‘So far, so good’ – An Irishwoman’s Diary on Paddy Barry’s sailing adventures

Paddy Barry: memoir

Paddy Barry: memoir


Few sailors would contemplate taking a leaking Galway hooker across the Atlantic Ocean, but then few sailors are quite like Paddy Barry.

Storm Ophelia, let alone Debbie or Darwin, would not raise a hair on his head, if his account of his first sail is to be believed. Neither he nor rugby player Ronan Wilmot “had a clue” about what they were doing, he writes, as they put to sea from Dún Laoghaire harbour, bound for Dalkey Island.

The fresh westerly whipped their dinghy down to the island alright, but the tide had turned when they set out for home. It was “some epic”, Barry recalls, describing the general mayhem in their effort to stay upright.

“Enough’s enough”, Wilmot told him, after they “scraped the outside of the East Pier”, furiously baling water out of the little hull. His crewman never sailed again.

Not Barry, however, who survived many more scrapes with more willing accomplices during his lifetime at sea, up mountains and across oceans in both hemispheres.

“Did you really come from Ireland in that?” was among the remarks he recalls hearing from a Manhattan balcony when his hooker Saint Patrick sailed on to New York in time for July 4th celebrations in 1986. His crew stoked the fire on board to raise more smoke, just to keep the spectators guessing.

Tugboats and fireboats and media cameras had welcomed the first such voyage by an 80-year-old turf boat from Connemara, but skipper and crew were then still quaking after a slightly nervous arrival in Boston. A police boat had “put the shudders on us”, he writes. One of his crew, Kerry poet Danny Sheehy, had been expelled from the US for overstaying a previous visit.

Somehow that detail was conveniently overlooked in the ensuing four days of celebrations, when old Connemara men were said to have shed “salt tears” at witnessing the Conroy-built “bád mór” coming in under full calico sail.

Sheehy, who died in northwest Spain last June after the currach in which he had completed a “camino by sea” from Ireland capsized, shared Barry’s relish for living life on the edge. He also shared his skipper’s sense of humour. On one trip in Barry’s most recent yacht, Ar Seachrán, in the wake of Irish monks, Sheehy fell into conversation with a canon in western Scotland’s Oban cathedral.

“Do ye pray together?”, the canon asked Sheehy.

“No, but we drink together”, was the Kerryman’s reply.

There are many more such anecdotes, many a wit among Barry’s lengthy roll call of crew, but some of the most fascinating sections of the account related to his other life ashore.. His mother, Ursula, was one of the German Ganter family, skilled in clockmaking, who had moved to Ireland from southern Germany in 1856. His father was an inspector of taxes, who had left university early to help pay for his siblings’ education. The couple fostered a young German refugee, Horst Kawalski, in 1946, who went to school with Barry for a year.

Barry studied engineering at University College Dublin, and got his honours degree with the help of an “aide memoire” on his slide rule, he says. He headed to the Balkans and Greece, spent a short time in Los Angeles, and his first real job back home was with Dublin Corporation.

His subsequently transferred to Ascon, where he worked on swimming pools and on the power station at Tarbert island in Co Kerry. While living in Co Kerry with his wife, Mary, he learned how to design an ingenious mouse trap.

“An ordinary man who has enjoyed extraordinary adventures” is how the jacket blurb describes the author, who has won the prestigious Blue Water medal awarded by the Cruising Club of America for his exploits. His love of the sea, of music, of mountains, has taken him from the Arctic to Antarctic, and he was joint skipper of one of the first yachts of its size to successfully navigate the Northwest Passage.

In a description of life on board their yacht, Northabout, built by Mayoman Jarlath Cunnane, Barry sums up his approach to selecting his crew. The “underlying mental state” during that polar trip was “not so much one of dealing with hardship and work in the cold, but one of anxiety – the ‘what-ifs’”, he writes.

“So the crew for journeys such as this have to be somewhat inured to worry, while at the same time not being too cavalier.”

It encapsulates Barry’s own approach – the 75-year-old has more laughter lines than wrinkles, and has been fortunate enough to share his life with a living saint. One might have suspected it, but reading So Far, So Good: An Adventurous Life, published by Liffey Press, confirms that Mary Cleary, nurse, mother of their four children, deserves a ship-hold full of medals. She has to be one most patient and understanding hero.

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