In the Park, mid-winter

An Irishman’s Diary about a famous cross-country race

‘The Waterhouse Byrne Baird Shield pits top-class athletes – of all ages and genders – against those of lesser gifts, or none, and attempts to equalise their chances.’ Above, the first three finishers in this year’s Waterhouse Byrne Baird Shield: from left:  Barry Potts (second), Paul Cummins (first) and Angela Eustace (third).

‘The Waterhouse Byrne Baird Shield pits top-class athletes – of all ages and genders – against those of lesser gifts, or none, and attempts to equalise their chances.’ Above, the first three finishers in this year’s Waterhouse Byrne Baird Shield: from left: Barry Potts (second), Paul Cummins (first) and Angela Eustace (third).

Sat, Dec 28, 2013, 10:45

It’s like a two-legged version of the Grand National, minus the jumps. Or with one big jump, maybe: the fact that it takes place, every year, on the morning of St Stephen’s Day.

In other words, just to get to the start-line of the Waterhouse Byrne Baird Shield, entrants must first survive Christmas dinner and the excesses that accompany it, an obstacle at which more than a few potential winners over the years have come crashing down. But assuming they reach the start, there remains the grim prospect of a 10-mile race, cross-country, in mid-winter, with the added hindrance – for most competitors – of a handicap.

Just as happens in Fairyhouse and Aintree, the Waterhouse Byrne Baird Shield pits top-class athletes – of all ages and genders – against those of lesser gifts, or none, and attempts to equalise their chances. In this case, the elite runners are not weighed down (except by mince pies): they just start later.

Thus it is that the race has been won on different occasions by Eamonn Coghlan, then in his prime and soon to become world 5,000-metres champion, and by a 76-year-old veteran named Frank Cahill, of whom more anon.

The Waterhouse Byrne Baird is presumed to be the oldest, continually-run athletics event in Ireland, perhaps Europe, maybe even the world. It was first held in 1896, for members of the then-new Donore Harriers Club. And with the exception of one fateful year, 1916, it has taken place every Christmas since.

It started out as the simple Waterhouse Shield, named after the sponsor: a Dublin jeweller. But a tradition developed that if you won it three times, you got to keep the shield or hand it back with your name attached.

The first such addition was Paddy Byrne who led the field home in 1915, 1917, and 1918. The second was Davy Baird, a man who had been seriously wounded at the Somme.

In fact, it was because so many Donore members were away in the trenches that the 1916 race was not held. But Baird, at least, returned to win in 1920, 1921, and again in 1937, when he too became immortalised in the event’s name.

No winner, however, was to be more celebrated than the aforementioned Cahill. Born in 1900, he was not quite as old as the club. But he shared his age with the 20th century, which like him was still full of youth and optimism when he made his race debut in 1923.

There then followed perhaps the most heroic series of failures in the history of athletics, as for the next 52 years he competed without success. In 1974, he was only 200 yards from the finish line when victory was snatched from his grasp again. A year later, he finally missed a race, because of a training accident. Then, finally, the triumph.

It’s said that the “scratch” athlete in 1976 – Eamonn Coghlan – was still finishing breakfast at home in Ranelagh when Cahill started out on the first of the five, two-mile laps. But this time, it was the veteran’s own body that nearly thwarted him.

Within sight of the finish, he fell over, and had he accepted the help offered by concerned onlookers, might have been disqualified. Luckily, his wits were still intact. He regained his feet unaided, accelerated into a trot, and the rest was glory.

His heroics made the front page of The Irish Times, where Peter Byrne noted that Irish sport had just been deprived of its “most illustrious loser”. As Byrne added, Cahill’s attempts to win had spanned the political careers of two Cosgraves, WT and Liam.

But a year later, Liam Cosgrave was no longer taoiseach, and Cahill was still going. Proving it’s never too late to start winning, he retained the title in 1977: breaking his own record – it still stands – as the shield’s oldest winner. (The youngest, by the way, was Willie Smith in 1958, aged 15.)

The event’s 117th instalment took place on Thursday last, with 36 runners having declared, pre-Christmas, and 25 making it to the start-line: the dog pond in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. This year, 31 minutes separated the first and last to go. And the outcome was, among other things, a result for the handicappers.

As the leaders approached the park’s well-named “Horse Gallop” for the last time, there were possible winners from two genders and three age-groups. This time, it was youth’s turn. A 20-something called Paul Cummins sprinted clear at the end, thereby joining the pantheon of Olympians, Corinthians, and well-handicapped others who have won the famous race.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com