Leading light of the Clare 250 Cycle Claire Nugent tells Fiona McGarry about the epic work in running the event
THE Clare 250 Cycle is known the length and breadth of the county and has involved hundreds of participants from every town, village and townland since it first took to the road in 1980.
The event has been the vital fundraiser for the Clare 250 Lourdes Pilgrimage, whereby cyclists have nominated cancer patients in their own communities and undertaken the challenge of raising funds for them to travel.
The cycle has also funded the Clare 250 Centre in Ballygriffey, an oasis of calm in a woodland setting.
What isn’t as well known is the military-style operation that has gone on behind the scenes of the cycle, keeping participants fed and hydrated on the 250-mile journey into almost every corner of Clare.
For four decades, Ennis woman Claire Nugent has been to the forefront in rallying the troops and keeping the catering and back-up crew on the road, supporting the cyclists and making sure that they, in turn, support cancer patients in their own communities.
Claire has been a tireless organiser, cook, driver, caterer and “cleaner-uper”. After a contribute of more than 40s years – organising the cycle and the pilgrimage – she has decided to retire.
Tributes have been flowing in since the news broke, but Claire is characteristically modest and unassuming about her voluntary work.
“There was a tremendous team involved, we were like one big happy family,” she told The Champion.
“I suppose it all began because my dad, Matt Nugent, knew John Dunne. They met through hurling. John was coming onto the Clare team around the time that dad was leaving it.
“John and his late wife Eileen were just wonderful when it came to getting organised and helping the local community. I moved back from Dublin in 1978 and got involved in some charity walks at first.
“Then, Fr Pat Cotter, from Doonbeg, got in touch with John about fundraising for his work bringing children with special needs to Lourdes.
“Fr Pat was teaching in the vocational school and he needed helpers from the school and needed funds to cover their expenses.
“The idea of organising a cycle probably came from the fact that my dad loved cycling. He was a psychiatric nurse at Our Lady’s Hospital and used to cycle in and out to work.
“The very first cycle involved around 18 people, mostly lads. They were determined that they weren’t going to miss ‘Match of the Day’ on TV. For that reason, they didn’t set off until 1.30am!
“For the first two years, the goal was to cycle 200 miles over two days covering East and West Clare. After that, the distance increased to 250 miles and that’s how the event got its name.”
As the event grew, attracting over 100 cyclists, so too did the need for a crack team of caterers and back-room organisers.
“I don’t think most people ever really realised what was involved behind the scenes,” said Claire.
“My job was to keep the catering crew on the road and that meant organising three vans and four cars with a team of 13 or 14 of us. We did salads on the Saturday and hot dinners on the Sunday, a full roast.
“We’d cook in community halls where committees were so good and gave over their facilities. Everything went in the vans and had to be set up and later packed up again.
“We had to be sure to be ahead of the cyclists. It was a big deal to prepare and clear and get ahead of them again. That was hairy enough at times.”
Claire recalls one particularly hairy time when she and her team were almost caught unawares.
“We were up in Liscannor and expecting the cyclists in for 6pm,” she explained.
“You’d know when you heard the Angelus bells that they would be in soon. This particular year, the cyclists had the wind at their backs and arrived in at 5.45pm.
“We were all sitting around when we’d normally be running around with the sweat pouring off us! Things were that precise that a 15-minute change to the schedule could throw everything off course.
“On some occasions, bands would be there to welcome cyclists into particular areas. With the collectors too, that could involve having more than one sitting for meals.
“Those were pressure days, but great craic. Would you believe there would even be stops along the side of the road for cyclists to have a cigarette. When you think of it now, that sounds mad.”
Calculating the needs of more than 100 cyclists over two days was no easy task and Claire was ably assisted by Eileen Dunne and Mary O’Connor.
“Eileen was a nurse and Mary was from O’Connor’s Bakery,” Claire recalled. “Eileen would work out what each cyclist needed in terms of hydration and food to keep their energy up. At one stage, Mary used to cook the meat in Ennis and drive out to meet us.”
Claire also paid tribute to the community groups across the county who supported the work. “Kilkee Community College and the Coláiste in Ennis gave us their facilities year after year,” she outlined.
“We had the use of GAA halls from Sixmilebridge to Whitegate. The whole county were behind us.”
Preparation before the annual cycle also involved precision planning.
“People would be calling to John and Eileen’s house for weeks before and after the cycle,” said Claire.
“There would be charts and plans up on the walls in the living room. They were so generous, because other organisations would have to hire rooms and pay rent. People treated it like a home from home and just walked in the back door.”
The pilgrimages to Lourdes were very much the focus of the cycle, Claire said, with the 250 involvement starting in 1994.
“Cyclists from each parish raised money so that patients in their area could visit Lourdes,” she explained.
“That meant people saw the benefits locally. I’d always notice that when the group going out to Lourdes met for the first time at Shannon Airport, they’d be shy. It would take around a day-and-a-half for them to gel, but once they did, they really gelled.
“People would say, ‘At last it’s ok for me to have cancer, and I don’t have to put on a brave face’. To be able to have played a role in that makes me very proud.”
Sadly, Eileen Dunne herself passed away from cancer in 1985. “Eileen was wonderful and missed greatly,” said Claire.
“Before she died, she realised that people going through cancer need a place where they can take a break and be looked after. John had the idea of buying some land to create a place where people diagnosed with cancer can go for peace and quiet.”
The result was the Clare 250 Centre in Ballygriffey outside Ennis. The building includes a library, meditation room, meeting room, catering facilities, as well as a large sitting room looking out on 48 acres of woodland. There is a church on site and plans for a healing garden are being developed.
“For anyone well enough to walk around, the woods are just beautiful,” Claire said.
“We’re looking at developing forest therapy, it’s an ideal location. It’s a place where people can come and find tranquillity in nature. People always say they get a very special feeing there. We have our photos on a wall inside, gathered over 40 years of the cycle.”
While Claire is retiring from the cycle and the pilgrimage, she will still be involved in the work at the centre.
“We are so proud of it,” she said. “John devoted his whole life to it and that’s because of Eileen. Not a penny raised has gone to anything other than cancer patients and this centre. There was no government funding. The people of Clare did this all from the cycle. The great thing is that there is no debt. If we had had debts, I don’t know what we’d have done during the pandemic when we had no fundraising options. To know that we’ve left something is a major thing. Everyone involved should be so proud.”
Full details on the centre, as well as the option of making donations are available on Clare250cancercentre.ie and on the centre’s Facebook page.