head and around Cork and towards Dursey at the top of the Beara peninsula.Their journey then brought them towards the famous Skelligs: “These are phenomenal places to finswim around. It was so special. We had phenomenal support from the expedition team in Kerry based in Portmagee. They were unbelievable; they knew the area so well. These are some of the most treacherous areas in western europe,” he said. 

The team were extremely appreciative of Gearóid Moran and his crew who knew how to safely navigate the oceans at these junctures: “Without their support we wouldn't have made it.” The Kerry sub-aqua club was also a source of great encouragement. 

Anraí swam through the Blasket sound in favourable weather conditions and progressed to Kerry head as they sailed around the coast they could see the famous Kerry mountains rising high into the sky. 

The Macbel 

In January 2022, the team got across the mouth of the Shannon from Kerry Head to Loop Head and were supported there by Alan Brown and his crew. They progressed steadily on over the early months of 2022, tipping the Aran islands to starboard, and Anraí also enjoyed the opportunity of talking to primary and secondary school students in Inis Meáin. Later they journeyed around Slyne head and up along the Galway and Mayo coast towards Achill where they enjoyed more support from Pat Cowman and the Macbel expedition vessel. 

Anraí described the Macbel as a great boat which contributed immensely to the expedition. 


Anyone who brought up a voluntary boat had to cover fuel oil and food. Belcross sponsored the boat from Mayo to Donegal. Henry and the team are so supportive to all of the people who provided boats around the coast of Ireland and the voluntary crew members who helped. The team soon moved from Achill island into the Gaeltacht of Belmullet where they paid a fitting tribute to the rescue 116 crew who tragically lost their lives.

“In terms of finswimming, it was very challenging around the coast of Mayo and we made our way over the last number of weeks from the north coast of Mayo to Donegal bay towards Teileann, it took about almost a week to get from north Mayo to the west of Teileann. It was very tough going without the big expedition vessel we wouldn't have been able to do it. Then in the last few weeks, we travelled up along the Donegal coast. It was very special to see the hills of Donegal again. It inspired us to drive on and try and achieve our mission,” he said. 

The team had suffered a number of setbacks such as the pandemic, inclement weather, rough seas but the war in Ukraine brought with it another dimension as the price of oil increased it also had an adverse effect on the team.  

“When we reached the Teileann Gaeltacht, we were back on home ground. It was very warm. You knew you were back at home when people gave you tea and homemade brown bread at the pier,” Anraí said laughing.

From Gaeltacht to Gaeltacht  

The team had travelled from the Black Sod, Gaeltacht in Mayo to the Teileann Gaeltacht. Anraí thought it fitting that they had travelled from Gaeltacht to Gaeltacht as the Irish language had played a significant role in their journey. 

As they came nearer to home, Anraí wanted to finswim more but the team held the excited swimmer back. The team landed on Arranmore Island where they enjoyed a huge welcome. They marked the occasion by laying a wreath for all those who lost their lives at sea. West of Owey Island, the team watched as the majestic Errigal came into view: “I knew I was home. Near Owey Island, I could see the aircrafts taking off and landing and we knew we were heading in to our swimming and that inspired the whole team. 

As Anraí and his team jubilantly arrived in Carrickfinn on Saturday swimmers from across the county met him. Paddy Connaghan who famously ducked and dived along the coast was also present to meet them. The Galileo vessel was present as was the much-valued Macbel under the direction of skipper Paddy Cowman.The Macbel was proudly positioned offshore. Carrickfinn watersports organised by Fiona McGinley were present. The Irish Coastguard, Bunbeg and Mountain Rescue were present as was the Gweedore rowing club. 

Anraí’s son, Chris O Donnell and his two grandsons, Odhrán, aodhan were present to enjoy  his homecoming. The rescue helicopter came in to mark the momentous occasion.Members of the Civil Defence were also delighted to be present. Leading members of Water Safety Ireland, Roger Sweeney and Ena Barret of the Irish Cancer Society were present. Over €46,000 has been raised for the well-deserving charities. 

Naomh Mhuire GAA club had set up an area for the event. Anraí had played underage with the team. Councillor Noreen mc garvey spoke on behalf of Donegal County Council and Nora Flanagan spoke on behalf of the RNLI. “It was a really joyful occasion for the whole team. In short, the mission has been achieved by the team - I was a player on the team - I would love to thank everyone - and anyone who assisted in any way during the challenging times when it wasn’t easy for anybody,” he said. 

Follow your dreams

He encouraged people who have a plan to help charities to continue to achieve that plan: “Even in times of adversity it can happen. It is achievable. There is a fantastic lesson there for people whether in sport or business - don’t be downhearted when it doesn't go well for you,” he said. 

His journey has been one of accomplishment and hope and there are schools and colleges who would like to learn more from him about his journey. He urged anyone who would like him to speak to contact the website or on email.  

He thanked all members of his team profusely for all their help and hard work. 

“I would like to thank all of those involved in the expedition and the various crews who participated. I would also like to thank our sports therapist karolina szpunar. I would like to thank all the people who helped in any way or who donated to the charities and people who helped the team with fuel cost and logistics and food.” he said.

He would also like to thank John Doherty, President of Rolst Construction Corp., Áine Fishing Company, Kay Mahon and friends, Brian O'Neill and all those who contributed. He gave a special message of thanks to Sarah Doherty, Calhame team member for her outstanding support.

He also thanked those at Donegal Airport for their efforts. Last of all but definitely not least, he thanked the most senior member of this team, Gertie O’Donnell, who helped with logistics. 


 

 

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