Building a Better Health Service


No ordinary swimming club

no ordinary swimming

For almost 35 years, Mary Arrigan Langan has been transforming the lives of people with physical disabilities through the Octopus Swimming Club.
Octopus is no ordinary swimming club. It operates using the Halliwick concept, which allows people with disabilities, such as amputees, head injury, spinal cord injury, stroke, spina-bifida, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, visual impairment, to become “water free” or independent in the water. And as she nears retirement from her fulltime career as a Clinical Nurse Specialist in Osteoporosis in Merlin Park, Galway, there’s no sign of her pulling back from her amazing volunteer work.

It was this work with the Octopus club that earned Mary, from Renmore in Co Galway, the Pride of Ireland award last year. Mary, the daughter of the late Paddy Arrigan, a former Irish and All-Army swimming champion who dominated backstroke events in the 1950s, breaking records and representing Ireland – was first introduced to the Halliwick concept when nursing in England in the 1970s. The technique means no buoyancy aids are used to help disabled swimmers. The volunteer helpers aid those with a disability until they can become comfortable and, in a lot of cases, independent in the water. This is done by developing breathing control, balance and relaxation techniques. “I get a great thrill and a sense of achievement when I see the swimmers progressing. I have an instinct to hold people with severe disabilities in my hands. If somebody comes to me with a severe stroke or an amputated leg, I see the potential in them,” said Mary. “If someone is stuck in a wheelchair all day, it is great to see their reaction when you put them in the water and see their body move and be free. And when somebody is completely relaxed, they can float and eventually they can move and swim. “Somebody might only be able to wiggle and arm but, to me, they are swimming.” Initially, she had intended to do physiotherapy, specialising in hydrotherapy, but when she saw the Halliwick method in operation she immediately knew this was what she wanted to do. “I like helping people to reach their full potential,” she says.

When she returned to Ireland in 1981, she got the opportunity to study the Halliwick method and then worked tirelessly to set up the Octopus Swimming Club, the first of its kind in the country. At first, she received a lukewarm reception from the several organisations she approached; that was until she contacted Ernie Boucher of the Irish Wheelchair Association. “He said they would be very interested and asked did we need a bus. It was such a boost to get that first positive response,” she revealed. More than 34 years on, the club is still going from strength to strength, and its committee members are mainly made up of people with a physical disability.

“It is their club,” Mary explained.

She revealed that the club brings a number of major benefits to members, including social interaction, a chance to get some exercise and keep healthy, and respite for family members and carers. “We don’t claim to be remedial, what we do won’t replace physiotherapy. But the swimming brings so many other benefits that last long beyond the swimming class. People gain confidence and a great sense of achievement and independence,” said Mary. Mary also earned another plaudit recently. She was given the award for Promoting Bone Health in Ireland, with particular interest in disabilities, at the Annual Osteoporosis Conference. When she leaves the HSE early next year, she revealed that she will be able to give more time over to her volunteer work and also plans to gather all of her father’s writings together as part of a project for her whole family. “I have plenty of plans for my retirement. There’s still lots to do,” she added.