Though it rained from the heavens, Youghal in Co Cork was vibrant over the weekend with Ironman taking place in the town. So much so that it even won over our Kerry native...
I don't know if it is a Kerry thing, but I've always had a slight aversion to Cork.
Maybe it's the football rivalry or the scenic competition, but there has always been something about it. I didn't go to college there, but somehow managed to find myself intertwined with many rebel county folks over the years from my time in Galway. I frequently forced these friends to frequent the magic that is Kerry and the Listowel Races, but I had never made the trip to their small piece of the county.
The side in question was Youghal and after much badgering, I made my way to the seaside town for Ironman. For the uninitiated, Ironman is a triathlon consisting of a 3.86km swim, a 180.25km bicycle ride and a 42.2km run. It is completed in that order and without a break and is considered as one of the most difficult one-day sporting events in the world.
I don't know if it is a Kerry thing, but I've always had a slight aversion to Cork."
It attracts over 2,000 competitors and for Youghal, this was a very big deal.
Overlooking the coast, the town is a stunner. Beautiful and rugged around the edges, it has character in spades. However, like all rural towns that live outside the fringes of larger metropolitan areas, it has suffered in recent years.
Coming from a rural area, I know just how important little victories are for these towns. And for Youghal, Ironman was set to be an exponential win.
I arrived on Saturday to a buzz. Bunting, flags and food stalls lined the streets. I was brought to Aherne's for its classic seafood chowder and settled myself in the Nook bar for the night. Cosy with good music and great people, I was like a moth to the flame.
There are different types of rain in Ireland - showers that come and go, light drizzle that's a hindrance and then a constant torrent from which there is no escape."
Making a mental note to myself "to take it handy", I headed home early to ready myself for an early start.
Related: The story of a community's spirit and a GAA club called St Senans
Irish weather is unpredictable. We go through the four seasons in the space of 24 hours and on Sunday the heavens roared and poured for the iron men and woman who were tackling the course. The swim had to be cancelled due to the conditions and water temperature. However, it was from this where I got the greatest grasp on what the people of Youghal were like.
There are different types of rain in Ireland. There are showers, which come and go; light drizzle that is a hindrance; and then there is the constant torrent from which there is no escape. On those days it is truely a day for the dogs...or ducks.
Sunday was the latter. This was the type of rain that goes straight to the bone and leaves your clothes damp even days later. But it was no match for the people who lined the roads and streets to give their support. It was as if the Youghal locals were sticking the middle finger to Mét Éireann and mother nature, leaving themselves open to the threat of a bad cold.
— IRONMAN Triathlon (@IRONMANtri) June 23, 2019
People stood for hours on end, screaming for people from far-flung places they had never met. This unwavering support began at 7am that morning and didn't cease until the very last competitor crossed the line at midnight. Speaking to those who took part in the race, this encouragement is priceless when your body is being tested to its limits and your mind is beginning to play tricks on you.
There were stories of those who opened up their homes to those for whom the circuit had become too much. Not all ailments can be cured but a cup of tea but a helping hand certainly helps.
Typical Irish encouragement
At 10pm we made our way into town for the night. Outside Mackey's pub, competitors were still running and those who were not were singing words of encouragement in a quintessentially Irish way – through the medium random chants. For Ger Flanagan, a local man taking part, a tune was specially devised for him as he made his way through the main street. One American competitor commented: "Is this what happiness feels like?"
The rain finally cleared for the final competitor to cross the finish line as the day was ending. Marie Casey-Breen, a 67-year-old cancer survivor, bolted through after nearly 17 hours of a gruelling task. It was emotive, inspiring and a fitting end.
Image: Youghal.ie Instagram page
With spirits high, we continued on and the night ended in JD's bar as I croaked my way through a sing-song where Travelling Soldier was sung at least five times. This was topped off with a bag of chips and a battered sausage from Doyle's, which I'm told is a Youghal delicacy.
The way in which the weather changes in Ireland is cruel. The next day the sun beamed over the town with a view of the sprawling Cork coastline visible for miles. It was a different world to the day before it, which was grey and showed the oft times devastating power of the water.
People around the town were limping, sore and exhausted and that was just the punters.
To cure myself, I headed to Collins bakery for one of its famous rolls (get the chicken tarragon) because carbohydrates and coleslaw are proven to keep any delayed 'Sunday Scaries' away. The wave of darkness I had awoken to had suddenly lifted.
A community with heart
On the long drive home away from the Cork coast, I thought about what had made the weekend so special. It wasn't Ironman or the added influx of people, even though these things help considerably in terms of the economy and mood of a town.
No, it was the people.
I may be biased, but there is something distinct and special about a relatively small town."
It was the community who were the very heart of the weekend. I may be biased, but there is something distinct and special about a relatively small town. Any town will feel like home when you see that everyone knows one another. There is always an open door or a friendly hello to calm the nerves.
IRONMAN well underway ??????????????? get your jacket and call down to witness this incredible event plus soak up the fantastic atmosphere here in Youghal #IMIreland #IMCork pic.twitter.com/fxqcgbfIxM
— Cork County Council (@Corkcoco) June 23, 2019
You may visit a place to see the scenic views, or explore the historical monuments but you also go to embrace the personality and soul at its core. Not many would stand under pelting rain for hours to cheer on strangers, but these locals did without hesitation. Without them, it wouldn't have been the same.
The weekend also echoed the need for initiatives and events such as Ironmen to be given or implemented in other towns across the country. Not just a boost for the economy, it's a boost for morale that can get an area through a long winter. Excitement, hope and optimism on the streets could be felt.
And I left the town of Youghal with much less of an aversion and much more affection. Ironman or not, you should visit.
Because it's quite the loveable rebel.
Image: Youghal.ie Facebook Page
Read more: Irish actress Jessie Buckley on her new film
Read more: I broke up with my boyfriend and now I have bangs