Youghal is being transformed as it gets ready to welcome the Ironman triathlon

Liam O’Connor from Limerick tackling the steep Windmill Hill in a battle of a physical and psychological endurance for the upcoming Ironman event. In the background is Youghal harbour and Ferry Point. Picture: Youghalonline.com

The international sporting cavalcade is the biggest thing to hit the East Cork town since ‘Moby Dick’, writes Christy Parker

The East Cork town of Youghal is fast becoming a place transformed as it prepares to welcome Ironman Cork.

Hundreds of volunteers have offered services and, for miles around, the accommodation has been booked out.

With more than 2,600 athletes arriving, in addition to families, supporters, and spectators, Youghal has been given a huge facelift. Even the town’s blue flag beach has undergone a renovation programme, with sands levelled, pebbles redistributed, and up to a dozen wooden groynes amputated to ensure perfect conditions for competitors.

The chit-chat at check-outs and bar counters is inevitably the international Ironman triathlon and persistently positive with all the evidence pointing to a party waiting to happen. Footpaths have been repaired and roads resurfaced along, and beyond, the main streets in advance of Ireland’s first full Ironman triathlon on Sunday, June 23. Local suppliers report a significant rise in business as tradesmen work flat out to clean, paint, and repair business and residential premises.

“Paint sales are up considerably and I’m told there’s not a painter to be had before July, thanks mainly to Ironman,” says hardware shop manager Colin Broderick.

Bicycle-themed window displays are all over the town centre, where Ironman flags and banners capture the breeze. To a soundtrack of busy lawnmowers, gardens are being tended, pot plants prepared, and public spaces manicured to a pristine presentation.

Youghal’s business community has embraced the Ironman event, decorating their shopfronts.
Youghal’s business community has embraced the Ironman event, decorating their shopfronts.

Dozens of Airbnbs and other householders are prepare rooms for letting, hotels and guest houses report full bookings through June, with the overspill spanning 50 sq km. 

Ironman Cork has more than 2,670 entries for a swim challenge commencing early morning at Claycastle beach.

The car park opens at 4am with shuttle buses running from 5am with the swim beginning at 6am.

It precedes a 180km bike race through East Cork’s coastal roads and villages as far west as Ballycotton, with a 42.2km run around Youghal completing the official events’ schedule. But the schedule begins on the previous Friday and wraps up on the Monday.

Meanwhile, the biggest party in Youghal’s life will boost its 8,000-strong population by about 150%. The sporting side of the event will be streamed live to 8m Facebook followers.

Youghal has not hosted a major international event since John Huston, Gregory Peck, and company spent the summer of 1954 filming scenes from Moby Dick. Since then, a textile industry collapse haemorrhaging thousands of jobs and heralded more than 50 years of emigration and decline.

A decade ago, the former town council began a process to redefine Youghal as a family-friendly heritage and seaside resort, self- sustained by its history and natural resources. Aided by Cork County Council and more recently private investments, it’s a continuing success.

Ironman has validated the tourism policy further, given the triathlon titan’s strong requirement that the infrastructural backdrop reflects race locations’ individual identities and character.

Work in and around Youghal has ranged from road resurfacing to levelling the beach in preparation for the Ironman triathlon.
Work in and around Youghal has ranged from road resurfacing to levelling the beach in preparation for the Ironman triathlon.

Youghal acquired the famed triathlon after local engineer and Ironman enthusiast John Innes simply guessed that Dublin was unsuitable for hosting the race, and that the company that organises Ironman would be open to an approach. The 48-year-old lifeboat volunteer dispatched an email to Ironman headquarters and the rest is history. The seaside town has secured the event for three successive years, at least.

Mr Innes is now course director and part of the local i-Try Coaching group spearheading the organising process for Ironman Cork.

Of the public response, he says: “It’s gone from initial uncertainty to full-blown embracement. A domino effect has set in and the community is united in its welcome and its desire to show the world what the region has to offer. It’s really becoming a party.”

He speaks of barbecues planned and community groups across the region setting up their own celebrations “before, during, and after” the races.

In one such example, Youghal Comhaltas, as well as performing at the official Ironman banquet, is going to organise a pop-up public céilí the day before the triathlon. The enthusiasm has been nurtured since the New Year by a preponderance of athletes visiting the town to preview the course.

Come April, the service industries found themselves catering for tables of six and eight in an off-season bonus that hasn’t faltered. Such is the embrace that restaurants and health stockists “have adjusted their stock in terms of nutrition and wellbeing to meet Ironman-associated demand,” says Youghal Business Alliance chairman Ger Flanagan.

Cork County Council has thrown considerable weight behind the preparations, including a €500,000 roads improvement programme for the route.

“Quite simply without the county council, it couldn’t happen. They’ve been brilliant,” said Mr Innes.

Literally leaving no stone unturned, the local authority has engaged in a beach renovation programme to level the sands, redistribute pebbles, and even amputate a dozen protruding groynes at Claycastle.

The day’s events will not affect the Youghal bypass, but the town’s transport will be restricted to a shuttle bus service, with road closures also imposed across the cycling route.

The organisers have conducted over 40 meetings across the region, “not least to ensure that everyone is well informed of the closures and aware of the contingency plans for any emergencies”, says Mr Innes.

Meanwhile, the towns’ Green Park will become a mini-village, including a 16-bed advanced A&E unit.

“Youghal will be the safest place in Ireland for a day,” says Mr Innes.

More than 650 volunteers have come forward individually and through local organisations.

“There’s a wide variety of tasks involved,” the course director says, “from marshalling to registration, backpacking, stewarding, setting up and taking down venues and so on.

“The important thing is that absolutely nobody will be left not knowing what to do.

“The only thing we can’t guarantee is good weather.”

So, 65 years after Moby Dick disappeared beyond the horizon, Youghal has found another big fish to fry.

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