Irish man walks 2,500km home from Austria to raise awareness after mother loses dementia battle
An Irishman is almost home after walking an incredible 2,500km from Austria, all in the name of charity.
Musician and English language teacher Eamonn Donnelly (50) left his adoptive home in Graz, Austria on June 17 and spent over 70 days crossing Germany, France, England and Wales before landing in Ireland late last week.
He has been joined on this epic trek by his friend and fellow musician Sepp Tieber-Kessler. Now the pair are on their final leg as they make their way up Ireland’s east coast, first to Dublin, where Sepp will board a flight home to Austria, and finally on to Eamon’s hometown of Keady, Co Armagh.
The adventurous pair hatched the plan over a pint and Mr Donnelly revealed that they decided to do it in aid of dementia research after his mother Margaret died, aged 71, three years ago after suffering a rare and aggressive form of the disease.
“My mother was a very active woman, she was always trying to make things better in the community. She was a problem solver,” he said.
Mr Donnelly explained that his mother raised seven children before returning to school as a mature student and achieving first her O Levels and then her A Levels.
Not satisfied to leave her education there, Margaret went on to Queen's University in Belfast where she completed a degree and then a Masters.
“She was an incredible woman, so positive at home and in her community.”
But five years ago Mr Donnelly, his siblings and their father started to notice dramatic changes in the once powerful Margaret.
“She was 69 when we first started to see changes. She was losing words, she stopped reading, she couldn’t write anymore. She loved to paint and this regressed to buying ‘colouring in’ books.
"It really went downhill from there until she couldn’t speak at all.
“It was also a physical impact; by the end she couldn’t even swallow properly.”
Mr Donnelly, a father of three, summarised: “Within two years she went from being a really powerful woman to being weak and dependent on other people to look after her.”
Margaret Donnelly died in 2014, leaving behind her husband, seven children and a huge legacy.
Asked if his mother would be proud of his current hiking challenge or think he was crazy Mr Donnelly ponders.
“My mum was this kind of woman who was selfless. She never made a complaint. I think she would definitely be all up for it. My dad is dead proud of me.”
It’s not been easy for the Irishman and his Austrian buddy and Mr Donnelly tells Independent.ie that they completely underestimated the scale of the task ahead.
Setting out from Graz, in South East Austria on June 17 the pair faced one of their toughest challenge almost at the start of their journey.
Europe’s largest mountain range The Alps stood in between them and Germany so they needed to cross the imposing mountains.
The Alps were extremely difficult in that we were gaining such height but they were also so beautiful.
After several days in Germany, where they could speak the native tongue, the pair entered France in July and spent almost a month crossing through the country.
Mr Donnelly admits that this was perhaps the most difficult region to negotiate.
“We were in France about a month and we struggled with the language and not having any contacts in the area.
“We spent many nights sleeping rough so that was tough.”
Due to the length of the journey the pair have been forced to pack light. Their rucksacks weigh between 10kg and 12kg, depending on food and water. They have just two-three t-shirts each, a pair of trousers, one pair of shorts and couple of changes of socks.
Mr Donnelly has a one-man tent while Mr Tieber-Kessler sleeps in a hammock with a tarpaulin that keeps him dry at night.
While they are not looking for handouts the pair admit that they have been the recipients of some incredible hospitality.
“The best part about this whole journey has been the people, they have been absolutely great,” he told Independent.ie.
“Most of the people we have spoken to have someone in the family with dementia, it has shown us just how prevalent this disease is.
“Total strangers have put us up in their homes. They have wined us and dined us and we have shared stories. It’s sustenance for the body and the soul.”
The walkers made it to Northern France off their own steam but were forced, at this point, to take a ferry to England.
“We looked at options, like walking through the service route in the Channel Tunnel and kayaking from Scotland to Northern Ireland but neither of these were a realistic option. We had to bite the bullet and take a boat.”
In England the walkers received huge help from the Alzheimer's Society and this support has continued here through the The Alzheimer Society of Ireland
The pair are now looking for people to share a leg of their journey as they make their way along the east coast of Ireland. Last night they stayed in Arklow, Co Wicklow and they are currently heading towards Dublin.
Mr Tieber-Kessler will take a flight home from Dublin but Mr Donnelly will continue on to Ardee, Carrickmacross and Castleblaney, before eventually crossing into Northern Ireland for the final few miles to Keady.
They have been raising cash along the way but, more importantly, raising awareness.
"We have raised in the region of €5,000 altogether. It’s not huge but maybe we can get up closer to €10k. What’s more important is to get people talking about dementia."
You can follow their progress on 'The Long Walk Home for Dementia Research' and donate here