I didn’t know Helen McDonagh very well, but I was happy and proud to have known her at all. Helen died just a little over a week ago and I’m still a little sad that I won’t ever have the chance to meet her again. Helen wasn’t a runner, but she was intimately involved with athletics for most of her long life. I first met her when I interviewed her husband Jim for Irish Runner Magazine back in January 2008 and it was immediately obvious that she had lived at the very heart of her husband’s long and hugely successful athletic career for many happy years. Both Helen and Jim had emigrated from Galway to New York in the early 1950’s. She had been the first to make the trip in 1952, on the Mauritania and Jim had followed her a year later on the MV Georgic from Cobh.
The couple met on Jim’s very first night in New York and the rest became their personal history. They were happily married for over fifty years until Jim’s unfortunate death in September 2008. I’ve rarely been in the company of two people who were more comfortable in each other’s company. To a visitor, they gave the impression of being a young courting couple rather than a partnership of so many years’ standing. For many of their years together Jim competed as one of the best and most charismatic distance runners that Ireland has ever produced. The happy couple travelled around America to various races together and became extremely well-known and well-liked figures amongst the American athletics fraternity. Despite only resuming his youthful interest in athletics at the age of forty, Jim competed at the very highest level. Having taken out a U.S. passport he represented his adopted country at the Pan American Games marathon in Canada in 1967.
Helen and Jim returned to Ireland in the early 1980’s where Jim continued to compete, and Helen continued to support, advise and encourage. They lived out their remaining years close to Jim’s place of birth in the hills near Loughrea, surrounded by their mementoes of athletic adventures at home and abroad.
When Helen slipped quietly away last week, the athletics world became a little poorer for her passing. In many ways she represented for me all of the wives, girlfriends, husbands and boyfriends who contribute in their own quiet way to the success of their loved ones. Without such people so many of our dreams could never be realised.