Six steaks a day: Ireland’s strong man
Limerick man is three-time Irish champion, UK champion and has his eye on the World Championships
Breakfast shake – eight eggs, 200g oats, two scoops of protein Pa O’Dwyer leans on a bench, happy out, chatting away like a farmer over a gate. Ireland’s strongest man is a 23-stone block of easy humour, pushing up towards 24 when competition time comes near. “Strongman is the oldest sport in the world,” he smiles as you cock a dubious eyebrow. “Sure go away back to caveman times and that’s how they chose their leader – it was whoever could lift the heaviest stone. I must be a caveman by trade, so.”
We’re in a gym called The Body Building in an industrial estate in Raheen, south of Limerick city. “It’s a grand spot, they leave me train away for nothing. I said to them before Ireland’s Strongest Man that if I win it, you’ve to let me train here for free. They said only if you win it. And sure now I’ve won it three years in a row.”
Today is a non-lifting day but he’s here because he does some personal training to pay the bills. Officially, that’s the day job. In an ideal world, his position at the top of his sport would be enough to keep him but it isn’t. There’s not a lot of juice in being Ireland’s strongest man. There’s not even enough in winning the title of UK’s strongest man, as he did during the summer.
“Ah, it’s not a mainstream sport and there isn’t a whole pile behind it,” he shrugs. “I’m UK strongest man and Ireland’s strongest man. So I’m the best there is, but it’s still not mainstream enough that it would pay me enough. Now, maybe if I was English over in England, the title of UK’s Strongest Man would see you looked after. I’m in the wrong country to be looked after!”
10oz steak, potatoes, veg O’Dwyer is 33. He’s 12 years doing this and doesn’t imagine he’s even halfway through his career. One of his contemporaries in England recently did the biggest squat weight of his life at the age of 48, just the 34 years after lifting for the first time. “I’ll be lifting till they put me in the ground,” O’Dwyer says.
He grew up working on a farm out in Rathkeale and by his early-20s he was working on the roads. It was brutal work, out in all weathers, early starts, no let-up. And when it was done, it was straight to the pub.
“When you’re working on the roads, there’s a heap of drinking that goes along with it,” he says. “You’d be forever going for pints and then back to work the next morning. It was just a constant merry-go-round. Then the girl I was with got pregnant and I said, ‘Shit, I have to straighten myself out here’. I was drinking a lot to be honest and I was going down a bad road.
“I was 21-years-old and I was about 11 stone. I met this fella out one Friday night and I knew that he was into weightlifting. I said, ‘Ah, I need to go to a gym or something some of these days.’ So he said, ‘Look, if you’re interested, come in Monday evening.’ I went in and he gave me a bar to lift and I just loved it instantly. It was the first time in my life that I’d lifted anything like that. That was 12 years ago and I’ve never gone more than three days in the meantime without training. It’s your whole life, really.”
10oz steak, potatoes, veg He fishes out his phone. “Here, did you ever hear of Eddie Hall?” When you give him a blank face in response, O’Dwyer smiles and pulls up YouTube. In the strongman world, Eddie Hall of Stoke-on-Trent is a mythical figure. Back in 2016, Hall did a 500kg deadlift. Half a ton on the bar, lifted, and held at his waist.
In lifting, half a ton is the four-minute mile. The previous world record was 465kg. Adding another 35kg to that was presumed to be beyond human capacity. When Hall declared he was going to do it, the derision inside the bodybuilding community was absolute. No chance, mate. Can’t be done.
“Lo and behold, on the day, he lifted 500kg,” O’Dwyer says. “There were 20,000 people in the crowd, basically there to watch him fail. But he did it. Not a bother on hi . . . well, I won’t say not a bother on him because he passed out straight away.
“He bled from the nose and ears. The pressure overwhelmed his body. Like, the human isn’t supposed to lift half a ton off the ground. When you lift, you take in a deep breath and you hold it and all the blood rushes to your head under that severe amount of pressure.
“Blood poured out his nose, they called the medics on stage straight away. That’s the joys of it. Nobody will do that again. I don’t think you’ll see that matched for 20 years.”
Meal Four, 1.30pm
10oz steak, potatoes, veg From that very first session at the age of 21, lifting flicked a switch he hadn’t realised was even in him. He’d never played any real organised sport before other than the usual stuff at school. But now, all he wanted was competition.
“At the start, it was just trying to be stronger than the guy I was training with. Then it was trying to be stronger than the group of guys around me. Then it was getting bigger. Then it was being the strongest guy in the gym. Each time I got somewhere, I wanted to go further. I loved the idea of getting to be a heavyweight. I reacted to the weights very well. Straight away, I put weight on my shoulders and my back. It just worked.”
The first strongman competition he went to was in Cork sometime around 2011. He hadn’t a clue what to do, or really even about what was involved. He’d seen it on TV around Christmas, the same as everyone. It was all about lifting roll logs and barrels and stones and all that carry-on. He knew what he knew but he didn’t know a lot.
“I landed below and I was one of the smallest men there. I was just going, ‘Jesus, what am I at here?’ These big fat fellas with the beards and everything, they were monsters compared to me. And I just thought I was wasting my time straight away. But I had a crack at it anyway and I nearly won the show.
“The only reason I didn’t was technique. In the last event, the lads that beat me were able to lift the stone better than me because their technique was better. They were more used to it. I came third or fourth or whatever it was, but that set me off. I knew then that if I could keep training and keep improving my technique, that was going to be key to it.”
10oz steak, potatoes, veg The eating is a torture, a seam of misery running through O’Dwyer’s day from long before dawn until well after dusk. In the run up to competition, he needs to hit 10,000 calories a day, four times that of a normal male in his 30s. By mid-afternoon, he will already have consumed over 1,100 grams of red meat along with whatever vegetables and pasta/potatoes he can wash down alongside.
“I haven’t been hungry in seven years,” he says.
He can eat what he likes but what he’d like most of all is to eat nothing. He does it because he has to. Eating is a dutiful and joyless ritual, its sole purpose the feeding of his abundant muscle mass. He has built up so much muscle over the years that it is a gluttonous beast now, always needing more, greedily burning through whatever is put in front of it.
“It’s the worst part of it, definitely,” he says. “I’ve seen myself at midnight cooking a steak and I’d have had six or seven of them eaten already through the day at that stage. And you’d just be chewing it, washing it down with water and on to the next bite. Fill your mouth with steak, chew it, wash it down with water. Fill your mouth with pasta, wash it down with water.”
Two chicken breasts, vegetable and water blended in a shake Some days, when he’s stuck in the gym giving personal training sessions, he doesn’t have time to cook a steak. So he does the only thing he can – he cracks open the chicken and vegetable shake he has brought with him and drinks it down. As a culinary experience it’s an abomination. As a building block in the day of a strongman, it’s a turgid, soul-crushing essential.
Occasionally, he happens upon a treat. He has friends who are hunters so he’s able to source venison from time to time. Another friend is a chef who will often send him some marinated horsemeat burgers or a nice batch of wild boar. But mostly, it’s just a chore. Or worse, a series of chores taking up right up to bedtime.
“If I don’t eat that last steak, the one at 11.30 or whatever, then I’ll go to bed not having eaten since 8.30 or nine o’clock,” he explains. “So by the time I wake up the next day at 6am, you’re talking nine or 10 hours since the last time I ate. With the size of my muscles, even when I’m asleep, they’d be burning away. I could lose anything up to a pound overnight.
“So if I went a week without having that last steak late at night, that could be seven pounds gone. If I went two weeks, that would be a stone of pure muscle gone. I can’t afford to lose that, it would take me far too long to build it back up for competition. So that’s why I have to keep eating that late at night, even though it’s a pain in the hole.”
10oz steak, potatoes, veg You might have seen him on TV. The night before Limerick’s All-Ireland, he was on Up For The Match, yukking it up with Des and Gráinne. They came up with an age-old gimmick, having him make a grand entrance into studio with a Limerick woman sitting on one shoulder and a Galway woman on the other. The Limerick jersey was screaming for mercy plastered across his chest and the crowd ate up every bit.
Later, he was sitting in the green room when he saw JP McManus sitting across from him. He made sure to say hello and shake his hand and catch his eye but he couldn’t bring himself to pop the question.
He knows his life would improve by degrees if he could get some proper sponsorship or backing – and he wouldn’t be a bit shy about asking, either – but he knew too that it was a special weekend in McManus’s life. Not to be ruined.
“Ah, it wasn’t the time or the place. Wouldn’t be right.” Pause. Beat. Smile. “Jesus, wouldn’t it be great, though?”
Meal Eight, 11.30pm
10oz steak, potatoes, veg So why do it? Because it’s who he is. In life, we owe ourselves nothing more than to glide on our own best wind. For some people, that’s perfecting Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto and playing it in front of a packed crowd at the NCH. For Pa O’Dwyer, it’s strapping an artic truck to his shoulders and dragging it up a running track. He also does it because he’s the best at it, the best by a distance. For three years running, he’s been top of the tree in Ireland.
This summer, he went to St Alban’s in England and became the first Irishman to win the UK’s Ultimate Strongman. Channel 5 in the UK are showing the final this coming Tuesday night, giving O’Dwyer his moment in the sun.
The aim for 2019 is to make it to the 42nd edition of the World’s Strongest Man. By winning the UK title, he has qualified for the 30-man field but no Irishman has ever made it to the final 10. He will have to make it through the whittling-down process ahead of the final, to be held at an as-yet undisclosed location.
“Last year it was the Philippines, the year before it was Botswana. They don’t tell you until a week beforehand where it is. They want to keep it exclusive and they don’t want anything getting out about the result of it so that they can sell it to ESPN afterwards. So you only find out a week before and it could be anywhere in the world.
“They want you to go alone, not bring any family or friends, nothing like that. They know well that if family or friends come along, they’ll film it and put it all over social media. So you’ll end up out in the middle of nowhere in some shithole with a couple of locals watching you and they don’t have a clue what they’re looking at.”
If it so happens that they’re looking at Pa O’Dwyer, they’ll be looking at a life fulfilled. Wherever it turns out to be.
Eating is a dutiful and joyless ritual, its sole purpose the feeding of his abundant muscle mass. But he did it. Not a bother on hi . . . well, I won’t say not a bother on him because he passed out straight away