Ireland Communities and society, Culture, sport and tourism

The Cork Sanctuary Runners: Winners of the Chambers Ireland ‘Health and Wellbeing’ Award 2019


Cork City Council recently won awards for Health & Wellbeing and Local Authority Innovation at the Chambers Ireland Excellence in Local Government Awards 2019. Here, they talk about their winning entry for Health and Wellbeing – the Cork Sanctuary Runners

In isolation, the lightbulb moment could have been just that. Journalist Graham Clifford had conceived the idea of the Sanctuary Runners while taking part in a 10-mile road race in Dungarvan in January 2018. The concept was simple – use running to bring together Irish people, asylum seekers and refugees. It would be the support of Cork City Council which transformed the idea into a multi-award winning, internationally recognised, top model for social inclusion.

Having reported on migration for many years – most notably for the RTÉ Radio 1 Drivetime programme and the Irish Independent newspaper – Clifford felt something had to be done to connect those inside the gates with those outside.

He felt Irish society still had very little knowledge of Direct Provision (now in existence for 20-years) and especially of those people in our immigration system. Should an Irish person want to meet an asylum seeker and have a chat how, where and when could they do it? In such a vacuum inaccurate misconceptions flourish, fear and division ensue, and society is all the worse for it. Also, he felt asylum seekers and refugees needed to have a way to learn more about Irish people, our culture and traditions.

The opportunities for natural, organic interaction were so limited.

The mission statement of the Sanctuary Runner movement is ‘to enable Irish residents to run alongside, and in solidarity with, people living in Direct Provision’. Clifford was eager that the aim was not to just get people in Direct Provision exercising (though, of course, that is a very important and worthwhile motivation in its own right), but rather to put the onus on Irish people to use this opportunity to befriend asylum seekers and refugees. It provided a bridge without any strings attached.

It would not be a charity and would not seek, in any way, to infantilise people in Direct Provision. Everyone would be treated equally and treated with respect. In reality the running was secondary, the main aim was to provide that safe, positive space in which people, regardless of their legal status, nationality, religion etc. could share something special.

Having drafted a rough plan Clifford contacted Cork City Council with an idea. He wanted to enter a team into the Cork City Marathon in June 2018 – made up of Irish people, asylum seekers and refugees. The team would run in the same blue tops with the words ‘Solidarity’, ‘Friendship’ and ‘Respect’ emblazoned on the back.

Gina Johnson, organiser of the Cork City Marathon and Tony Power of the Council’s Social Inclusion unit, immediately agreed to support the initiative. They agreed to waive entries to participants in the marathon from Direct Provision, to fund the running tops, to assist with a post-race celebration and to help publicise the initiative. In partnership with press photographer Clare Keogh, with whom Clifford had worked on projects in the Sahara region, Ethiopia and Eswatini, the pair set about using their media contacts to share the idea. Features in the Irish Times, the Irish Examiner, the Irish Independent and reports on RTÉ Radio 1, local radio in Cork and the RTÉ Six One news quickly followed. GAA star Tomas O’Sé, Olympians such as Sonia O’Sullivan, Rob Heffernan, Lizzie Lee and Olive Loughnane and other sports stars volunteered to take training sessions at UCC’s Mardyke training track.

The Cork Sanctuary Runners entered a team of 200 in the 2018 Cork City Marathon. The majority of runners took part in relay teams with asylum seekers and refugees on teams with Irish runners. The movement quickly snowballed in the months that followed – with new groups being established in Dublin, Limerick, Waterford, Galway, Kerry and elsewhere. Today there are Sanctuary Runner groups in at least 20 locations across Ireland. The Sanctuary Runners and the parkrun movement started working very closely together – this would become a key pillar to the growing of the Sanctuary Runner family.

An agreement was reached with the Irish Refugee Council where they would offer financial governance to the Sanctuary Runners and provide use of their CHY number for charitable donations from corporates and public bodies.

In Cork, Sanctuary Runners started taking part in the weekly 5k parkruns in Ballincollig Regional Park. Each Saturday Irish Sanctuary Runners would collect their fellow runners from Direct Provision centres and run, jog or walk together. Afterwards, the group would go for coffee to chat and build friendships. This was replicated at parkrun events across Ireland.

In 2019 the Sanctuary Runners, which by now had also secured funding from the philanthropic Tomar Trust, also had teams running in over 30 races across the country. These included the Dublin City Marathon, the Great Limerick Run, the Streets of Galway 8k race, the Terenure 5 mile, the Run Killarney 10k, the Longford Marathon and the Viking Marathon in Waterford. Each race waived entrants’ fees for those in Direct Provision – Irish Sanctuary Runners pay race entry fees as normal.

The races have become extraordinary occasions. Now asylum seekers, who previously had no organised outlet to exercise are running marathons and half marathons. Friendships and bonds have developed. That feeling of family and togetherness is cemented. Once the blue Sanctuary Runner shirt is pulled over our heads the legal labels such as citizen, asylum seeker, resident, refugee, fade away – we are just all Sanctuary Runners. Some of our members cannot, or do not, run but enjoy walking with us in their blue tops. They also support their fellow Sanctuary Runners at races.

In the 2019 Cork City Marathon we had 360 runners – including Olympians such as rower Claire Lambe who has now become one of our main organisers. In recognition of the effectiveness of the concept, the Sanctuary Runners was named as one of Europe’s leading social inclusion in sport initiatives by the European Commission through their #Beinclusive awards in November 2019. They have since invited Graham Clifford to Brussels to present to similar groups, politicians, and Commission representatives on social inclusion through sport.

The groups’ numbers have now swollen to 2,000 and it was featured internationally in both the Guardian newspaper in the UK and the Runners World Magazine (the largest running magazine in the world).

Cork City Council continue to support the initiative and without their backing, it could never have grown as it has. The movement and the council work hand-in-hand with clear communication, speedy decision making, respect, agility and energy the core ingredients of this very successful relationship.

In February 2020 the Cork Sanctuary Runners and Cork City Council also emerged winners at the All Ireland Community and Council Awards where the group was named ‘Ireland’s best Community Sports team’. This year the plan is for the Sanctuary Runners to enter a team of 1,000 in the Cork City Marathon. It also launched a drive to get the people of Cork to provide accommodation for Sanctuary Runners, some from within Direct Provision, who will be visiting the city from as far away as Sligo, Monaghan and Donegal on the weekend of the event.

Also, the Sanctuary Runners will take part in over 40 races across the country in 2020 – local groups running in local races. And they will continue to run, jog or walk in the weekly parkruns. Of the 2,000 members at present, approximately 425 are, or were, asylum seekers. Irish runners include farmers, Gardaí, teachers, plumbers, students, doctors, chief executives, students, hairdressers, retired people, Olympians, midwives, musicians, journalists, dentists etc.

We especially value the fact that we are connecting with people who would have been very reluctant to become involved in an initiative concerning migrants before. Fear, ignorance or doubt would have prevented this. When we run we enjoy ourselves and people are attracted to us. They find out what we do, and why we do it, and before they know it they’ve joined our eclectic team and barriers are being broken down. The concept works because of its relative simplicity and support from local authorities – and most especially from Cork City Council. But while it may appear simple on the outside its tackling a complex and, at times, controversial issue in a positive, sensitive, clever, socially transformative and effective way.

And always in solidarity, friendship and respect.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *