It was a summer Dearbhaile Beirne will never forget — and not because she won the lottery or travelled the globe, but because she spent it jumping walls and running races with her father and brothers on the family farm.
Along with her father Michael, 55, a full-time farmer, and her older brothers Keith and Jonathan, Dearbhaile, now aged 19 and in her second year of her biomedical degree programme at UCD, had been selected to participate in RTÉ’s hugely popular reality TV series, Ireland’s Fittest Family.
They went on to win the competition with the help of coach Donncha O’Callaghan but not before undergoing a gruelling training regimen.
During the summer, she trained with the men of the family during the week — on top of travelling from the family home in Mohill, Co Leitrim to Dublin for twice-weekly training sessions with the college soccer club, the UCD Waves, playing weekend matches and working out in the gym.
“We all trained together about three times a week — we went out jogging together and we practised our wall-jumping technique as a team, for about an hour at a time,” she says.
“All in all, I suppose I was training up to five times a week and more at the gym.”
Fitness, it seems, runs in the Beirne family.
Dearbhaile acknowledges that she is “very fit”. Her brother Jonathan (25), a primary teacher, plays club football — he was an underage GAA and rugby star — while Keith (20), a law student at Maynooth university plays Gaelic football at college, club and county level.
“Dad’s a full-time farmer and he’s no slouch. My mother Mai was always very fit — she ran marathons when we were young and always encouraged us to participate in sport. The motivation was there from the very beginning.”
Initially, she recalls there were some disagreements about how team Beirne would train for the challenges they faced in Ireland’s Fittest Family.
“Dad wanted to focus on running whereas my brothers and I wanted to do more of the wall-jumping because we were more running-fit than Dad.”
However, through negotiation, they managed to arrive at “a good blend of all the different types of training that we needed to do. Plus, the programme was great fun.”
Not only did the training increase the quartet’s already enviable fitness levels, it brought them closer together as a family.
“All three of us are used to playing our own sports but for the four of us to take on a challenge and win was really special. Participating in the programme and the training it required brought us closer together,” she recalls.
Psychologically and emotionally, it made her more resilient too. “I’ve always played with Keith and Jonathan but when you’re the only girl on the team there’s a different edge to it.
“I didn’t want to be the one who let the rest of them down so I didn’t give up — it really made me fight my own corner.
“It was great fun. It was a summer to remember; a summer we’ll never get back.”
Throughout the college year, Keith Beirne would normally train six or seven days a week, so he didn’t blink an eye when he was asked to train three times a week over the summer for Ireland’s Fittest Family competition — on top of three nights a week GAA training.
“I was sporty from a young age. My mother always had us doing sport from athletics to soccer, GAA; we were always at something and it stayed like that through school — any bit of sport that we could do, we did. I did cross country running from age 10 to 14 and then soccer and Gaelic football.”
He also found that along with the obvious physical benefits — the training for the competition was completely different from the kind of training he does for the GAA, he says, and he found himself working muscles he’d never worked before — there were significant emotional and psychological rewards.
“Working together as a team really strengthened the bond. It was just the way we all communicated together and drove each other on.
“During the first few sessions we weren’t expecting much of each other — we didn’t really know how fit my father was, for example — but between the start and end of the summer the fitness improved immensely.”
Mum Mai, he quips, was regularly pressed into service to time the team “to see if we could shave a second off somewhere” when they were jumping a wall.
“We got to know each other better too and there was a lot of craic and joking — there was so much more to talk about because we were all doing things together.”
The fact that the family had participated in Ireland’s Fittest Family two years previously — they were eliminated from the competition in series three after Michael struggled to get up a ramp — was constantly at the back of his mind. Keith’s determination that Team Beirne would do better this time round, he believes, toughened his resolve.
“The fact that we had lost two years previously was in the back of my mind and it made me push on and I was more resilient because of that.”
Like Dearbhaile, he says, the family were already fit before taking on the Fittest Family challenge but this was different.
“We were fit from playing football and that’s a different kind of fitness to the fitness and development on Ireland’s fittest family — you’re running and jumping walls. We were working muscles we’d never worked before.”