WITH the 25th West Clare Mini Marathon set for January 29 in Kilkee, Willie and Mary McGrath, the driving force behind its main beneficiary, reflected on how the event has developed since humble beginnings in 1999.
That year’s event, organised by the McGraths and others saw fewer than 25 people take part, bringing in £7,394 for the West Clare Cancer Centre.
“It was trial and error to see would a mini marathon in West Clare work on the last Sunday in January, which is maybe not the best time of the year!” Willie laughs.
On the night of January 31, 1999, no one was expecting the fundraiser to still be going in 2023, but Willie said the first mini marathon had been a success and people wanted it to happen again.
“From the first event, on that Sunday evening it looked as if it might go somewhere. The feedback was beginning. People were asking why runners? Why not accommodate walkers as well? Carrigaholt-Kilkee was the first route, then we decided on Doonbeg-Kilkee and Kilrush-Kilkee and we thought after the three years we’d have enough of it. But the second event raised £30,000 more, £37,000.”
The third year brought in more than £52,000, a huge sum at the time.
“There was no getting away from it then,” says Willie.
The following year it went to over €100,000 and it kept rising until the Celtic Tiger bubble burst. “The biggest crowd we would have catered for was in 2008. It raised in the region of €220,000.”
Mary says the fact that the West Clare Cancer Centre was locally run for local people was huge to its success.
“The reason we got so much support was because the money was going to stay in the area.”
The mini marathon is no longer its biggest source of income, and she says that once it became established, people did all sorts of other fundraisers to help.
“When it took off all sorts of other things followed, there were head shaves, toe clippings, all sorts of things. The amount of different things was huge.”
Mary says it has always been very important to make sure that all the funds raised were used properly.
“Accountability is the most important thing in anything you’re doing.”
On that theme, Willie recalls a valuable nugget of advice given to him at the outset.
“The parish priest here at the time, Father Pat Malone, who was originally from Miltown and taught in Flannan’s as well, he said to me ‘you come into this world with nothing and you go out
with nothing but you have to have your good name protected at all times’.
“We got an accountant, a legal adviser and set up a proper committee. It materialised from there, it was run in a very professional way from the very start and I’d say that’s one of the reasons it has been supported so well.”
Certain people who have now passed away also remembered the charity in their wills, including Bernie Gibson who donated the house at Corry Lane, where the charity is now based, having initially been at the parish office.
The main service provided by the West Clare Cancer Centre is taxis to and from treatment centres, which have been used by huge numbers of people over the last quarter of a century.
Counselling is also provided, while it financed palliative care rooms at Regina House in Kilrush.
Although the pandemic made the provision of services much harder, throughout it the West Clare Cancer Centre kept running the taxis to bring people to get their treatment.
Mary says they have enjoyed the mini marathons, particularly the warmth and positivity of those taking part.
“It’s very hard to pinpoint anything really. It’s just the whole atmosphere of the marathons and the good will of the people.”
It has always been an inclusive event, she adds.
“It was never meant to be competitive, just for people to take part. I knew people who went out after having a stroke and would walk from Carrigaholt.”
Willie agrees that making it accessible to all has been crucial to its being so popular for so long.
“There are runs out there for people that compete. This is an opportunity for people who don’t compete, for them to go out and enjoy the day and raise a few quid. We’ve gone away from the sponsorship card now, it’s just a €20 entry fee to take part.”
Over the years around €4.5 million has been raised and Willie says the longevity is an endorsement of the work done.
“We have to be doing something right or we wouldn’t be sitting down with you 24 years later!”
Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.