Fionnuala McCormack in good company with Wicklow’s most reclusive residents of fame

The now 39-year-old and mother-of-three is looking to qualify for her fifth Olympics

The plan was to sneak Wicklow’s three most famously publicity-shy residents into the one photograph and tell no one else. It might have worked out too, if only Steven Spielberg didn’t get wind of it.

For Billy Porter, as well as being a sort of godfather of the Wicklow running scene, the chance came at a fundraising event for the Wicklow Hospice Foundation, on which he also serves as a director. A little publicity wasn’t the priority, but would be nice.

Porter knew that three Wicklow Hospice patrons would be in attendance: distance runner Fionnuala McCormack, boxer Katie Taylor, and actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who had helped orchestrate the event to coincide with the Irish premiere of his latest film Lincoln, directed and produced by Spielberg, in February 2013.

He’d also known all three for many years, first recognising McCormack’s obvious talent from her juvenile days running with Kilcoole Athletic Club, as the young Fionnuala Britton, and the slightly less obvious running talent of Day-Lewis, from the many years he spent running with Parnell Athletic Club, in Rathdrum.

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Taylor was still glowing from her historic gold medal win at the London Olympics the previous summer, and the previous December, McCormack became the first woman to win back-to-back European Cross-Country titles. Both in their absolute sporting prime, although with a gentle reputation for shunning any fame or public appearance. On that matter Day-Lewis was already in a league of his own.

Porter recalls the story of what came next with some mischief, as well he might. There were a lot of big names in the room that night, and only one photographer, and Porter knew him well too.

“Daniel always had great time for Fionnuala and for Katie, would have met them on many occasions,” he says. “They were sitting at the next table, and I knew Daniel would love a photograph with them, with Fionnuala and Katie.

“Now we had lots of big stars there, like Bono and The Edge, and Steven Spielberg, a lovely gentleman, and his wife. And actually Shane MacGowan was there, with his wife, and his brother. People like Jim Sheridan, Neil Jordan, Barry McGuigan, all there to support the event.

“Mick Kelly was the only photographer allowed in, he always took all the photographs for the Wicklow Hospice, and so I tipped him off first that I was going to set up a photograph, with just the three of them.

“So I went over to Katie first, and said ‘Daniel is looking for a photograph with you and Fionnuala, once you’re all in it’. Then I went over to Fionnuala and said, ‘Daniel is looking for a photograph with you and Katie, once you’re all in it’.

“Then I went over Daniel and said, ‘Katie and Fionnuala are looking for a photograph with you, as long as you’re all in it’. Because I knew Daniel would love the photograph, but he wouldn’t go asking for it.”

His plan now hatched, Porter went back to his table and waited until the fundraising formalities were over: “Then a bit later I tip off the three of them, and we go off to the side of the room.

“At the last second Steven Spielberg jumps up and says, ‘I want to be in this photograph’, and Mick says, ‘hold on, you don’t even know who these ladies are’, and Spielberg says, ‘oh yes I do, Daniel has spent the last half an hour telling me all about them’. So he gets in there too.”

It turns out it is the only photograph in existence of the Wicklow trio (and one famous director), and the event, which aimed to raise €150,000, instead raised €260,000, all going towards the now completed Wicklow Hospice at Magheramore, the first for the county.

A month later, his Lincoln performance won Day-Lewis his third Academy Award for Best Actor, the first and still only actor with three wins in that category, before he retired in 2017 and has hardly been seen anywhere since.

A decade on, meanwhile, and McCormack and Taylor are still at the top of their sports, though still most comfortable away from any fame or fanfare. Taylor, who last weekend made further boxing history as an undisputed two-weight champion, now resides in Connecticut, and is the odd one out when it comes to any social media, because you won’t find McCormack or Day-Lewis anywhere near it, and never will.

McCormack still resides in Kilcoole, and five months ago the now 39-year-old gave birth to her third daughter, with her husband and coach Alan McCormack, himself a former distance runner of some note, winning a national cross-country title in 2008.

Neither will be overly happy with the small fanfare now surfacing around McCormack’s quest to qualify for her fifth Olympics in Paris next summer, when she runs the Valencia marathon this Sunday before turning her attention to another European Cross-Country in Brussels on Sunday week, further extending her record of appearances in that event, and her record of Irish international women’s caps.

So McCormack knows too it’s impossible to hide her unique longevity and enduring success in the sport, her four Olympic appearances coming in four different events: the 3,000m steeplechase in Beijing 2008, the 5,000m and 10,000m in London 2012, then the marathon in Rio 2016, and the delayed Tokyo Olympics in 2021. In running the marathon in Tokyo, she matched Sonia O’Sullivan and Olive Loughnane as the only Irish women to compete in four Olympics.

McCormack has attempted this sort of marathon/cross country double before, just two years ago, when just four months after Tokyo she ran her marathon best of 2:23.58, also in Valencia, renowned as one of the fastest around.

She then raced the European Cross-Country in Dublin just seven days later, once again the top Irish woman in ninth, the team finishing just outside the medals in fourth.

The Paris qualifying time of 2:26:50 is certainly within her reach, having run a half-marathon time of 70:13, also in Valencia, on October 22nd – just 14 weeks after giving birth. If she misses out, there’ll be another chance in the spring, likely in London, although what marks her running career as much as anything else is her brilliant consistency.

Porter still frequently sees McCormack training in Wicklow, still struck by her sheer joy for running, along with her absolute modesty.

“Fionnuala and Katie would be similar in that way, very modest, fantastic at what they do and say it as it is. Like Katie didn’t do a whole of talking before the Cameron fight last weekend, she did all her talking in the ring. And Fionnuala lets her running do all the talking too.

“To me, she’s probably one of the most modest athletes ever. Talk to her parents, talk to her husband, they’ll say the same. And especially when it comes to any publicity or photographs or anything like that. She just doesn’t go for it. Sometimes that’s just the way really good athletes are.

“We’ve done some training sessions over the years, down in Avondale, not that I’d be able to keep up with her. She still loves running down here, with the hills, 500 acres of space, so many different routes. And I’d say she’s the strongest Wicklow athlete ever when it comes to the marathon. She just has this fantastic engine, that marathon runners need to have.”

“For Valencia, it’s about the qualifying time, 2:26:50, she won’t be aiming for a personal best or anything like that. And she’s well familiar with the cross country course in Brussels, which is why I think she’ll be ready for that too a week later. Because she has these powers of recovery, can recover faster than any athlete I know.”

Her first European Cross Country title came in 2011, 17 years after Catherina McKiernan won the inaugural event. The following December, in the freezing Hungarian air outside of Budapest, McCormack went one better to become the first woman to win back-to-back titles, while also leading the Irish women’s team a first ever set of gold medals. She’s also finished fourth on four different occasions.

Assuming she makes the start in Brussels, that will extend her women’s record of Irish international caps in athletics to 44 (Sonia O’Sullivan is second best on 33, with javelin thrower Terry McHugh in the outright lead on 48), and mark her 18th appearance in the event, from junior upwards, more than any other woman in European athletics history.

McCormack can be outspoken at times, like when World Athletics were slow to amend their transfer of allegiance rule, which unquestionably cost her medals, most infamously when Yasemin Can won the European 10,000m title in Amsterdam in 2016 for Turkey. That came just over four months after completing her transfer from Kenya and McCormack, who finished fourth in the same race, didn’t hide her feelings, declaring “it’s a joke, really, the exact same every f***ing time”.

She did politely reply to my enquiry about her ambitions over the next two Sundays, saying she was looking forward to some nice Spanish weather in Valencia for the marathon, then heading to Brussels for a more traditional winter race to kick off the festive season, with Paris the aim heading into 2024.

Modest as ever, right to the end note.