The holy grail of parkruns

Off the southern tip of the Beara Peninsula in south west Cork, there’s an island called Bere. Eileen Jones went there to run her 300th parkrun

If you’re not captivated by the notion of a parkrun on a tiny island of the southern coast of Ireland, there’s no romance in your soul.

I’d never heard of Bere until late autumn in 2019, after the parkrun at Cliffe Castle in Keighley, when we were chatting to a woman who’d spent the summer touring Ireland in her campervan. Bere, she said, was her favourite, and having a fair sprinkling of romance in MY soul, I was hooked. I’m going there next summer, I vowed.

Only there was no next summer, nor the summer after, and sometimes I wondered if Bere was a dream, a mirage. But the urge grew ever stronger, and when I mentioned my quest, my holy grail, to my friend Eithne, she insisted on coming along. Not for the parkrun, but to trace her mother’s family, who came from Bere. Little did we know then that around 75% of the island’s population are O’Sullivans, and my quest was going to be a lot easier than hers.

Family history

Plans were made. And altered at the last minute when our first choice of accommodation was cancelled because the hosts tested positive for you know what. We flew to Dublin, picked up a hire car, spent the first night in an exotic yurt somewhere in the Glantee mountains, and eventually made it to Castletownbere, from where I could see that the island actually existed. On the Friday we made our first crossing, for the launch of a remarkable exhibition, The Hold, curated by artist Mary Sullivan, who had gathered a remarkable group of creative women during lockdown to provide photographic evidence of their favourite “things”, and a tapestry of individually embroidered squares reflecting their lives on Bere. One of them featured parkrun; it was already clear that parkrun is a very prominent part of life on the island, and that it’s also dominated by amazing women.

1656 parkruns between us:   Anne Marie Harrington the latest member of the 250 club (2nd from left) with Eileen, John Walsh (the only male Bere Islander in the club) joining Sheila Walsh, mother and daughter combination of Joanne Sullivan and  Finola Crowley.

(I’d been told from On High that we would have a wonderful time. Paul and Joanne Sinton-Hewitt had been here a few years ago, and said that we would fall in love with Bere. They sent their best wishes to all the friends they’d made here; at the moment they’re cycling to Rome, to St Peter’s from St Paul’s, Dome to Dome. Sorry, Bere parkrunners, I got it wrong, they still have another three days to go.)

Where’s that ferry?

Saturday. I was awake at 5.30, we were at the pier at 8.30 for a ferry not due to leave till 9. This was more than disconcerting for someone who lives in fear of Being Late for Anything, and often arrives at a parkrun before the team of course setter-uppers. I know Irish parkruns start at 9.30, but there was a bus to catch at the other side, too?

And sure enough, our “bus driver” was on the ferry, Colin Gleeson, a retired GP in the over-70 category (no secrets with parkrun, sorry folks), who subsequently came fifth. In an event where the first finisher was a woman, and so was the third finisher, with a schoolboy in second place. Also on the ferry was Maureen Power who had done her 100th the previous week. And by the time we got to the start at Rerrin village, the numbers were starting to add up. And up. Joanne Sullivan was about to run her 303rd. Ann Marie Harrington was doing her 250th that day. And Edel Murphy was about to run parkrun no 284 then dash back to serve teas and breakfasts in the Bakehouse Café.

For all the stats, see the results page, but this report is all about the people. They were the warmest and most welcoming ever experienced anywhere, and this was my parkrun number 300 in location number 123. (Eithne, having abandoned family history for the day, was doing her ninth, and was just as warmly embraced.) There was love abounding, for their island, for their parkrun, for their friends, for their visitors. Their warmth more than compensated for the lack of time to “warm-up”; here you get your second wind after the first hill.

It’s a fabulous route on a fabulous island. Tarmac-ish, on narrow tracks which sometimes had grass in the middle. Awesome views. Some of it’s actually on road, but at that time on a Saturday morning the only drivers among the island’s resident population of 168 would be either running the parkrun or volunteering. We came back down past the Military Drill Hall where Mary Sullivan was opening up her exhibition for the day, and then turned a tiny corner beside Murphy’s shop which houses the Bakehouse Café. I loved every single step of the way; PSH, you were right.

But it’s possible that I’d never have got there without Proinnsias O’Keefe. A man of considerable running ability with a facebook profile that looks like a Smurf. I’m not sure how we first made contact, maybe via the facebook parkrun tourist group, but Proinnsias knew the answer to every question. What time does the ferry run? How will we get to the start? What’s the weather forecast? Where should we go for dinner? A million thanks for your help, your kindness, your welcome, your lift back to the ferry when we wanted to stay on in the café after the mini-bus had gone back.

And thank you to all on Bere Island. So many of you told me your stories, about how parkrun had changed your lives; I promised I’d come back to the island for my 400th, so I’ll be back in another couple of years or so. But probably long before then.

Eileen Jones is the author of How parkrun changed our lives , Gritstone Publishing (https://gritstonecoop.co.uk/product/how-parkrun-changed-our-lives/)

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