It’s rare that you find yourself in a 24hr McDonalds in Amsterdam debating whether to get a bus to Vienna, but this is exactly the type of situation the Irish Jailbreak race creates. Participating in Jailbreak sounds exhausting—but, equally, exhilarating. For the past five years, in teams of two, students have raced across the globe to raise money for Amnesty International and St Vincent de Paul (SVP). Jailbreak has grown substantially over the past few years, so much so that it now receives national media attention, with the Irish Times reporting on the event this year. The first Jailbreak, organised by Trinity College societies, was set up in 2013 and consisted of a small group of Trinity students. Now, four years later, Jailbreak has expanded to 166 students and 8 colleges around Ireland. Trinity News speaks to 2017 Jailbreak participant Úna Ní Chanáin, along with Seán Clerkin and Seán Kelly who were involved in 2015, to share and collect the experiences of this hectic, adventure-filled and utterly unique event.
Kind taxi drivers: Seán Clerkin — 2015
On March 7th 2015, Seán Clerkin and his teammate started their adventure a bit differently than most others do. “We had no plan of action at all, unlike a lot of other teams at the time. We spent about six hours walking around town talking to people here and there, gathering as much as we could in donations toward our travel. At about 5pm, with businesses closing and flights leaving, we found ourselves with about €100 and nowhere to go”. They decided they would hop on a bus to Belfast with a round-trip ticket with the intention of returning home at 2am—but it was in Belfast that their experience became a lot more interesting.
While sitting in a Belfast cafe, Seán’s team discovered that they had enough funds to board a relatively obscure ferry to Scotland. But they were up against the clock. Once they reached the ferry, they learned that they were actually £40 short and needed to do some quick last-minute fundraising. Fortunately, the taxi driver who dropped them to the ferry kindly waited for them to ensure they boarded the ferry, and when they explained the situation, he dropped them back to a nearby town free of charge.
This would prove to be a crucial pit-stop in the journey: “We had half an hour to get the money together, or it was back to Dublin. But after going into some pubs, we had it done in no time.” The charitable nature of the public came through. They hopped into the nearest taxi and managed to buy tickets for the ferry just in time. Their time in Belfast ended on a heartwarming note: “The best part was, when we were sitting in the lounge waiting to be called, the first taxi driver showed up again to see if we had made it. The look on his face when he saw us…”
The peculiarity of Seán’s travels wasn’t over yet. As soon as they boarded the ferry they realised that they were alone: “We had the whole thing to ourselves, we were given free food and the captain even gave us a tour of the ship.” Seán’s experience is a perfect example of how Jailbreak creates once in a lifetime situations, a journey you would never normally find yourself involved in. While Seán and his teammate didn’t plan any of this, the very nature of Jailbreak pushed them into a certifiably unique experience.
Seán’s Jailbreak journey ended when they docked in Cairnryan, a Scottish ferry port. While it’s less than 200km from Dublin, and over 1400km from the final destination that year— Lake Bled, Slovenia—Seán explains that you don’t have to travel as far as possible to get the most out of Jailbreak. “It’s something I’ll never forget. You don’t even need to have a globetrotting journey to come back with a great story”.
Gambling on Vienna in McDonalds: Úna Ní Chanáin — 2017
One of this year’s participants, Úna Ní Chanáin, says she signed up with her housemate half an hour before the applications closed: “Myself and my housemate (and teammate) Katie [Dunphy] were having a chat about how we wished we had signed up for it. And then we decided we still should!” Úna was also excited by doing something for a worthy cause: “I loved the idea of it, and the fact that the money raised went to SVP and Amnesty International made it all the more enticing”.
Ní Chanáin and Dunphy received corporate sponsorship from an engineering firm with whom Katie had done an internship, with sponsored flights to Amsterdam included. They continued their journey by hopping on a 16-hour bus ride to Vienna, followed by a less arduous 3-hour bus journey to Budapest, their final destination. It was in Budapest, or more precisely the Szimpla Kurt (one of the city’s most famous ruin bars), that Úna and Katie managed to add a lot of weight to their donations bucket.
One of the most exciting, but challenging aspects of Jailbreak is the unknown. As Ní Chanáin stated, “[e]veryone was aiming to get to the same destination, but no one knew where it was going to be”. Thanks to this element of uncertainty, Jailbreak creates pivotal moments of instinct and decision making. Teams rely on their wits without much else to go on. It was in the aforementioned 24hr McDonalds that a crucial decision for Úna and Katie was taking place: “money was limited and the clues to location ‘X’ were sparse.” Caught between a rock and a hard place, this team decided to take a gamble. Rather than waiting for the next clue, the sleepless two travelled overnight to Vienna. While the gamble didn’t pay off, Ní Chanáin says that it “definitely didn’t stop [their] fun”.
Karaoke fundraising in Munich: Seán Kelly — 2015
Like Úna and Katie, Seán Kelly’s 2015 journey also started with a flight to Amsterdam. “We had a company book us flights to Amsterdam in return for viral thank-you tweets,” says Seán, commenting on the viral aspect of the competition that has become a vital part of Jailbreak. “Getting off the island is essential. Moving forward through Europe is the easy part. The faster you get out of Ireland the more popular you become,” he says. As Seán knows, popularity is crucial in Jailbreak. Notoriety equals more social media exposure, leading to more donations, and ultimately more funds to use in pursuit of the final destination.
Kelly and his teammate decided to take a train to Frankfurt from Amsterdam. They subsequently “did some Karaoke until [they] could afford another train to Munich”. By the time their karaoke exploits had granted them enough funds to get this train, it was 2.17am. The last train was scheduled to leave at 2.30am from the other side of the city. As in all good Jailbreak stories, a benevolent stranger stepped in to lend a hand. A man with whom they had made conversation during the karaoke session offered to drive them to the station. “He was only 22 at the time. Turned out his dad was a director in one of the German banks. His Audi A3 was parked around the corner.” Kelly continued: “he drove across the city getting us to our train with literally one minute to spare.” The train was actually moving when Seán and his partner leapt on, making their night in Frankfurt one to remember.
All three former Jailbreak contestants may have had vastly different journeys, but they all have one thing in common: praise for the event. When asked if he was glad he took part, Seán Clerkin had no hesitations: “absolutely. It’s something I’ll never forget.” Seán Kelly admitted that “the contest breaks boundaries and tests your nerve to the limit”, but that the experience is unique in proving the willingness of people, worldwide, to help others and each other. As Seán said “most importantly [Jailbreak] teaches us that when you reach out to people, people do reach back.” Finally, Úna Ní Chanáin cites the excitement of taking part in such a thrilling event: “The whole weekend was just such an adventure, full of lots of laughs and good times!” She wants to become a tracker for next year’s Jailbreak, ensuring that future participants have a safe and fulfilling journey.
As Jailbreak becomes more popular, it raises the question of how exactly it will grow. It will surely expand to more third-level institutions and maybe even universities in the UK; maybe the duration will be lengthened, the size of the teams expanded or the ‘destination x’ format scrapped. Regardless, one thing is guaranteed: its contribution to Amnesty International and SVP will only continue to grow.
Words by Michael Foley and Colm O’Halloran.
Sam Cox contributed to this article.