Hardship for Art’s Sake – An Irishman’s Diary about the Art O’Neill Challenge

By the time you read this, this year’s participants should be near their destination

Detail of Maurice Harron’s sculpture of  Red Hugh O’Donnell  in Donegal Town.

Detail of Maurice Harron’s sculpture of Red Hugh O’Donnell in Donegal Town.

 

By the time you read this, participants in the 2017 Art O’Neill Challenge should be at or near their destination in the Wicklow Mountains. En route this year, they will have enjoyed some suitably harsh weather.

So let’s hope they all reach the finish alive, unlike the original Art, and in one piece, unlike his fellow fugitive Red Hugh O’Donnell, who suffered frostbite and emerged from the experience minus his big toes.

The annual commemoration starts from Dublin Castle, as the actual escape did. It also happens in the early hours of a January night, as in 1592. A little disappointingly for purists, however, it no longer begins in quite the same manner as the original.

Back then, in an early version of The Shawshank Redemption, Red Hugh and his friends (Art’s brother Henry completed the trio) made their bid for freedom through a toilet chute. It was a hole-in-the-wall toilet, at the top of a tower. So unlike Andy Dufresne’s, the first part of their journey was vertical rather than horizontal.

But just like his, it involved negotiating a sewer –in this case the river Poddle.

The Poddle is still there today, albeit underground.

Escape

Record

Instead, the participants now start their 53km trek at ground level. Walkers departed at midnight, runners and half-and-halfers at 1am. Completion times range from six to 15 hours, so the last stragglers should be finished by mid-afternoon today.

It was the initial descent in 1592 that probably sealed Art O’Neill’s fate. Overweight from his time in jail, he injured himself in the rope-assisted drop and soon had to be helped along by Red Hugh and an accomplice supplied by Hugh O’Neill (who probably arranged the whole escape, including the necessary bribery of Dublin Castle staff).

It was the Feast of the Epiphany, or “Christmas of the Stars” as Gaelic chroniclers called it. And if snow was not general all over Ireland, as on another January 6th, it was general around Glenmalure, where the safety of Fiach MacHugh O’Byrne’s fort awaited.

The nature of the escape also meant that they had no heavy clothes for the journey.

So as Seán Ó Faoláin describes it in The Great O’Neill (his biography of Hugh), they endured “a night and a day of agony” getting out of Dublin and into the mountains, before reaching an impassable decline into the valley of Glenmalure itself.

There the accomplice went ahead for help, while the two others (Henry had gone separate ways in Dublin) lay down to sleep in the snow.  

Art O’Neill never woke up. Red Hugh did, just about, and was later smuggled back north, where he lost his toes but gained a definite article, his father abdicating the clan leadership in his favour.

Thereafter, as “The O’Donnell”, he was O’Neill’s fierce ally in the Nine Years War.

“He had suffered unforgettable and unforgivable miseries in jail,” writes Ó Faoláin, “and his heart was blazing for revenge.”

(It may be worth mentioning that although, in O’Donnell’s escape, Hugh O’Neill regained a friend, in the O’Neill brothers – no relations of his – he was springing rivals and potential enemies. He may have reasoned they were more dangerous in the hands of the English. But Ó Faoláin surmises that Art’s death might have solved a problem. As for Henry, when he returned north, O’Neill took the precaution of reincarcerating him there.)

The 1592 fugitives would have been astonished to learn that, in a future Ireland, people would re-enact the escape voluntarily, for recreational purposes and not at gunpoint, every January.

But the commemoration long predates the extreme-sports craze of which it is now part.  

In one form or other, an annual Art O’Neill trek has been happening since at least 1954, when this newspaper reported that “four men and a girl” (that’s four men and a woman in non-imperial measurements) completed it.

The event’s popularity has grown a lot since then.

Participation is now capped at 200, out of respect for the mountains, but it could be much larger. Up to 800 apply each year. And as the original Art would be even more astounded to hear, the lucky starters are chosen by lottery.