The Middle of Winter, Of The Night, Of Nowhere

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This Friday the 12th January marks the return of the Art O’Neill Challenge. With the first group of challengers due to get underway from Dublin Castle at 8.30pm, the ‘escape’ imitates the attempted endeavours of Art O’Neill, his brother Henry and Red Hugh O’Donnell on a freezing cold January night in 1592. On that fateful night, Henry and Hugh would make it to safety after escaping Dublin Castle in an attempt to reach Glenmalure. Art however, having been injured in a fall in the early stages of the escape, succumbed to hypothermia and sadly passed away. Art’s Cross, located on the Northern slopes of Conavalla in the Wicklow Mountains, commemorates the spot where Art took his last breath on the 6th January 1592.

For a number of years, hikers and hill runners alike from across Ireland and beyond, have tackled variations of the same route, albeit with the benefit of equipment that the three escapees could never dream of in the late 1500s. In 2006, the Art O’Neill became an officially organised event for the first time, going on to serve as a fundraiser for Stuart Mangan, who tragically passed away in 2009 following a rugby injury suffered in April 2008.

The Art O’Neill now boasts the option of two separate events – The AON Pursuit and the AON Challenge. The Pursuit event gives a chance for participants to dip their toes into the Challenge event, avoiding the open mountain section of the route. Departing from Dublin Castle and finishing in Kippure Estate in Wicklow, the event takes in 25km of testing road sections leading to the Dublin Mountains. The Challenge event covers the full distance from Dublin Castle to Glenmalure of approximately 60km.

Since its inaugural event, the Art O’Neill has continued to go from strength to strength, with demand at an all-time high for a coveted entry, this year receiving over 700 entries for only 200 places in the Challenge event. Testament to the organisation by the Dublin & Wicklow Mountain Rescue Team, who the event now provides major fundraising for following their takeover in 2018. With a mix of both road and open mountain, the Art O’Neill presents a challenge like no other. As curtains are pulled and glasses of wine are filled across Ireland late on Friday evening, almost 400 participants between both the Pursuit and Challenge races will be making their way down Dame Street towards Dublin Castle, passing the heaving city centre bars and nightlife, knowing their next glimpse of civilisation will most likely come in the early hours of Saturday morning having navigated the rigours of the Wicklow Mountains in the loneliness of the night.

For those embarking on the Challenge event, the night truly begins after the 30km mark at Ballynultagh Woods, which marks the first of two checkpoints on the journey to Glenmalure. No sooner have you inhaled a healthy dose of soup beside the fire and pocketed a handful of frozen jellies as reinforcements, you are enveloped into the dark winter night, with the climb of Billy Byrne’s gap the first of two major inclines to tackle over the marshy mountains.

Having been fortunate enough to take part in this event in 2020, the top of Billy Byrne’s gap was a highlight. Moving over the summit, the silence of the air and stillness of the night is an experience to be savoured, just you and the mountain. Every crunch of footsteps on the slowly frosting grass, every bob of the headtorch, pushing you into a trancelike state as the early bite of fatigue starts to pulse gently through the body. The decent off Billy Byrne’s gap is more than welcoming, the long open run towards the second checkpoint still demanding a high degree of concentration to not come a cropper to the minefield of bog holes in the search for St Kevin’s Way.

After the brief respite of solid trail along St Kevin’s Way and up to the second checkpoint near Ballinagee Bridge, the toughest section of the night begins. Shortly after navigating the crossing of River Glennamore, participants are met with the final significant climb of the journey heading for Art’s Cross and the Three Lakes. The next welcome sight is that of the Avonbeg River as participants skirt around Conavalla and the final decent into Glenmalure, with many altering routes towards the finish at Glenmalure Lodge based on reconnaissance missions in the weeks and months leading up to the event.

As is the case with so many events of its kind, the Art O’Neill would not be possible without the support of the many bodies that assist in its organisation both in the lead up to the event and on the night itself. AON Pursuit event director Brendan Lawlor pays testament to the large group of up to 100 volunteers that are at the beckon call of the Dublin & Wicklow Mountain Rescue team to assist in the smooth running of the event which has been in the planning since August of last year.

More details on the event can be found at

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