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How death of his soulmate wife inspired Northern Ireland man's gruelling fundraiser treks

Dermot Breen has published three books and completed three epic walks in memory of his late wife, raising over £43,000 for cancer research. He talks to Leona O'Neill

Dermot Breen at his home in Belfast
Dermot Breen at his home in Belfast
Dermot with daughter Hannah as he arrives back at Greenisland Primary School following his 1,000k Ulster Way walk in 2015

A father-of-two who lost his wife to ovarian cancer in 2015 has completed another gruelling walking adventure in her memory - and written a book about his journey.

Dermot Breen set off on the tough and challenging trek through Ireland last summer as he continued to grieve for wife Jacqui, who died in January 2015, just 10 months after being diagnosed with cancer.

During the gruelling 700-mile jaunt the Omagh man, who lives in Belfast, endured a heatwave, thick fog, a cattle stampede and a debilitating injury.

But he battled on with thoughts of Jacqui in his head and arrived at her graveside in Ballycastle, honouring a promise to complete the walk in her memory and raise funds for Cancer Research UK.

Dermot and Jacqui on their last holiday together in Bundoran in 2014
Dermot and Jacqui on their last holiday together in Bundoran in 2014

Dermot (58), a retired senior manager with two children, Matthew (28) and Hannah (25), says Jacqui was the strongest woman he knew.

The former teacher at Greenisland Primary School spent the last three days of her life in hospital.

"Jacqui's treatment was going really well for a time," he says.

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"But then it just stopped working and things went downhill very suddenly after that.

"We were together for 35 years. We had met in our first year at Queen's University. We were married for 28 years. She was my soulmate.

"We were two peas in a pod. We were on the same wavelength and very, very comfortable with each other. We just got on so well and she was very easy to live with.

"Our outlook on life was very similar and it was just a fabulous relationship.

"I miss her greatly. After spending that length of time with someone so close to you, it's like losing a part of your own body.

"We had a bit of time to prepare for her death, because we were told two months before she died that this was only heading the one way and that treatment was no longer effective.

Dermot Breen and his wife Jacqui on their wedding day in 1987
Dermot Breen and his wife Jacqui on their wedding day in 1987

"They had tried an alternative treatment which wasn't working.

"And then the dreaded words 'palliative care' were mentioned, and that was the real shock.

"But we had time to adjust and to prepare. Jacqui was great in that she planned for her own funeral service. She was extremely strong. I don't know how she did it.

"She chose hymns and readings and wrote her own obituary to be read out at the service. It was incredibly uplifting.

"You know what's ahead and you try and steel yourself for it. You have made preparations for the service, but nothing prepares you for the void that you are left with after that. You are just left staring into the abyss."

In the midst of his grief Dermot decided that he wanted to do something to honour Jacqui's name and set about fundraising for research into the disease that claimed her.

Dermot and Jacqui on their last holiday together in Bundoran in 2014, and the couple with their children Hannah and Matthew
Dermot and Jacqui on their last holiday together in Bundoran in 2014, and the couple with their children Hannah and Matthew

In 2015 he walked the entire Ulster Way, and the following year he walked the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain.

In 2017 he took a break from long distance walking to concentrate on writing and had two books published charting his physical and emotional journeys since he lost Jacqui.

In his latest book, the third and final chapter in his Pilgrim Trilogy, Dermot tells the story of his epic journey through the hidden heartlands of Ireland, following a route taken by a 17th century Irish Chieftain for much of the way.

The book - Exiles: A Journey Through Ireland From Beara To Ballycastle - speaks of the exile from a life and love you once had.

"The first of my books was very raw and dealt with overwhelming grief," he says.

"The second one was a move towards accepting things. With the title of my third book, I was trying to explain how you are left feeling after a time.

Dermot with daughter Hannah as he arrives back at Greenisland Primary School following his 1,000k Ulster Way walk in 2015
Dermot with daughter Hannah as he arrives back at Greenisland Primary School following his 1,000k Ulster Way walk in 2015

"Once you get over the terrible grief, and even the anger, over what has happened, you are left with a feeling that you have been banished from the life you had. That you have no way back to it.

"And I compared it to being exiled. You are exiled from that life. Not from your country, not from your home, but from the life you had and this love that you had for this person.

"That love is still there, but it is totally unreachable, you just cannot get back to it.

"On the cover of the book is the Children of Lir statue at Ballycastle. The Children of Lir is a legend from Irish mythology and the children were exiled in the legend. And that is where Jacqui was from. So that is the whole reason I wanted to do this particular walk.

"A large section of the book is about a 17th century Irish Chieftain. This was Donal Cam O'Sullivan Beare who led 1,000 of his followers out of Munster in 1603 to escape forces loyal to Elizabeth I in the wake of the disastrous Battle of Kinsale.

"O'Sullivan Beare and his followers had to endure harsh winter conditions, getting lost in snow-covered mountains, almost constant attack by royalist forces and severe injury and death.

During his walk across the north coast of Spain in 2016
During his walk across the north coast of Spain in 2016

"I myself met a lot of challenges following in his footsteps. I had to endure a blistering heatwave in the first part of the walk. For the first couple of weeks I was walking through the heat up over the Cork mountains and there really is no shade or shelter. It was really tough.

"After around two weeks, just north of Tipperary, I had an encounter with a herd of cattle, which was a bit scary. A herd stampeded at me and I made my escape under an electric fence. When I saw them coming at me I turned to duck under the fence, but whatever way I moved, the calf muscle in my leg just popped. The next hour or so was spent hobbling to find a house where I could get some help. It was extremely painful.

"It turned out that it was quite a bad tear and I had to come home for almost four weeks to recover. I was really disappointed and annoyed to have the walk interrupted like that, because my intention was to reach Ballycastle on our wedding anniversary on August 1. That was really shot to pieces. But some things are blessings in disguise. It meant that I arrived in Ballycastle at the time of the Auld Lammas Fair and my friends and family organised a whole range of things when I arrived into the town, which was a lovely and special homecoming."

Dermot says this was the highest point of his epic journey.

The lowest point, he admits, was the start of his gruelling walk in high temperatures, where he wanted to give up. But he says his thoughts of Jacqui kept him going.

"The lowest point for me were the first few days," he says. "Because of the heat I found it really tough going. On the third day I arrived in a little town of Kealkill (Co Cork). I was in the tent and, despite the fact that we were in the middle of a heatwave, it was absolutely freezing. I had never been so cold. I kept all my clothes on, got into the sleeping bag and just lay there freezing. I shivered the whole night through and got up at the crack of dawn and started walking again.

"I was nearly for throwing in the towel at that stage. But thoughts of Jacqui kept me going. Any time I was feeling down like that I just had to remind myself why I was doing this, to raise money for Cancer Research UK.

"The next day I met a man who had been through a similar experience to me, it was a very emotional experience and it brought back a lot of my own journey. I left that village in the rain, with tears in my eyes.

"But the tears were for those who had already fallen and my steps were for those who still had hope. It was hard, it was tough and you are dealing with your own emotions, but, really, I was doing it to try and help people that could still be helped by research into cancer. That is what motivated me to keep going in the end."

Exiles: A Journey Through Ireland From Beara To Ballycastle is available to buy on Amazon, in print or Kindle format, £12.99. All author profits go to support the work of Cancer Research UK. You can also donate to Dermot's fundraising campaign on www.justgiving.com/fundraising/1000k4j

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