The History of Motorsport in Kerry
The first proper Circuit of Ireland visited Kenmare, Killarney, Tralee and Listowel, 84 years ago, almost to the day!
By Sean Moriarty
The first time the Circuit of Ireland visited Kerry was in 1936.
While the rally was always associated with Killarney up until 1983, the first event visited Tralee, Listowel and Ballybunnion too. It took place between the 11 and 14 of April 1936 -84 years ago to the day.
What began as the Ulster Trial (and that in itself was a add on to a motorcycle trial from the late 1920s) grew in stature to become one of the most iconic rallies in the world.
“As the competitive nature of the event grew, the organising club, the Ulster Automobile Club, sought to make the event an even sterner test of men and machine. To do so it was necessary to increase the mileage covered and this could be done only by making the event an all-Ireland trial with a route roughly following the coastline. Thus the 1936 event became the Circuit of Ireland Trial with a 1,089-miles route starting from Bangor and visiting Dundalk, Wexford, Killarney, Ballybunion, Lahinch, Clifden, Ballina, Ballyshannon, Derry, Larne and Belfast before finishing at Bangor,” wrote motoring historian Bob Montgomery in the Irish Times in May 2004.
Bob is the curator of the Royal Irish Automobile Club’s archive in Dawson Street and author of countless books on the history of motorsport and motoring in Ireland.
Another expert is the Belfast Telegraph’s Sammy Hammill, one of Ireland’s leading motorsport journalists and author of the 1981 book The Circuit of Ireland Rally – Fifty Years On.
“Record books tell the story of a rally which the Ulster Automobile Club began in 1931 as a weekend jaunt around Ulster for a small and privileged group of car owners but grew in distance and status to become one of the best known in Europe,” he wrote in the Belfast Telegraph in April 2016.
“From Jimmy McCafferty, the 1931 winner, to Craig Breen in 2015 it has brought many of the world’s greatest drivers to Ireland, survived the Second World War, continued through the Ulster Troubles and has overcome everything from foot and mouth disease to storms, both financial and weather-borne. Those of us who have delved into its history know it produced winners like a 17-year-old Ronnie Adams, who was home on holiday from his English boarding school when he co-drove Basil Clarke’s Austin 16 to victory in the first round Ireland version in 1936, and Christopher Lindsay, who drove and navigated his Ford Special to the only single-handed win in 1949.
Further examination of those history books reveal that Basil Clarke and Ronnie Adams did indeed win the first proper Circuit of Ireland (and by default the first one to visit Kerry) but there was a third person on board their Austin 16 Kempton Saloon named Wick Holmes who (most likely) served as the intrepid pair’s mechanic.
Adams went on to win the 1956 Monte Carlo Rally and is his biography: From Craiganlet To Monte Carlo, records the 1936 event,
“The trio were allocated the start number of 53 (out of 85) and shared the driving on the the long tiring run to Killarney , almost 400 miles which they completed without incident. As arranged they shared the driving until weather conditions deteriorated and the road became wet a slippery on the West Coast, when Ronnie was asked to do more of the driving,” it said.
A magazine called The Monthly Review describes to route in perfect detail where the remaining cars from the 85 starters approached Kerry from the West Cork side – Gouganebarra and Glengarrif to be precise.
“From Gelngarriff, our route moves northward, through rugged mountain passes, winding all the way, to Kenmare, and by Windy Gap, whence passing Looscaunnagh Lake it descends in a zig-zag course of curves to Killarney,” said a contemporary feature in the magazine.
The same journal picks up the story the following day as the rally left Killarney for the long run back to Bangor
“Starting off in Killarney, the route is via Tralee – the chief town of Kerry – and northwards to Listowel. Here there is a detour, but well worth the trouble – to Ballybunnion washed by Big Atlantic waves,” the article added, “From here, the motorist climbs around the coast line to meet the main road at Tarbert…”
The same magazine carried a preview feature prior to the rally.
“The way from Glengarriff to Killarney is through Kenmare and includes the ascent and descent of the mountains. The road is consequently tortuous but the surface is excellent,” said the article as it directed competitors to the Great Southern Hotel in the town where the Easter Sunday morning time control was situated.
The journal warned competitors to book their hotels well in advance and while the hotel list was published in the official regulations, a teachers’ conference in the town had already taken over 1,700 beds.
The rally restarted at 10am on Easter Monday morning and headed for the next control at Ballybunnion.
“The road recommended is that running through Tralee and Listowel. The route through Abbeydorney and Ballyduff is not such a good surface and is liable to flooding,” warned the Monthly Review.
The Ballybunnion control was situated in the Garda Barracks of the town.
The rally continued as a true Circuit until the outbreak of World War 2, the 1939 event was the last to run until 1946.
It ran every year from 1946, (it is assumed it visited Kerry every year too) until its last visit to Killarney in 1983, with the exception of 1948 because of fuel rationing and 1972 because of political unrest in Northern Ireland.
As ever these posts are drafts of what is hoped will be the full picture of the sport in County Kerry
In the last month it has been proven beyond doubt that motorsport took place in county Kerry in 1903, 1908, 1909, 1924 and 1936.
Each post throws up a new shard of evidence that needs to he explored – in this case Tralee and Ballybunnion mentioned as being on the route of the very first all-Ireland Circuit.
The history books are kinder to Kerry from the 1950s, I have in my possession a published book, that is really a scrapbook of press cutting from 1951 to 1971 so the next 20 years will be slightly easier to trace – of course that is until The Kingdom of Kerry Motor Club’s foundation comes into play in the 1960s…possibly!
All comments and extra info welcomed.