An Irishman's Diary
I spent an enchanted hour last Sunday exploring the bucolic delights of east Cork, with its rambling roads and pleasant pastureland and place-names that trip lyrically off the tongue: Shanagarry, Monagurra, Ballymaloe.
In fact, I explored them for a bit longer than an hour. Seventy-eight minutes, to be exact. And the experience might have been even more enjoyable if I hadn’t been running the Ballycotton 10-mile road race at the time.
As it was, my appreciation of the scenery was somewhat curtailed. In one way, running heightens your senses, making you more intensely aware of the things around you. But it also makes you intensely aware of the things inside you, so there’s a lot of competition for your thoughts.
We skirted the famous Ballymaloe House at one stage, for example. And much as I’d love to have dropped in for lunch, this was the race’s half-way point. By then, in catering terms, I was more concerned with ensuring my breakfast stayed where I’d put it earlier.
All-told, I can’t recommend running as the best way to experience the countryside, although even on the turn home for Ballycotton, as fatigue increased, I still tried to enjoy the views.
Among these were the magnificent beach, stretching away for miles in the direction of Waterford. There too was the lighthouse-topped Ballycotton Island, rising dramatically from the water like a smaller version of Mont St Michel. The effect might have been breath-taking, if my breath hadn’t been spoken for already.
Even the race itself is a spectacle. First run in 1978, the Ballycotton 10 has long passed from being a mere running event to something more like a cult. It’s invariably oversubscribed now. Indeed, part of its mystique is an entry procedure that makes joining the Freemasons look simple. Just by getting a race-number, you feel you’ve achieved something.
The event’s success belies the logistical challenges involved. For one thing, Sunday’s 2,500-strong field was four or five times the population of the village. Which is located at the end of a peninsula, in a narrow cul-de-sac, out of which the race must be run.
Early road-closures and a one-way system are required. And if everyone arrived simultaneously, as they would in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, there might be chaos. But they don’t, luckily, And somehow the whole thing works, every year.
It must help that they’re used to dealing with emergencies in Ballycotton. The local lifeboat has a long and heroic history, without which many sailors would have found watery graves down the decades.
One boat – the Mary Stanford – was especially famous during the middle of the last century, answering 41 call-outs, or “shouts”, in the process saving 122 lives. And one of those shouts alone was sufficient to earn life-boating immortality.
It happened in February 1936, when the Daunt Rock Light-ship was torn from its moorings further down the coast in a gale, with eight men on board. The Mary Stanford answered the call and spent 63 hours at sea, its crew doing without sleep for 60 of those and without food for 24. But the eight men were saved, finally, after a feat with few parallels in RNLI history, for which the lifeboat’s coxswain won a gold medal.
Happily, there were no gales blowing around Ballycotton on Sunday, so the only shouts heard were from locals who lined the route. This must be another of the race’s attractions. You cannot but be lifted by the sound of people saying things like “Ye’re doing great!” and “Ye’re fantastic!” in musical Cork accents.
Or even by the words of one small girl who, already exhibiting the innate superiority complex of her tribe, lectured: “Remember – ye’re privileged to be here. Ye should be tweeting about it.” That was her way of telling us to ignore the pain.
Which, since she was located near the nine-mile mark and a vicious hill, was easier said than done.
By the top of that hill, many of us were sending out distress signals. And we still had to run what, for a village, is an appallingly long main street. Even so, the lifeboat was not quite needed. Nor were any medals for bravery awarded. Or at least not where I finished.
I am now, however, the proud owner of a Ballycotton 10 mug. Which received an early call-out later that night, back in Dublin. And sure enough, when I had my first tea in it (Barry’s, naturally), it was better than anything from Ballymaloe.