The Art O’Neill Challenge

Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2015), News, Volume 23

THE ART O’NEILL CHALLENGE HAS BECOME A SPORTING INSTITUTION IN RECENT YEARS FOR BOTH HIKERS AND ULTRA-RUNNERS BUT, GIVEN THAT IT IS BASED ON A FAMOUS EVENT FROM IRISH HISTORY, MAYBE IT’S TIME TO RECLAIM IT FOR THE HISTORY BUFFS?

By Ken Cowley

art o'neill challenge

Above: The great moments are truly great, such as passing Art’s Cross near Table Track, in the middle of the biggest section of wilderness on Ireland’s east coast. (John Shiels)

For years people have been unofficially walking the route originally taken by Art O’Neill, Henry O’Neill and Red Hugh O’Donnell when they escaped from Dublin Castle on 6 January 1592. But nine years ago the commemorative walk became a fund-raiser for Stuart Mangan, the paralysed rugby player who sadly died three years later. From there it developed into a commercially organised 55km walk and ultra-race, whereby the walkers set off at midnight, the runners at 2am and the ‘hybrids’ at 1am. The hybrids run the road section (30km approx.) and then the mountain section in a guided group. The ultra-runners usually navigate themselves, which is no mean feat on an open mountain in the pitch-dark winter.

As many History Ireland readers will probably know, Art, Henry and Hugh escaped from Dublin Castle on the night of 6 January 1592. From there they headed south-west via what are now the modern suburbs of Harold’s Cross and Tallaght and the country roads of Boharnabreena and Kilbride, before tackling the wild west Wicklow mountain territory of Black Hill, Billy Byrne’s Gap, south past Mullacleevaun and all the way to Table Track, and to the ultimate safety of Glenmalure. It is extraordinary to think that other than Art, who sadly died, the rest of the party that night made it to Glenmalure in an era of rags and poor footwear (not to mention that they had a tough start crawling through the Castle sewers!). So let us not have too much sympathy for our intrepid modern Gore-Tex-clad walkers and runners. We should certainly give them our admiration, however, as this is an exciting and innovative event commemorating this great escape, and in the last few years has also raised valuable funds for the Dublin–Wicklow Mountain Rescue Team.

This writer completed the ultra in 2012, 2013 and 2014, but last year settled for reporting on the event, speaking not just to organiser Declan Cunningham and the delighted winners but also to many of the walkers, all of whom were very conscious of the history. Hundreds of runners and walkers took to the streets of a bemused and chilly Dublin on 14 January last. It was one of the coldest Art O’Neills in recent years, with some icy roads and snow-covered mountains. But that didn’t stop most entrants from completing the event, with walkers typically doing it in anywhere between twelve and seventeen hours. The winning ultra time was an impressive five hours and 57 minutes, set by Don Hannon. The women’s race was won in a time of seven hours and five minutes by Suzanne Kenny.
One of the walkers was Joe Eustace, who walked most of the route prior to being forced out with a hamstring injury. Joe is a direct descendant of Viscount Baltinglass (James Eustace), who, in conjunction with Fiach MacHugh O’Byrne and Eoin O’Neill, arranged for his kinsman, Edward Eustace, to help spring the men from jail and assist them on their route to the refuge of Glenmalure and O’Byrne. This is where the history really comes into play, as walkers remember that this famous escape played an important role in the period between the Battle of Glenmalure (1580) and the Battle of Kinsale (1601), the concluding battle of the Nine Years War, ultimately leading to the Flight of the Earls. The Eustace family were banished to Kilbride (which, ironically, is on the Art O’Neill route) but fortunately survive to this day, as evidenced by my chat with Joe.

The modern-day event is a blur of sleep deprivation, exhaustion, camaraderie and atmosphere, energy-gels and head-torches. But the great moments are truly great, such as sunrise in some of the most beautiful parts of Wicklow, the welcome porridge and coffee at Checkpoint 2, passing Art’s Cross and Art’s Plaque near Table Track in the middle of the biggest section of wilderness on Ireland’s east coast, and of course reaching the finish line!
When I interviewed organiser Declan after the race, he said that he is delighted that the event will continue under the auspices of Dublin–Wicklow Mountain Rescue. It would have been very easy for Declan to switch this to an ultra race with smaller numbers, simplifying the logistics and expense, but the real heroes, he says, have always been those walkers who nervously leave Dublin Castle not fully grasping what they are getting themselves into. They are the ones who are still struggling sixteen to eighteen hours later but won’t give up, any more than Art, Henry and Hugh. Therefore the plan is to maintain the three categories represented and the history remembered, because that struggle and uncertainty of outcome is the essence of the event.

So, here’s to Art O’Neill and the Art O’Neill Challenge, a unique endeavour that combines history, hill-walking, mountain-running, élite international ultra-running and tourism, leaving tired legs all round but stories and memories that will last forever. Long may it continue.

Enquiries: www.artoneillchallenge.ie.

Ken Cowley is an ultra-runner and broadcaster with Dublin City FM.

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