Ireland takes to its feet for climb with Charlie Bird

Former RTÉ news correspondent wants Saturday to be a day of ‘joy and celebration’

From the Donegal highlands, to the drumlins of Cavan and onto the rocky headlands of Cork, Ireland is taking to its feet this weekend as thousands countrywide prepare to pull on their hiking boots with Charlie Bird.

The former RTÉ chief news correspondent wants Saturday to be a day of "joy and celebration", he says from his base in Westport.

“I have no idea how many people are going to scale the Reek with me, but I feel it is going to be a day like no other,” he says.

While Bird will lead hundreds up the famed pilgrimage route on Croagh Patrick, many more have organised their own treks in a national outpouring of support for his struggle with motor neurone disease (MND).

Fundraisers – as far away as Australia, North America and the United Arab Emirates – are expected to take in more than €1 million by the time the first boots stomp on Saturday for the Climb with Charlie challenge. The money will go to the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association and suicide charity Pieta.

Like countless others, Kathleen Gill, of Clonmany, Co Donegal, was so moved by Bird's disclosure of his diagnosis and determination on the Late Late Show, that she organised a climb of the 494m high Cnoc Bulaba, towering over the Inishowen village.

Gill was determined to pay tribute to her uncle Jimmy Harkin, who died of MND at the age of 49 in 2009, and who always scaled Bulaba on his frequent trips home from Birmingham.

“When we watched Charlie Bird being interviewed on the Late Late, it brought it all back,” she says, “how horrific the diagnosis is.”

“When it affects your own family you can immediately relate to it, you know the journey he is on.”

Harkin, the youngest of 10 children, was a “fantastic character, very jovial, and a great singer”, says Gill.

“Like Charlie, he dealt with his diagnosis very courageously and kept a positive front. We all prayed for a miracle but it just wasn’t to be.

“It will be very emotional for everybody on the day, and also to watch Charlie, who has been very open and honest about how he is dealing with it. It is lovely to know he is getting strength from the show of support and solidarity,” says Gill.

“I think it is also very symbolic. Motor neurone is a climb; you have to keep going.”

Nationwide challenges

Originally from Kildare, Siobhán Bennett, now living in Connemara, organised one of the most challenging climbs planned, the 700m high Ben Gorm overlooking Killary fjord in Co Mayo. Some 50 climbers will partake in the trek expected to take three-six hours.

“It is not easy by any means,” says Bennett. “But the views are stunning.

“It has got the imagination of people. The fact that Charlie’s voice is going – the voice we always knew from when we were very little…” she trails off. “I think everyone has a Charlie Bird memory.”

In Co Louth, Craig Ballentine is making final preparations for a 6km night-time trek from Glenmore to Barnavave peak (350m), illuminated with 100 torches. Climbers will "watch the sunset, then admire the stars and views over Carlingford, Dundalk Bay and down to Malahide", he says.

Pitched as “walk and talk therapy”, the 8pm start – “when people are biologically more relaxed” – will allow more than 20 climbers to open up about their own experiences with MND and mental health issues.

With the mental health crisis after the pandemic, the success of Climb with Charlie has shown the country at its best, he adds. “This is Ireland sticking together and helping each other.”

Ursula O'Kennedy will be among about 20 Irish expatriates trekking up Mount Cooke in Western Australia as much of Ireland sleeps.

Based in Perth, the Newry-born special needs teacher said Bird’s story and positivity galvanised her and husband Aidan, from Galway, to plan the 17.5km trek.

“It is the least we can do. He has done so much for us all over the years.

"It will be the middle of the night at home. I reckon we will be the first to finish on the day, unless Sydney gets ahead of us," says O'Kennedy.

Forecast

Met Éireann forecaster Joanna Donnelly, who is taking part in Ireland, said it should be "mainly dry for the country" on Saturday with "scattered showers, though these should be mainly light".

Temperatures will range between seven degrees in the east and about 10 degrees in the west “and as we climb of course it will be colder. So layer up and bring a rain jacket”.

Paul Allen, a public relations consultant and former colleague of Bird, co-ordinating the treks, says they are “nearly afraid to speculate” on numbers that will turn out on the day.

Such is its success, the organisers have switched mode to warning those not able for the challenge not to put themselves at risk.

“People can walk in their local area, or on the beach. It doesn’t have to be a situation where people are endangering themselves,” says Allen.

Bird will be joined by 500 “friends and family” including wife Claire, daughters Orla and Neasa, and five grandchildren, as well as singer Daniel O’Donnell, Matt Molloy of the Chieftains, boxer Barry McGuigan on the 2½-hour trek up and down Croagh Patrick, with plans to live-stream it online.

Once atop the Reek, Bird will light five candles, for Ukraine, those suffering terminal illness as well as loved ones. A local pipe band will play on the mountain.

At the peak, where he will make remarks through a voice app, he will also light a candle for friend and cervical cancer campaigner Vicky Phelan.

“Vicky had hoped to be at the bottom of Croagh Patrick to wave us all off,” he says.

“Unfortunately, because of her current health situation she can’t make it, but some of her family will be with us for the climb.”

Bird says he “would love people on top of Croagh Patrick to have a minute of silence for the people of Ukraine as well”.

“I have one goal left on my own bucket list and that is to continue to extend the hand of friendship while I can,” he adds.