MARY SWEENEY – YOUGHAL’S FIRST LADY OF RUNNING …by John Walshe

MARY SWEENEY – YOUGHAL’S FIRST LADY OF RUNNING

By John Walshe(Youghal and Midleton & Dist News, 06/02/2022)

On a February day all of 44 years ago, on a snow-covered course at Rockwell College, Mary Dempsey from Youghal won the National Intermediate cross-country title when finishing a half-minute clear of Mary O’Sullivan from Limerick.

Now, almost four-and-a-decades later, Mary Sweeney (as she is today) is still winning prizes and will take to the streets of Cork on Sunday next for which, fittingly, will be her 46th appearance over the classic marathon distance .

One of the most familiar figures on the running scene, the St Finbarr’s athlete has played a pivotal role in the popularity and acceptance of women’s running in Cork county and beyond. Not just by her achievements alone, but also by her encouragement and enthusiasm for the sport she loves so dearly.

And it all began over 50 years ago in the seaside town when, as a young girl, she joined the local athletics club. “My running career started off with one of the greatest men in Younghal, Jimmy Drake, Martin’s dad,” she recalls. “We used to run around the pitches of St Raphael’s Hospital and then, after Jimmy passed away, my father, Jack, who was a nurse in St Raphael’s, got involved.”

Despite being part of a thriving club, success in the juvenile grades wasn’t immediate. “When I started off at 10 or 11 I wasn’t much good at the short races but my father used to say ‘you have stamina and you definitely have determination’ and so the longer distances suited me.

“Midleton had a great club at the time and one girl, Elizabeth O’Brien, used to always beat me. When I got to 14, I beat her for the first time and it went on from there.” After representing Ireland in the Home Countries Schools’ cross-country at the age of 16, the following year at Rockwell College on a course that had three inches of snow underfoot, she took the National Intermediate title. “The course was tricky enough I recall but I think I led from the start and won easily enough.”

A smiling Mary Sweeney at the finish of the recent Great Railway Run 25km from Cork to Carrigaline.

As the 1970s came to a close, road running was still in its infancy, especially for women. The second edition of the Ballycotton ’10’ in 1979 had just five females amongst the 82 finishers. Leading them home, in a time of 68:47, was Mary Dempsey from Younghal. “I had never run 10 miles in distance as my father minded me and to this day I appreciate that. But I said I would love to run this race as a lot of people were talking about it and he gave in, so you could say that was the start of another part of my athletics career.”

In an era when the prize structure was what would be construed as sexist nowadays, Mary’s Ballycotton reward was a hair dryer. However, it proved to be somewhat of a little earner as she used to hire it out to her siblings at the weekend: “I made a few bob out of that orange hair dryer as in a family that contained five girls, a hair dryer was a very, very valuable item.”

Countless victories on the local scene followed and in 1993 Mary made the Irish team for the world half-marathon championships in Brussels. “I qualified for that from the national half-marathon which was held in Cork. The first five were selected to go and we had a great four or five days out there and to me I was amongst the elite.”

Eleven years previous she had taken part in her first marathon in Dublin, followed in 1983 by the second of the original Cork marathons. “Although I didn’t run that many marathons when I was running well at the shorter distances, when Cork returned in 2007 I ran three or four a year so now, please God, Cork on Sunday will be my 46th,” she says.

Ten years ago, Mary won the F50 category in Cork in a time of 3:11:42 and a decade later is still way ahead of her contemporaries in her present F60 category. Last Friday night she ran 27:29 for four miles at Ballymacoda and then turned out the following morning to record 22:52 in her 91st 5km parkrun.

“The parkruns are amazing, not alone the runners but the volunteers as well. Every level is acceptable at a parkrun and every level is treated with the same kindness and dignity. It doesn’t matter what time you do and I can’t speak highly enough of them,” she says.

A total of 80 of those parkruns have been achieved in Ballincollig where Mary now resides. Although living in the satellite town now for the past 35 years, the love of Youghal is still evident: “Youghal will always be home to me. When I’m going to Young I always say I’m going down home. The loss of my dad did take it away for a little while but Mam is still there as are my sisters and brother, so I’ll always be a young girl.”

Looking back at the training that brought her so much success, Mary says she always listened to her body. “I was good to do the mileage which I felt was the backbone of your running but I always took a day off a week. I was a working mum, I had two young kids, I was working 12-hour shifts in a nursing home at the time so I ran to and from work. I was covering around 50 miles a week and maybe went up to 60 or 65 for a few years when I was younger and the body was able to take it.

“I was lucky with injuries; I was blessed. So to be told four years ago that I had rheumatoid arthritis was an awful knock. Amazingly, when I’m resting it’s then that the rheumatoid arthritis attacks my body. I don’t dwell on it too much as I find when I’m out running I’m doing something that’s good for my health and my arthritis.”

But what shines though the positive energy that this remarkable 61-year-old conveys is an immense sense of gratitude. “Running gives me a purpose and it’s what keeps me going. I count my blessings and I am privileged and so lucky to be able to do it. Number one, I’m grateful for my health, number two I’m grateful for the people around me that have made running so good to me and for me. Everybody is a friend and I know from the bottom of my heart that I don’t have an enemy. I do feel that God is always around us all and if you’re kind to people you’ll always get kindness back.”

Saying she’s not interested in what time she runs on Sunday, there is no doubt that Mary Sweeney will go home happy in the knowledge that she achieved what her body was capable of on the day. “And when I cross the finish line on Patrick Street, regardless of what’s up on the clock, I’ll have a happy smile that says ‘Thank You’.”

Photos…

1 Back in February 1978, Mary Dempsey wins the National Intermediate Cross-Country in the snow at Rockwell College

2 A smiling Mary Sweeney at the finish of the recent Great Railway Run 25km from Cork to Carrigaline. Photo: Derek Costello

Leave a Comment