Why Co Down man Ian is rowing up Mournes in support of Darkness Into Light

Fitness coach Ian Young is taking on a unique challenge in support of this year's Darkness Into Light. He and footballer Aoife Lennon talk candidly about the campaign

Saintfield sportsman and fitness coach Ian Young high in the Mourne Mountains, where he's taking on a rowing-machine challenge during the Darkness Into Light suicide and mental health awareness event
Mairead Holland

WALKERS in the Mournes may well have done a double take in recent weeks at the bizarre sight of a rowing machine being carried over some of the range’s most imposing and trickiest summits.

Bur it’s all part of preparations for a unique challenge on Saturday May 8 when former Crusaders and Linfield footballer Ian Young will carry the machine over the seven highest peaks with help from some of his friends.

And at the top of each peak, Ian, a fitness coach who runs his own business, will row 3,196m (just under two miles). The figure equates to the number of people who have taken their own lives in Northern Ireland over the past 10 years.

It’s a sobering statistic and one that Ian wants to play his part in highlighting and helping to reduce. The 44-year-old Saintfield man is one of a number of ambassadors appointed by Irish suicide and mental health awareness charity Pieta to help promote its Darkness into Light initiative.

Its first walk took place in 2009 in Dublin, with just 400 people, but that has grown to around 200,000 people now taking part every year across Ireland and further afield.

Traditionally, walkers meet up in the early hours of the morning for the arrival of dawn and its symbolism of hope. However, because of Covid-19, participants in this year’s ‘One Sunrise Together’ event, which is being sponsored by Electric Ireland, are being asked to run, walk, swim, cycle or do whichever form of exercise they prefer and share a picture of the sunrise as they do it.

Ambassadors Ian Young and Aoife Lennon are encouraging people to sign up to Darkness Into Light, which takes place on May 8 this year and is sponsored by Electric Ireland. Picture by Brian Morrison

Money raised will fund suicide prevention and bereavement services provided by 17 charities across Northern Ireland.

“The last 12 months have been hard on a lot of people. I know at times I have been very down," Ian says. “My livelihood all of a sudden was completely gone. I had to pivot quite quickly and work online with a lot of people.

“I am very passionate about helping people, especially men. Men just don’t talk about their feelings. I hope the tide is changing and that younger men are more open to discussion about how they feel.”

Ian, who is married to Debbie and has a son Jude (9), said he and a group of friends had been talking for quite a while about doing something for mental health charities, and the invitation to become an ambassador was the spur he needed.

The somewhat unusual idea of carrying a rowing machine up the Mournes was his and, he adds, is something that hasn’t been done before.

“It will take about 16-18 hours and we are starting at 3.30 in the morning,” he explains. “It’s not the weight of the machine that’s the issue, it’s how awkward it is to carry. It’s about six feet long and we will be negotiating some very steep ascents and some really tricky descents, the likes of Lamagan and Slieve Donard.”

The team of 10 helping Ian consists of six men and four women, including one of Ian’s clients Mel who has lost eight stone over the past year.

Ian Young, with the help of friends, will carry his rowing machine up the Mournes' seven highest peaks for Darkness Into Light

“We are all fit. Everybody going up knows the mountains, knows the terrain and knows what’s expected so they are fit enough for this event. But it’s going to be a tough day’s work and mentally very challenging,” he adds.

Ian, who took up kickboxing after retiring from football and was British, European and World champion by the time he retired 10 years ago, hopes to surpass his JustGiving fundraising target of £5,000.

“I have had a couple of young men at my classes who have sadly died by suicide, and you can see the devastation that leaves behind,” he explains.

“Any support is very much appreciated. Our aim is to help as many of these charities as we can. Pieta House have done fantastic work over the years and these are all local charities helping local people.”

Another ambassador lending her support is Aoife Lennon (28), from Armagh, who played soccer for Northern Ireland and Gaelic football for her county. Aoife, who is marking her third year of helping Pieta, has painful, first-hand experience of the devastating consequences of suicide, but is using that pain to help others and is now on “a journey of self-discovery”.

Her dad John took his own life when he was 52 and Aoife was just 13. A loving father, whose support and encouragement were instrumental in fostering his daughter’s sporting ability, he had suffered from depression.

But, as Aoife explains, at that young age she hadn’t even heard of the condition and didn’t know anything about mental health. One day, she had her beloved dad, and the next he was gone.

“At 13, you are trying to find who you are, you are just growing up as a person,” she says.

“Suicide wasn’t talked about then. I just went back to school. When I lost my dad, I lost myself because I started to look outside my life for coping mechanisms. It was only when I was older that I understood how it had affected me.”

Aoife Lennon with her dad John who, having suffered from depression, took his own life at age 52 when she was 13

The coping mechanism she turned to was controlling her calorie intake, which ultimately led to a diagnosis of anorexia.

“At 17 or 18, I began to realise something wasn’t right. Now when I look back, anorexia was soothing the pain of what I was experiencing. I thought that if I could have the perfect body or look a certain way, it would make things better,” she explains.

“But no matter what I had or strived for, there was still something missing. Now I realise I suppressed so many emotions for so many years.”

Aoife has now found a pathway which has enabled her to live with her dad’s loss and look forward with hope.

“I still go to therapy, I meditate, I go to yoga and heal myself in ways that work for me,” she says. And she believes the loss she suffered has given her the power “to be who I am meant to be”.

She is set to qualify as a life coach next month, helping people look to the future in what they can achieve.

“I want to use my pain as power now to help other people. I have found that purpose and passion for what I want to do in my life,” she adds.

As an ambassador, Aoife, who currently plays for Armagh Harps, will also be helping people with tips and guidance on fitness in the run-up to May 8 and intends completing the walk with her family and bringing in the sunrise together.

As for anyone who is struggling, Aoife says the best advice she can give is to talk.

“There’s somebody out there that wants to listen to you. For me, starting to talk about what happened was when I realised I could work through it,” she adds.

Anyone wishing to register for the Darkness into Light event can do so at and contributions can be made to Ian’s challenge through JustGiving by entering Ian Young Online.

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