In the early spring of 2016, Eamonn Keaveney embarked on a barefoot journey that would take him 1,292 miles (2,080 kilometers) across Ireland. He set out on this walk to raise money for an organization called Pieta House, which focuses on preventing suicide and self-harm within the country — a cause that Eamonn cares about deeply, since the suicide rate among young people in Ireland is alarmingly high.
He ventured from his hometown of Claremorris to Galway, Cork, and Waterford, across the Wicklow Mountains, into Northern Ireland, and through Donegal — shoeless, with only the bare essentials strapped to his back. Fourteen weeks later, he reached his final destination, breaking the world record for the longest barefoot walk ever. He called the voyage “Baring My Soles.”
We caught up with Eamonn to talk about his journey along the Irish coast and the transformative power of “barefooting.”
When did you first get the idea to walk the coast of Ireland?
That’s sort of a long story; the idea evolved organically over time. It actually goes back to 2014, when I climbed Croagh Patrick barefoot. There’s a traditional climb every year on the last Sunday in July, and many participants choose to do it without shoes. My friend Killian and I did it for the challenge and, while there, I thought it’d be pretty cool to continue on and climb the highest peak in each province of Ireland. But I never actually did that. It was one of those instances where life just got in the way.
Later, I walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain — partially barefoot, but not all — and was inspired again. A quick look on Google Maps told me that the point-to-point route that connected Ireland’s peaks would be about a thousand kilometers. So I forgot about the idea again.
And finally, one day while sheltering in a bookstore from the rain, I chanced upon the Guinness Book of Records and read that the existing record for the longest barefoot journey was 1,488.09 kilometers, which was completed by Michael Essing. From there, it just sort of clicked and I thought, Yeah, this is what I’m gonna do.
How soon after did you actually start planning your trip?
I more or less sat on the idea for a year, mentioning it to a couple of friends in passing but never making any serious statements about attempting it. Then, at one point in 2015, I realized that “some day” might never come, so I decided to do it the following year, in summer 2016. I first applied for the record on the Guinness World Records’ website, and then set to work training my feet, buying equipment, and planning my route. I didn’t really tell anyone what I was planning until September of 2015 — I remember telling my family and being told that it was a ridiculous idea that would probably kill me.
It’s funny, though, because it didn’t feel “real” until I went into work and told my boss I wouldn’t be around during the summer. It was then that I realized I was actually going to do it.
What made you choose Pieta House? Was it connected to you personally in some way?
I chose Pieta House for a couple of reasons: they exist all around the country, they have an excellent reputation at a time when trust in charities is quite low, and they do great work with those suffering from suicidal thoughts, which is the essential connection, really. I lost a friend to suicide back in 2013 and, ultimately, all I can really say is that it sucks. Afterward, you realize that they were going through hell, and you simply had no idea. You’re left wondering if you should have picked up on some sign or done something to help. But there are no answers. Pieta House is one of several excellent charities in Ireland that is doing its best to support those who are struggling with such thoughts, which is why I chose to walk for them in particular.
Why did you decide to do the walk barefoot?
Barefooting was actually something I’d been doing on and off for a couple of years (i.e. jogging, and the occasional bit of hiking). Initially, I’d heard it was better for you than wearing shoes, but after a while, I started to appreciate the feeling of freedom that being barefoot gives. Unfortunately, that “freedom” is mostly only pleasant when the ground is well-paved, flat, and dry. The reality of walking barefoot over long distances and rough terrain isn’t great.
So why do it around Ireland? I suppose it’s because it adds a challenging element to the experience. And then there was the whole record thing — if I did it, I’d have completed the longest documented barefoot journey ever, which seemed really cool. And to top it off, there was a sort of unintentional metaphorical quality in the idea of walking a great distance without shoes, exposing oneself to discomfort, and having to push through it.
How did you plan your route?
First, I got a road map of Ireland and just sat down with a pen. I marked the four mountains — at that point, I still intended to do them on the way. I traced a path through the countryside, marking places of interest, major towns, and so on. I went a bit out of my way to see the Cliffs of Moher, for example, when I could’ve just gone directly south, which would’ve been faster.
I’d decided that I wanted to walk a nice, even 2,000 kilometers. I wanted to comfortably beat the old record but with a round number. After I’d drawn-up a mock map on paper, I plotted out the whole distance online — and it ended up being just about 2,000 kilometers! I made only a couple minor revisions after that. And later, when I was actually walking, I ended up following the route I’d laid out (with the exception of the mountains — I decided early on that I was taking on a little too much there!).
Originally, you planned to camp nearly every night, but ended up hardly camping at all — can you tell me about the hospitality you found along your route?
I camped three times in three-and-a-half months, which is nothing. And I only paid for a place to stay about five other times. I was put up by people the vast majority of the time.
It totally surprised me, especially at the beginning since I had this idea that I was going to camp all the time. It was unexpected to have a roof over my head every night. But more than that, my entire outlook on people changed. Before, I thought that most people were fairly all right, while others were either really kind or really not. But after a certain point in my journey, I began to think that the vast majority of people are good-natured and generous — that really, if they see that you’re in need, they’ll help you. And they usually want nothing in return. Even when I thanked people, they often reacted with a shrug and a, “Why wouldn’t I?”
It wasn’t just being given a bed, though. I often had people bring me food, water, or kind words. And people were donating to the fundraiser, too. More than once, on sunny days, I had people hand me ice cream from their car windows! So I’ve clocked-up quite a debt of gratitude.
The people I met along the way also reshaped my journey. Instead of walking as far as I could in a given day and setting up my tent in a field, I started walking to whatever town was a reasonable day’s walk away, and I always found a place to stay. This also gave me a destination to aim toward each day, rather than the vague “walk until you feel like stopping” idea, which probably would’ve led to me only walking two miles each day.
Was there a particular interaction from your journey that stuck with you?
I experienced acts of hospitality every day, so there are quite a lot. At one point, while walking along the southern coast, I was treated to a chain of accommodations at different people’s houses without any prior connection. While staying at one person’s house, I was asked if I had anywhere to stay the following evening; I didn’t, so I said I’d bust out the tent. They told me to hold on and made a phone call to a friend a couple of towns over, and just like that, I had somewhere to stay. The same thing happened three or four days in a row — it was touching to be taken care of like that. And now, I have a long list of people to visit around the island for a cup of tea the next time I’m nearby.
Another time, up in the north, I arrived in Coleraine, where the Lodge Hotel was putting me up. I had no plans for the evening other than showering, having dinner, and going to bed early. But I got to talking to a couple of English people outside, and ended up being invited to a local woman’s 90th birthday party, along with four generations of her relatives from all over Britain and Ireland. Having been mostly alone for the previous couple of weeks, it came at just the right time, and was lovely to be accepted into a family gathering like that — I really will cherish the memory for the rest of my life. We ended up partying till about three in the morning. To the Jackson clan, cheers!
Taking the long way ’round definitely gives you time to think and take in your surroundings. How did walking the coast allow you to appreciate Ireland more?
I discovered that there are beautiful places in every corner of the island. It was a great privilege to walk around Ireland and see so many wonderful places. Nowadays, people, myself included, rarely see anything of their own countries. In fact, I had only been to a fraction of the places I ended up walking through.
My route wasn’t entirely coastal, though. It went around the perimeter of the country, and I never went more than a couple of days without seeing the sea. I’m glad of it too, because the coast offers a dazzling array of beauty, from cliffs to beaches, to hidden coves. And no matter how many cliffs and inlets I saw, I never grew tired of them.
Did you have a favorite region?
I walked through a lot of beautiful places, but there was something magical about the Beara Peninsula. It’s just south of the Iveagh Peninsula — where the popular Ring of Kerry route is, and the Lakes of Killarney — but it seems like an overlooked gem. There’s a trail down there, which was a real treat; it goes right down to the end of the peninsula and back out, threading through the mountains from each little town to the next. I specifically remember walking along an old disused copper mine track toward the end of the peninsula and stumbling upon an opening in the rocks that looked down over the Atlantic. There was nothing but water stretching all the way to the horizon. I sat there for about 20 minutes in awe.
How did your feet hold up?
Not too well at the beginning! The first two or three weeks were fairly brutal. Even when I stopped walking, my feet would still sting from being battered by the road. It started to wear through the balls of my feet where they made contact with the ground, which was always the most sensitive spot. I got tendonitis in my right foot as well, which made me walk funny, and consequently, my left arch swelled up, so I walked even funnier. That slowly started to go away after a few weeks, so by the time I was halfway through the journey, my feet were a lot tougher and I was walking much faster. But still, my feet never really got used to it. All it took was a bad road surface or a well-positioned pointy stone to slow me back down.
What was the most influential part of this experience for you?
This is a difficult question to answer. In a certain way, it was life-changing — not in some grand, mystical sense but in a more subtle way that I’m still experiencing. When I feel low, I can remind myself that I made it, that I got up off my arse and actually did something instead of putting it off indefinitely, and that I made it through some really challenging moments. It reminds me that big, difficult things are possible, albeit with the help of other people!
This brings me back to what I said earlier, and probably the biggest lesson I learned, which is that the majority of people are generous and giving, and they care about other people. They want to help others. It’s a very heartwarming thought.
What’s it like to break a world record?
The moment of breaking it was strange because it happened early in the morning in a place called Ballynahinch, but I still had to walk to Belfast that day. So although I was fairly chuffed to beat it, my immediate thoughts were, Okay, you’ve beaten the record. Now get to Belfast. I suppose, it wasn’t just about beating the record but about setting my own, and I still had weeks of walking left before I reached home. It was surreal; I knew I’d broken it, but it didn’t really sink in for a while.
It’s a bit different now because I have the certificate hanging on the wall of my bedroom, so there’s always a reminder of what’s possible if you’re determined, or really stubborn.
Do you have any barefoot plans for the future?
I’d say I have ideas rather than plans. A few people said that I’d eventually feel the itch to do something like it again, and, well, they were right. But doing something really big is a while away, I think. In the meantime, I’m planning something small for this summer. It sort of goes back to the original plan of climbing those four mountains. I’ve decided to go back and take care of them, with a few more summits thrown in for good measure.