By Sean Moriarty
Irish motorsport is often the envy of far bigger countries and for a small nation, our reputation for punching far above our weight is something to be very proud of.
Recent history records World Rally Championship stardom for the likes of Kris Meeke, Paul Nagle and Craig Breen.
Just prior to that we had the great days of Eddie Jordan’s Formula One Grand Prix Team and Eddie Irvine’s Ferrari days in the 1990s.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, for the last 117 years Irish men and women have flown the flag for motorsport on and off this great little island (even Britain carries the flag for Ireland but you will have to read the whole article to know why) but where did it all start?
And that start is interwoven in many ways into modern Irish, British and even world motorsport.
The two main instigators in this great story are two very different institutions from opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
The first is the New York Herald Tribune newspaper and the second is the British Government in Westminster. Without these two crossing paths our story could have taken a very different road.
First, we need to examine the role the famous newspaper played in the foundation of motorsport in Ireland.
At the time, newspapers were the prime movers behind major events. Publishers believed a great sporting occasion, peppered with human interest stories of valour and suffering, competition and stories of great adventure would be a great way to self-promote and to sell more copies every day.
The Tour De France Cycle race was founded in 1903 and was the brainchild of the then editor and his writers of Le Auto Velo, a French car and cycling newspaper.
The New York Herald Tribune was equally outlandish in the ideas it put forward to sell more copies.
The owner’s son James Bennett Jr (and his crew) won the first Trans-Atlantic Yacht race and the paper was responsible for creating the Americas Cup, still one of the most prestigious yacht races in the world.
James Gordon Bennett Jr was sent to Paris by his father, to head up the European arm of the business and to create events that would sell more papers.
Bennett Jr decided that auto racing would be a great way to achieve his goal and set up the Gordon Bennett Cup Motor Races. The first races were city-to-city races; Paris – Dijon (1900), Paris – Bordeaux (1901) and Paris – Innsbruck (1902).
“The Gordon Bennett International Trophy was to be contested by teams of three cars, each nominated by a recognised national club. Every part of the car had to be made in the country of origin, drivers and entrants representing national clubs were to be members of those clubs,” explains Brendan Lynch in his book Triumph of the Red Devil which is the most comprehensive account of this fascinating time in Irish and motoring history.
The winner of the previous year’s race would have the honour of hosting the following year’s event and so it came to pass that British driver Selwyn Edge at the wheel of a Napier won the 351-mile race from the French capital to the Austrian town.
It was no ordinary win, he spent the two nights prior to the race rebuilding the gearbox on his Napier but it was the first international race win for a British manufacturer. Just as important, Britain had the honour of hosting the 1903 The Gordon Bennett International Trophy
At the time Ireland was still under British rule and elected Irish politicians of the time plied their trade in Westminster.
Remember this was only seven years after the Emancipation Act which overruled the need for a flagman walking ahead of a motor car to warn other road users, horsemen and women particularly that a motorised vehicle was on the way.
The speed limit at the time was just 12 miles per hour and if a race was to go ahead an act of parliament would be needed to suspend the speed limit.
Other factors were at play too. It was said at the time that the British were far too law-abiding to allow the event to go ahead.
This is something the Irish MPs seized upon either as another act of defiance against British rule or because most of the elected Irish MPs came from either a motor industry, publishing or cycling background or were well-connected in these strands of Irish society.
It was said at the time that the Irish politicians were so determined for the race to go ahead they would have ran it anyway, official approval or not.
Politicians who led the Irish calls for the race to be held here in Ireland included Tim Healy, the same man who was responsible for building a stretch of road that linked West Cork with South Kerry – yes the Tim Healy Pass…
Businessmen who supported the plan included, Richard Mecredy, a champion cyclist from County Galway, one of the early members of the Royal Irish Automobile Club, who was the editor of Dublin Motor News.
Mecredy, through his newspaper, was friends with Claude Johnson, the secretary of the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland and they identified a road circuit near Athy, County Kildare as a suitable venue for the race.
The Act of Parliament was passed in record time, mainly due to British political ambivalence, and it received the Royal Seal of Approval on March 27, 1903, almost 117 years ago to the day.
It is a superseded version of this act that allows closed road motorsport in Ireland even though now its managed by county councils on a local level rather than by the national government. More significantly this Act of Parliament paved the way for such events as the Isle of Man TT motorcycle Races which were first ran in 1907.
The circuit chosen for the 1903 Gordon Bennett International Cup Race was centred on Athy, County Kildare and passed through counties Kildare, Laois and Carlow.
The race was held on Thursday July 2, 1903, with twelve competitors representing France, Germany, the USA and Britain.
As a thank you to the Irish MPs and businessmen who pushed so hard for the race Edge and his teammates each painted their racing cars Emerald Green and to this day British marques that race all over the world carry some version of what is now known as British Racing Green.
The race began at Ballyshannon, Co. Kildare, where a grandstand was provided to accommodate 1,000 spectators.
Leaving at seven-minute intervals to ensure maximum safety on the course, the cars passed through villages in the three counties along the route.
The race consisted of an eastern circuit of 40 miles, which the competitors tackled first, followed by a western circuit of almost 52 miles. Each circuit was lapped three times with an extra lap of the western circuit so that the racing cars passed through Athy seven times.
When passing through villages the cars were required to keep within the 12 mph speed limit.
Of the twelve cars that started the race only five completed the course, with the Belgian Camille Jenatzy, driving a Mercedes, for the German team, the winner in a time of 6 hours 39 minutes and an average speed of 49.2 mph.
Mercedes paid him the princely sum of £5,000 plus a share of the profit on the sale of the car for his efforts.
An interesting side note but the total car population in Ireland at the time was 250.
The Athy circuit became the first international motor race run on a closed-road circuit- the previous races were all point to point city events.
Bennett withdrew his sponsorship in 1905, but the idea of Grand Prix Racing had been born and the first-ever Grand Prix was held in France in 1906.
The Gordon Bennett International Cup race was the main event in what is widely referred to as Speed Fortnight and after the main show other events followed all over the country including a hillclimb in Down, a speed trial in Cork and a motor show in Dublin.
Kerry hosted a closed road event during Speed Fortnight, the Ballyfinnane Hillclimb and speed trials on Inch beach were held at a later date and these two events will be subject of the next historical features.
Thanks to Kildare.ie and Triumph of the Red Devil by Brendan Lynch for research materials