A few short years back, I had the rare honour of running a Half Marathon on Inish Mor, the Aran Islands.
Stepping back into an Ireland of the 1950’s, it was a mesmerising weekend.
This short story is not about running but about one short weekend amongst the islanders.
“An idea planted can take root and grow and grow”…. So reads a line from Willy Russell’s classic musical ‘Blood Brothers’.
Not long ago a friend did just that. As regular journeymen (and women!) runners it was easy to persuade us. The idea took root, the fundraising began and the training increased.
As a child, I have clear memories of epic voyages to Aran aboard the Naomh Eanna. Often, it was men in handmade sheepskin shoes, tweed trousers and tweed caps that rowed us ashore by curragh. Even then, the rich blue and aqua marine colours surrounding the islands intrigued me. Almost forty years on, they are as mesmerising as ever.
Time advances and the Aran of my childhood has been replaced in many ways. Gone are the sandy little lanes, the tweed caps, and no electricity. Progress is good and bad. However, Aran still retains magic, mystery, awe and wonder. It is a timeless beautiful place and it reminds you very quickly of what is important.
When Padraig O Ceidigh first conceived the idea of a half marathon on Aran, it was never about ‘another race’ That is not the man. In 1999 as he completed the New York Marathon, Padraig was inspired (and not for the first time). A man passionate about kids, he shunned the ‘easy’ idea of a race for the sake of a race. No, in his own words it was to be …” a win for Aran, the islanders, runners but above all, for children and especially sick children” No easy task yet a vision, a target and a goal.
Today everyone flies everywhere. In my youth, an airplane trip was as exciting as it gets. Travel today has become stressful and the fun has been lost.
Not at Inverin airport! Where else would adults cheer as you get weighed? Where would adults plead for the front seat? Where would adults whoop with excitement?
The 8 minute flight is awe inspiring. Look left to the Cliffs of Moher, right across Connemara and straight ahead to the Islands. Everyone was quiet. Alone in their own thoughts. The flight does that to you.
On Aran, Michael Hernon, son of the legendary Collie, is Commander-in-Chief. A true romantic, his own marriage to Peg is the stuff of fairytales. You land, disembark and there is stress no more. The Islanders do that to you without even trying.
With no fuss, coaches appeared from everywhere. Soon, we were dispatched to every spare bed on the Island. I could not help but wonder just how much work had gone in to making everything ‘appear’ seamless. Then again, Marie Mulrooney and Antoinette Moloney were there. I should not have wondered!
Race day is exciting and nervous. 13.1 miles is tough no matter how experienced a runner you are. The airport start was relaxed, calm and exciting. A gentle whistle blow set us off. It was the beginning of a remarkable and memorable journey.
It would be tempting to reflect on the race, the agony and the ecstasy. This race was never about that. It is about the children, the island, the Islanders and our brief time amongst all these things.
The sun shone and the wind blew. Up from mile 2 a water station and our first encounter with the smiling kids of Aran. They were more excited than we were. They laughed, clapped and competed to give the runners water. In the middle of a long climb, they made you smile.
The race continued. Around every corner was a surprise, every surprise was inspiring.
As a runner, it was a good course, a tough course but a fair course.
Around mile 9 there is a road that sweeps quickly down hill to the sea. Three children in their homemade go-cart were having the time of their lives. Their backdrop was the Atlantic and the most stunning views. I couldn’t help but wonder how they will look back in old age and talk of an idyllic childhood.
Mile 11 and I was suffering. Standing in the middle of the road one hundred yards ahead of me was a young man aged 12! His hands were on his hips, legs firmly anchored to the ground. He was watching my progress. I was not sure he approved. The gap closed, he kept the stance and the stare. I approached ‘his’ water station waiting for his comment. In a young voice that boomed he said…”You look like a thirsty man. Here, have water”…. I smiled so broadly it hurt. I declined. He nodded, thought about it and said…”well fair play to you anyway”. I ran on air until the finish. His words inspiring, evocative, simple but sincere. It summed up the day, the race and the whole experience.
The finish and the night were wonderful great food, banter, pubs, people and a Ceili. We were truly spoilt.
That night at dinner, Padraig O Ceidigh joined us for awhile. He is a passionate and humble man. We talked about this and that but he quickly steered it back to what’s important, and important to him. His family, his Aer Arran colleagues, the West, the Islands, and most of all the children and sick children in particular.
In a low voice, he leaned into us and quietly said….”You will never know the good you did. You will never meet the people who benefited from your fundraising. But they did and they will. That is what is really important and that is what is really special”…. When he had gone to talk to yet more people, I reflected on his vision, wisdom and words. Then, it dawned on me that those few words summed it all up. The man, the island the cause….and the children