By Sean Moriarty
With the Gordon Bennett International Trophy race out of the way attention turned to a series of regional events that made up what is referred to as either Irish Speed Fortnight or Irish Automobile Fortnight.
Events included speed trials in Dublin’s Phoenix Park on Saturday July 4, 1903, and a trial and hillclimb in County Down the following Tuesday.
A week later the travelling circus arrived in the south of the country for a speed trial along the Carrigrohane Straight – later the venue for the Cork Grand Prix between 1936 and 1938.
The final event in the first fortnight of motorsport in Ireland was a hillclimb in Ballyfinnane, halfway between Tralee and Killarney which was held on Wednesday, July 15 but before talking about the Kerry event it is important to revisit some of the events that proceeded it.
Thousands of spectators turned up for the Phoenix Park event, intrigued by the newspaper coverage of the events two days earlier.
The event consisted of ten class-based time trials or head-to-head to races and two things of historical importance occurred there.
Belgian competitor Barron de Forrest, at the wheel of a Mors, recorded a speed of 84.09 mph, a world land speed record at the time but it was never officially recognised as the Phoenix Park track was on a slight slope!
The driver who took home the greater amount of trophies that day was the Right Honourable Charles Rolls who was also driving a Mors. He finished third in the Irish Automobile Club’s 200 Guineas for racing cars up to 1000kg, he was second in the flying Kilometre event, just 0.6 of a second off de Forrest’s record-breaking attempt and he won the Private Members Cup (at 79.25 mph) duel against JE Hutton who was driving a Mercedes.
Two events in County Down followed and again that man Charles Rolls was to the forefront of the results. He finished second in the Ballybannon Hillclimb the following Tuesday but did not feature on the results of the Cloagh sprint later the same day although the history books record that he set a time of 2mins 14.2 for the 2.5 mile course near the town of Castlewellan.
The Irish organisers could be justifiably proud of themselves up to this point of their demanding schedule but while there were still two big events left to run, many of the competitors chose at this point to return to their business interests in London and Europe, Rolls stuck around for the remaining two events in Cork and Kerry.
By Saturday, July 11, the remaining entourage descended on Cork city for a speed trial event on the Carrigrohane straight on the Kerry road out of the city.
Rolls was once again victorious in his Mors, completing the 2.25-mile course in 1 min 49.6 seconds, he won the Cork Constitution Cup for racing cars under 1000kg.
He arrived in Kerry in time for the Wednesday July 15 Kerry Hillclimb as firm favourite.
This was the very first motorsport event in Kerry, it is often reputed that the Kerry hillclimb was the second-ever closed-road event in Ireland but the preceding paragraphs here have disproved that theory.
I am grateful to motoring historian Brendan Lynch – the following paragraph is taken from his book Green Dust – Ireland’s Unique Motor Racing History from 1900-1939.
“Cork, unfortunately, saw the last of the good weather and a torrential downpour reduced the number of both cars and spectators at the Kerry Hillclimb. The July 15 event took place on a 1,200-yard stretch of the Killarney-Tralee road near Ballyfinnane.
“Local curiosity was sufficient for the 800 people to brave the rain and their zeal was rewarded with fast driving in the County Kerry Cup competition.
“With the rain easing off for the racing, Charles Rolls once again gave value for money as he thundered up the hill in his Mors to win the with a time of 1 min 1.8 secs from the Daimler driver P.G Garrad. J.W Cross should have contested the final-run off with Rolls but he was unable to start his Humber.
“Despite the weather, the beautiful Kerry area made a favourable impression on the overseas visitors and, as Motor magazine commented, the Killarney Hoteliers also charged the most reasonable prices of the whole Irish fortnight.”
The hotel story was, possibly, lost on Rolls who was notoriously tight with money and often he and his mechanic/co-driver slept underneath the car ahead of events.
A year later Rolls was introduced to Henry Royce by a friend at the Royal Automobile Club, Henry Edmunds, who was also a director of Royce Ltd.
Edmunds arranged the historic meeting between Rolls and Royce at the Midland Hotel, Manchester, on May 4, 1904, and by December of that year the pair had entered a partnership – known to this day as Rolls-Royce Motor Cars.
By 1907 Rolls’ interest turned increasingly to flying and he tried to persuade Royce to design an aero engine. He became the first man to make a non-stop double crossing of the English Channel by plane taking 95 minutes on June 2 1910.
On July 12 1910, at the age of 32, Rolls was killed in an air crash at Hengistbury Airfield.
It is said that the Kerry Cup presented to Rolls for winning the Kerry event may still exist
His mechanic/co-driver was T.C Moore Brabazon.
He was still a teenager at this time and worked for Rolls for free during his summer holidays off from Cambridge University. He went on to become one of the pioneers of the aviation field, he served as Minister for Aircraft Production under Winston Churchill during WW2.
His motorsport interests continued into adult life too, in 1907 he won the Circuit des Ardennes in a Belgian-made Minerva and served as president of the Middlesex County Automobile Club from 1946 until his death in 1964.
A recent meeting by the current chairman of the London Irish Motor Club, Killarney man Mick Smith, and the current chair of Middlesex County Automobile Club Mike Hurst outlined plans for the first-ever closed-road rally in the North London area.
History has a habit of catching up with the current and future. I bet the current management team of MCAC did not know that their former president won (as a co-driver or mechanic at least) the first-ever closed road event in Kerry while at the same time they were seeking advice from a Kerry man on how to run a closed road event.
All comments welcome – as they will help complete the full story of motorsport in County Kerry
There are a lot of holes in this story – for example how did the racing cars get to Kerry from Cork, whose idea was it to have an event in Kerry and what hotels did they stay in Killarney – if anyone can furnish additional information on this or the other articles they will be greatly received and all stories will be updated.
Also, the more I research the history of Kerry Motor Sport the more unexplored tracks and I need to go down. The previous post promised some info on the Speed Trials that took place on Inch beach. This event took place in 1924 but I am after finding out since that there were speed trials on Rossbeigh Beach in 1908 and hillclimbs in the Farmer’s Bridge area of Tralee in 1909.