For the weekend that’s in it
By Sean Moriarty
Ask any Kerry-based rally fan over the age of 45 why they got involved in the sport and the answer is, invariably, some version of the following.
“It is the Ulster Automobile’s Club’s fault,” they say. “The Circuit of Ireland Rally passed my door every Easter.”
From the early days in the 1930s up until 1983, Killarney hosted the Saturday and Sunday overnight halts. Competitors rallied on famous roads like Moll’s Gap, Caragh Lake that we still use today and on stages like Slea Head which is currently enjoying an extended break from rallying.
The first rallies were navigational-style tours but as the sport moved towards timed-to-the second special stages the Healy Pass became the first stage in the Republic of Ireland to be timed in such a fashion. That occurred in the 1960s, it is believed, but that is a story for another day.
It is all of 38 years since the ‘Circuit’ last visited the county but the memories linger on.
Back then it was a proper five-day marathon across the whole country, starting in Belfast on Good Friday morning and return the Northern Irish capital on Easter Tuesday afternoon after a whopping 54 stages.
It was the second year of Rothmans sponsorship, previous sponsor Benson and Hedges pulled the pin after the 1980 event but the writing was already on the wall for Killarney- a long running dispute between the Ulster Automobile Club and the Killarney Junior Chamber was about to spillover and the rally, unknown to everyone involved at the time, was heading to the Kerry tourist town for the last time.
“Those were the days, admittedly distant now, when Easter meant only one thing to a determined band of brothers (and sisters too) who hit the road, bound for Killarney and beyond, “said the Belfast Telegraph’s legendary rally journalist Sammy Hamill.
“It was Circuit of Ireland time and we loaded up our cars ready for a marathon five-day trek all over the island to marvel at the skills of some of the best drivers in the world. The Seventies and Eighties were the halcyon days of a rally which, then, was regarded as the ultimate challenge of man and machine.”
The 1983 rally was a counting round of British Open Rally Championship and The Irish Tarmac Rally Championship and the entry list reflected this.
It read like a who-is-who of Irish, British and World stars and the quality of cars they drove have since become the most iconic and loved cars of any era.
Scottish legend Jim McRae in a Rothmans Opel Ascona was the top seed and his opposition came from the likes of Stig Blomqvist (Audi quattro), Penti Airikkla (Lancia 037) and Russell Brookes (Vauxhall Chevette HSR). There were many more legendary names on the list too: Henri Toivonen (Ascona 400), Malcolm Wilson (Ford Escort RS1600i) amongst the top seeds.
There was no Kerry driver on the list, the closest being one John Moynihan, who now runs his eponymous rally preparation business just across the county-bounds in Millstreet, County Cork.
By the time the rally arrived in County Kerry on Easter Saturday evening the crews had tackled a whopping 23 stages. Ten of them took place in Northern Ireland on Good Friday but the real challenge started at 5am on Saturday morning with the Ballyolly stage in County Down.
The journey to Killarney had begun in earnest, three more stages north of the border before the entourage entered the Irish Republic just in time for a 7am breakfast stage (Four Knocks) near Drogheda.
Nuttstown in County Meath and a spectator-friendly crack at Mondello Park were all completed by 10am.
At this point, Airikkla had a 32 second lead over Russell Brookes with Bertie Fisher third in an Ascona over two minutes in arrears.
The best Republic of Ireland driver was Austin MacHale who was in fifth place and enjoying a great battle with Brendan Fagan in a brace of Vauxhall Chevettes.
Five more stages in County Tipperary, all within touching distance of either Roscrea or Nenagh brought the crews ever closer to the overnight halt in Killarney.
The penultimate stage near Tournafulla was set 4pm on Easter Saturday and at last local fans could all but see what they had spent the last 12 months dreaming of.
The 13th and final stage of that epic trek from Belfast was the first of many in the Kingdom that weekend.
Officially named Knockrower East, the stage started on the main Ballydesmond to Scartaglin Road and finished near Anabla National School in Kilcummin.
Versions have used since by the Rally of the Lakes but called (among other names) Quarry Cross.
The first car was due to start the 10.28-mile stage at 17.28, some 13 hours since the crews left Belfast earlier that day.
The Killarney Hotels were a welcome respite after a hard day’s work.
Tune in tomorrow (April 11, 2020) to learn what stages were used on that final Easter Sunday Run through the Kerry mountains.