The Circuit of Ireland in Killarney – the beginning of the end – pre-1983 political wranglings

By Sean Moriarty /Photos by John Crone

The 1983 Circuit of Ireland Rally might have been the rally’s last visit to Killarney but the writing was on the wall for at least three years.

The first evidence that all was not well in the camp was published in The Kerryman newspaper in 1981.

The Ulster Automobile Club had lost its title sponsor, Benson and Hedges tobacco, and urgently needed cash to keep the show on the road.   

The tobacco company had been the title sponsor since 1974 (and was largely responsible for funding the 1973 event without actually being named) and its fair to say that its large wallet helped the rally grow.

As a counting round of the British Open Rally Championship, and from 1978 the Irish Tarmac Championship, the event attracted the best of Irish and UK drivers.

It also carried European Rally Championship status and was on the radar of some of the biggest names in the sport across the world, Finnish star Pentti Airikkla won the event in 1979 in a Vauxhall Chevette HS.

Like the ‘Circuit’ the World Rally Championship counting Safari Rally traditionally took place over the Easter weekend.

Some of the manufacturer teams would not send a full complement of drivers to Africa and those who were asked to stay at home were often redirected to the Circuit of Ireland.

For example, Ari Vatanen won the 1983 African classic driving a Rothmans Opel Ascona 400 but his teammate Henri Toivonen was driving a sister car in Ireland the same weekend.

Likewise, Hannu Mikkola and Michele Mouton were driving for the works Audi squad in Kenya but Stig Blomqvist was in Ireland in 1983 despite being very much part of the German team’s world championship effort – he led Rallye Monte Carlo earlier in the year.

Benson and Hedges decided to withdraw its sponsorship arrangement at the end of the 1980 event, leaving event organiser the Ulster Automobile Club without a title sponsor and a major headache for the following year

The news triggered alarm bells in Killarney.

Killarney Junior Chamber of Commerce, up to this point, had been very generous in supporting the rally’s visit to the town. Local fundraisers, organised by the Chamber, generated over £3,000 and the Killarney Traders and Hoteliers contributed cash prizes to the overall award fund.

Additionally, local businesses supported individual driver efforts, The Gleneagle Hotel sponsored the Talbot Sunbeam of William Gibson in 1983, for example.

However, the UAC owned the Golden Goose and without a title sponsor, someone was going to have to pay. The club decided to wield its power in early 1981 and threatened to pull the rally unless more funds were forthcoming from the Kerry town.

The Fair Field car park in Killarney – Easter 1982 – photo by John Crone

The Kerryman newspaper report at time tells the story.

‘THE Ulster Automobile Club have suggested an urgent meeting with Killarney Junior Chamber within the next week to discuss the future of the Circuit of Ireland Rally in view of the announcement this week by Benson and Hedges that they were withdrawing their sponsorship of the event.

The Rally, which stops over in Killarney every Easter, is believed to bring anything from £1 million to £2 million to the town each year.

The news of the Benson and Hedges decision to withdraw from the rally evoked dismay and concern among hotel and other tourist interests in Killarney.

But the President of Killarney Junior Chamber, Mr. Liam Lynch, allayed local fears when he stated on Wednesday that the Rally would go ahead in 1981 and will come to Killarney next year and in subsequent years.

“The Ulster Automobile Club have asked for a meeting with me and the Chapter as quickly as possible, and this will be held within the next week in Killarney,” Mr. Lynch told The Kerryman.

“We will be discussing the whole situation in relation to the Rally and Killarney’s involvement. I am naturally very surprised to hear of Benson and Hedges’ withdrawal, and we are very concerned about the situation.

“But the Rally will be on in 1981. That is for certain. The only thing that has changed is the fact that Benson & Hedges won’t be involved.””

The rally did come to Killarney the following two years but without an overall title sponsor.

McRae won both encounters at the wheel of an Opel Ascona 400 but it was clear that the UAC was already looking elsewhere.

A certain Ari Vatanen was seventh in his Ford Escort in 1982.

Ari Vatanen waits to leave Killarney Parc Ferme in 1982 – thanks to John Crone for the photo

Local finishers included Killarney garage man Billy Daly who was 23rd in his Volkswagen Golf GTi and Fintan Foley and John Crone (who supplied the photos for this article) who brought their Talbot Horizon home in 37th place.

The club secured Rothmans as the title sponsor for the following year, 1983, but it was already in contact with other towns that were willing to pay more for the right to host the rally.

A rare photo of Billy Coleman on the Carragh Lake stage of the 1983 Circuit of Ireland, the last time the rally came to Kerry. Photo by John Crone

In May 1982, the now legendary 2fm sports broadcaster Des Cahill wrote the following in The Kerryman, proving there was already acrimony between the club and Killarney Chamber.

“THERE is a strong possibility that the Circuit of Ireland rally will not return to Killarney in Easter 1983.

I understand that members of the organising committee, the Ulster Automobile Club, were annoyed about overcharging, traffic problems, and the small amount of sponsorship given.

Representatives from the Ulster Automobile Club will visit Killarney to discuss the problems with members of the local Junior Chamber, who organise the Rally’s stopover in Killarney.

The Ulster Automobile Club have two other definite venues, which they are considering as an alternative to Killarney for 1983, unless there will be an improvement here in the near future.

When questioned on the matter, Liam Lynch of Junior Chamber, said: “There are serious difficulties, and we are looking into them.”’

Killarney may have escaped the pre-1983 event threat but the UAC had a deal done with Waterford for the following year and that was that.

The Killarney traders were justifiably annoyed at the decision, they were never found wanting when it came to money, but the same money talks and Waterford shouted louder.

Unconfirmed reports, from the time, suggest that the 1983 event was marred with anti-social behaviour in the town over the Easter Weekend, several arrests were made, and while the traders wanted the rally the townsfolk had enough and there was considerable pressure applied to end the event’s association with Killarney.

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