HOMEGROWN HERO Cian McManamon of Westport AC is pictured competing in the Men’s 10k Walk at the National Senior Track & Field Championships in Dublin in July. Pic: Sportsfile
BACK in the early 1980s, during the original Westport Festival of Athletics, the flagship 10k race was commonly known as ‘Ireland’s Richest Race’.
Westport Athletics Club was in its infancy, but the race attracted athletes from far and wide and it quickly formed an identity with the small club from Clew Bay.
The first prize for the men’s race was an all-inclusive two-week holiday in sunny Spain while the first prize for their female counterparts was a colour TV!
“It was a sign of the times,” Westport AC Juvenile Chairperson Edel Hackett laughed last week when she spoke to The Mayo News. “Things have changed now, thankfully.”
Almost 40 years later, things have changed utterly and for the better.
On Saturday week next, September 14, Westport AC are bringing ‘Ireland’s Richest Race’ back to life to celebrate the club’s 40 year anniversary as part of their ‘Festival of Athletics’.
A total of €10,000 makes up the prize fund, with €1,000 going to both the first male and female finisher, with a 5k fun run thrown in too.
“The highlight event is the 10k race,” explained Edel Hackett. “We’ve got a great main prize for both male and female as well as team prizes, age category prizes, wheelchair and spot prizes.”
Westport AC was set up in 1979 by a small group of local athletics enthusiasts, many of whom are back on board in helping organise this year’s anniversary festival, like Harry Hughes, Sean Langan and PJ Rourke.
Kickstarting next week’s event will be a Civic Reception in Westport House on Wednesday, September 11. “It’s an open invitation list and anyone who has had anything to do with the club is more than welcome to come,” added Edel.
The daily mile
ON Friday, September 13 Westport AC will be hosting a unique Mile Festival at the track at Horkan’s Hill, in conjunction with The Daily Mile programme in operation in schools across the country.
This will include a series of mile events for athletes between under-10 right through to senior with schools, athletics clubs, GAA and soccer clubs, or even single runners being encouraged to come along and take part with plenty of prizes up for grabs.
“The Mile Festival is kind of like a nostalgic throwback to the early days of the club,” said Edel Hackett. “When the club was formed, Ireland had some of the best milers in the world, but unfortunately it’s not an event that is run as much anymore and this is kind of bringing the celebrations back to the roots of the club.”
As well as having a thriving and successful juvenile section in the club for years, Westport AC also boosts a strong senior club with over 50 active members that are competing all across Connacht right now, many of whom will be out and about over the festival.
The celebrations will come to an end in the Wyatt Hotel on the evening of Saturday, September 14 with a celebration and a chance to reflect on the many great memories from the last 40 years.
AS well as celebrating four wonderful decades in existence, Westport AC are using this festival as a way of thanking their members of the past and present for their efforts to get the club to this point.
Edel Hackett was quick to point out that there are many moving parts in an athletics club, with some of the hardest working members often in the background.
“It’s not easy to keep an athletics club going in a county that is dominated by Gaelic football or that isn’t renowned for its weather,” she said. “But what has helped Westport AC to grow is the dedication and the support the club has got from parents, former athletes and the town businesses and leaders.
“The parents need to get huge praise. They have to bring their children long distances to compete, tie laces, pin on numbers and put up tents on windy and wet days at cross country events.
“Because of this we created the ‘Tent Man’ award at the annual awards night which goes to the parent who gives the most help from the sidelines. We even got a mallet made up as a Perpetual Trophy because more often than not they’re using it to pin pegs in the ground to stop the tent blowing away!”
SUCCESS has always followed Westport AC around. In the early days, Olympians and sisters Monica and Regina Joyce, whose mother hailed from just outside Westport, were members when they represented Ireland in the 1984 Olympics. Others like Niamh Murphy (now Niamh Richardson) represented Ireland in the 1990s.
In more recent times, Westport AC has produced young stars such as Con Doherty, David Harper, the O’Brien sisters (Aoife, Saoirse and Roisin) and Sorcha McAllister.
While the most celebrated and decorated star is Cian McManamon, who was among a trio of stars who made history at the European Race Walking Cup in 2017, winning a bronze medal.
The club are now hoping a celebration like this might begin a new era for Westport AC.
“I’ve been involved in the club for 12 years now and we haven’t had a competition event as such,” she said. “So hopefully the idea of this may be that if it takes off, it could become an annual event.
“There’s a huge interest in running again so we want people to come to our event and just have a really good time while they’re here, because as much as it’s about the racing, it’s also about ensuring people enjoy themselves and come back to Westport again.”
Find out more
For more information on the festival, visit Westport AC’s Facebook page @WestportAthleticsClub