What is the most important stage in Irish rallying?
By Sean Moriarty
It is a big question, Moll’s Gap immediately springs to mind, as does Knockalla and Atlantic Drive in Donegal.
Everyone has their own favourite stretch of road, Billy Coleman loved the Gortnagane stage that runs from his home town of Millstreet to Killarney, the late Bertie Fisher favoured Lough Carragh as he used to call the famous Kerry stage and Austin MacHale, a Mayo-born Dubliner was at home on any stage in the Partry mountains.
But they all pale into insignificance when the Healy Pass’s contribution to Irish rallying is taken into account.
Named after an Irish politician from West Cork, the famous stage, with its 40 or so bends, straddles the Caha Mountains between Adrigole in Cork and Lauragh in Kerry, the Healy Pass can trace its very foundation to beginning of motorsport in Ireland.
Timothy Michael Healy, (17 May 1855 – 26 March 1931) was an Irish nationalist politician, journalist, author, barrister and one of the most controversial Irish Members of Parliament (MPs) in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
His political career began in the 1880s under Charles Stewart Parnell’s leadership of the Irish Parliamentary Party, and continued into the 1920s, when he was the first Governor-General of the Irish Free State.
He was one of many Irish politicians who successfully campaigned for Ireland to host the Gordon Bennett Trophy Races in 1903.
British driver Selwyn Edge won the 1902 event from Paris to Innsbruck in Austria and as a result Britain earned the right to host the following year’s event.
The Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland wanted the race to be hosted in the British Isles, and their secretary, Claude Johnson, suggested Ireland as the venue because racing was illegal on British public roads.
The editor of the Dublin Motor News, Richard J. Mecredy, suggested an area in County Kildare, and letters were sent to 102 Irish MPs, county councils, hoteliers and even bishops.
MPs canvassed for their support of the race included John Redmond, Healy and Sir Edward Carson
An official Act of Parliament was needed to supress the 12 mph speed limit but it was said at the time that the Irish MPs were so keen for the event to go ahead , it would have happened, official approval or not.
“The race through the three counties went ahead on Thursday 2 July 1903 on a course of two parts forming a figure eight over 104 miles through Kildare, Carlow and Laois and held over five stages from Ballyshannon to Carlow, Carlow to Athy, Athy to Kildare, Kildare to The Heath, and the final stage from The Heath to Athy, “ according to the Kildare Nationalist.
“For its time in 1903 it was a great success, and Ireland, as usual, was fortunate in having the right people of influence to make this event happen.”
The event had far reaching effects, nationally and internationally. It was the second ever race on a closed circuit (an event took place near Bastogne in Belgium in 1902), previous events were run as point-to-point city events and so the idea of Grand Prix racing was born in Belgium but really came of age in Ireland.
More importantly, the idea of closing roads to allow motorsport was also permitted for the first time and it is a superseded version of this act that allows Irish motor clubs to apply to local councils for road closing orders. (There is more on this in part two of the series).
The Tim Healy Pass
The regional road in the Beara peninsula crosses the Caha Mountains.
It runs from the R572 at Adrigole in County Cork to the R571 near Lauragh in County Kerry.
It is a popular tourist route with the pass at an altitude of 300m giving panoramas towards Bantry Bay to the south-east and the Kenmare River to the north-west.
The original track, called the Kerry Pass, was cut during the Great Famine as a poor relief public works project.
It was renamed for Healy, former Governor-General of the Irish Free State, who died in 1931 shortly after the road was improved.
Its place in motorsport history
The first Ulster Trial, the forerunner to the Circuit of Ireland took place in 1931, the same year Healy died.
It grew in stature and five years later it become a fully-fledged long-distance tour of Ireland.
Back then, rally events were decided on short manoeuvrability tests, regularity sections and night map-reading navigation to find a winner
The first time the Circuit of Ireland came to Kerry was in 1936 but contemporary reports suggest the Healy Pass was not visited on this occasion nor is it fully known (to this author anyway) when the Healy Pass first featured in the Circuit of Ireland.
Timed to the second stages
The sport moved from regularity and navigational style events to timed-to-the-second special stages some time in the 1950s.
It is believed the first timed ascent of the Healy Pass took place in 1951 – the first-ever timed-to-a-second special in Irish rallying although the historic books of the time are vague.
“Also held on Easter Sunday was a timed ascent of Tim Healy Pass in County Kerry. This famous Circuit hill had been resurfaced since last year and most drivers were able to reduce their previous times by several seconds. “ reports The Motor Magazine on April 23, 1952.
For the record D.G. Scott driving a MG set the fastest time of 44.2 seconds for his attempt at the ascent and while the test was not a special stage as we now know it, there is no doubt what the organiser, The Ulster Automobile club was thinking at the time.
The 1953 Circuit of Ireland overnighted in Cork and while the following year the event was back in Killarney organisers chose roads on the Ring of Kerry for the Easter Sunday run.
While the Circuit did visit the Beara Peninsula over the course of the next few years the next recorded use of the Pass was in 1958 when Autosport Magazine (April 18.1958) reports of a timed decent from the summit in to the Cork side of the valley and again the following year.
The Healy Pass was also used in 1960 and 1961 and 1962 and 1963.
In the UK, the RAC Rally did not get permission to use forestry commission roads until 1969 but it seems the Irish were, once again, ahead on this.
“The Healy Pass was used again, having been dropped last year but this year’s 5.8 miles included the climb and decent and even Paddy Hopkirk was one minute outside the 7-minute bogey,” reported the May 1 1965 edition of Motor while the April 17 1969 issue of Autocar said: “The 88 miles of special sections included all the old favourites such as Moll’s Gap on the Killarney to Kenmare road, the double and dizzy climb of the Tim Healy Pass and the exciting dash along the rocky road at Carragh Lake.”
While this article brings us up the end of the 1960s and at the time it was clear what direction the sport was taking, we can’t finish without a quick look at modern times.
The pass continued to be a Circuit favourite until it left Killarney for the final time in 1983, and has been used on several Rally of the Lakes and Killarney Historic rallies,the most recent on last year’s 40th anniversary of the Rally of the Lakes,there can be no doubt about the contribution this stretch of road has made to Irish rallying history.
It is also the home place of Brian Duggan, founder of Rally.ie, a pioneer of the digital age but with his roots firmly in the Healy Pass.
The most important?
A stage named after the politician who helped bring closed-road motorsport to Ireland and the scene of the first timed-to-a-second test in the Irish republic is the most historically-important stage in the country – hard to argue given the compelling information posted here!