Retracing the 1974 Circuit of Ireland Rally’s only visit to West Kerry

Retracing the Circuit of Ireland Rally’s only visit to West Kerry in 1974

By Sean Moriarty

From a Kerry point of view, the 1974 Benson and Hedges Circuit of Ireland was significant for many reasons.

It was the first, and so far only, time that the Circuit of Ireland rally used the entire Dingle Peninsula for the Sunday run, the new route was brought about by the fuel shortage that was crippling the country and the famous Slea Head stage, ultimately, decided the rally as a contest.

There is one anomaly in those opening lines – the 1937 Circuit of Ireland Trial visited Dingle and Castlegregory (and by default the Conor Pass) but that was a lot more than 20 years before the advent of timed special stages as we now know them.

The fuel crisis is another story.

It was one of the main reasons for the change in the traditional route. Organisers, the Ulster Automobile Club, found considerably more support for the rally from the owners of Kerry filling stations and while the rally very nearly came to a grinding halt near Galway on Easter Saturday morning the crews did (via Mount Eagle) make it to Killarney in time for the traditional Easter Sunday run.

“With 400 miles of the total route of 1,200 miles completed in the Benson and Hedges International Circuit of Ireland rally, official results at Killarney last night confirmed that Cahal Curley and Austin Frazer (Porsche Carrera) had established a lead of 43 seconds over their closest rivals, Cork pair Billy Coleman and Leo Whyte (Ford Escort),” reported the Sunday Independent on Easter Sunday (April 14).

There was another Porsche rally car in the mix too, piloted by Ronnie McCartney/Peter Scott while Adrian Boyd/ Beatty Crawford were driving a Lombard and Ulster Ford Escort 1600cc – the four best Irish crews of the era.


Sunday morning started with Moll’s Gap, turning right at the top, Beallaghbeama, Beallachoisin, Been Hill, Glenbeigh and Carragh Lake.

Not an unusual Sunday run by any means, Carragh Lake, was more-often than not the final stage of the Sunday run and most of the other tests had been used in some variation over the years.

However, things got interesting from Killorglin, and instead of facing for Killarney and an overnight halt, the crews headed for Castlemaine and five more, never-before-used tests on the most westerly peninsula in Europe.

Armed with the official roadbook issued to Cork rally legend, Ger Buckley, our attempt to revisit the exact route of the 1974 Circuit started in the birthplace of the Wild Colonial Boy.

It is an appropriate starting point given that in 1957 the Kingdom of Kerry Motor Club chose Castlemaine as the start location for the first Circuit of Kerry Trial. 

The second tulip tells us to turn right, in the village of Bollteens, at Rae’s Inn for the start of Special Stage 22 Quarry Hill.

Modern rally fans will know this famous pub as the Anvil Bar, the prizegiving venue for the Moriarty’s Centra Kingdom of Kerry County Rally Championship last year. (Eagle-eyed readers will have sussed the direct connection between the name of the championship and the county’s first motor club).


Quarry Hill is known to most local drivers and co-drivers as the Short Mountain but that local name does not appear on any Ordnance Survey map – a theme that will repeat itself over the course of this article.

The 1974 stage start is easily identifiable from the roadbook, but no further information is offered to get to the stage end. Relying on both local knowledge and the official road closing order as it appeared in The Kerryman newspaper in March 1974, the route was easy enough to follow but how did the drivers and co-drivers of nearly 50 years ago manage?

There were no pacenotes back then but the roadbook does draw reference to Map 20, the old small-scale OSI map that covered the entire Dingle Peninsula.

Quarry Hill is the name of a townland on the slopes of the Slieve Mish mountian range before the climb to the Short Mountain begins in earnest.

This very stage has been used in the Circuit of Kerry several times (and in both directions) most recently in 2018 and 2010.

In 1974 the stop car was almost on top of Cloghane Crossroads, just south of Tralee, some six miles from the stage start. Yes, miles, it was 1974.

Interestingly, the name for the mountain on the right of the climb is Knockawaddra, the name given to the stage when it was used as the second test in the first running of the Circuit of Kerry in 1975.

So this was the first stage of the new Circuit of Ireland Dingle Peninsula loop and the second test on the 1975 Circuit of Kerry…but what was the first Kerry stage?

Back to our roadbook, it takes us along the top of the Ballyard area of Tralee, past the scene of a very nasty accident (in the opposite direction) during the 1989 Circuit of Kerry, and through the townlands of Ballydunlea and Tonevane.


Ashes’s Bar Camp at the stage entrance to SS 23

At Blennerville junction the rally continued west to the village of Camp where the roadbook instructed crews to turn left at James Ashe’s Pub for the start of the Knockbrack Stage.

Once again both local knowledge and the old road closing orders helped figure out the true direction of the test from here. The townland of Knockbrack is a good three miles west from this point, nearer to where the locals call Glean na Gealt but the stage, today, would be known as either Camp Mountain or Bothar na gCloch.

The Irish name translates into the road of the stones and the person who named this was a master of understatement. They weren’t referring to the road surface either but to the 1000s of car destroying boulders that litter the 4.67-mile stage.

Another regular on the modern Circuit of Kerry, it was also used by Peugeot Sport, Craig Breen and Scott Martin to test the new Peugeot 208 S2000 ahead of both the 2014 Circuit of Kerry and Circuit of Ireland rallies.

This was the first stage of the 1975 Circuit of Kerry, mapped out by future Rally of the Lakes supremo Mike Marshall, and the loop made perfect sense, from the Brandon Hotel headquarters in Tralee, crews in 1975 turned left at the stage finish and headed for Rae’s Inn.

In 1974, Dingle was the destination, so a right turn was necessary, but not from the finish that  current rally competitors would recognise as the 1974 Circuit of Ireland ventured down the much narrower Aughills road and finished at the gate of where Sean Gallagher now runs a cars sales business.

Next stop Annascaul, according to the 46-year-old roadbook…but not so fast!

First passing the entrance to Inch Strand which hosted speed trials in 1924… who in the Ulster Automobile Club would have known that they were marking the 50th anniversary of that event?


The road section takes the rally along the Red Cliff road, (used in many different variations by the Circuit of Kerry) until the road meets the junction for Minard Castle.

Once again the UAC used the nearest reference point on the map, but this stage is better known as Minard Castle and not Annascaul as the UAC termed it.

The stage start is just a few short yards off the main road, used in the opposite direction for the 2002 and 2004 Circuit of Kerry events, the stage is narrow and nadgery for all of its eight miles.

Yes, eight miles, most Circuit of Kerry stages either started or finished near the village of Lispole (Garrynadur), but the UAC carried on through the narrow farm tracks, to the townland of Kinard, the birthplace of 1916 Easter Rising hero Tomas Ashe, to finish near Emalgh.

The approach to Minard Castle

Left for Dingle, but the 1974 road book becomes redundant in the famous fishing town. One-way streets and new cul de sacs prevent us from following the correct route but it is easy to pick it up again at Milltown Bridge, west of the town.


Follow the signposts for Ventry and find the start of stage 25, Slea Head, on the foothills of another Mount Eagle.

A late 1980s shot of Slea Head from the John Crone collection

Greeted by an incredibly narrow and tricky section, this two- or three-mile section that links with the main Slea Head Drive route would, could and did catch the best of drivers unaware,

Once again, this section has been used, in the opposite direction, on the 2006 Circuit of Kerry and it was this stretch of road alone that ultimately decided the 1974 rally.

On a side note, Slea Head is the only stage in the Republic of Ireland to feature a ford running across the road.

The famous ford today

Curley arrived at the end of the stage (a finish that is impossible to define today following years of road widening and even the construction of a new section where a portion of the old stage was washed into the Atlantic Ocean) where he reported a massive moment on the earlier farmyard section.

When third-placed McCartney arrived at the stage finish the Porsche driver knew immediately where his great rival had come a cropper.

Coleman’s battered Escort eventually cleared the stage, he lost seven minutes repairing the battery cut-off switch that was damaged in the crash and his challenge was over.

Billy Coleman’s Ford Escort showing the damage inflicted early in the stage from the Auto Ireland collection via

But the entire rally was now parked up on the most westerly point in Europe and a long way from the comforts of the Great Southern Hotel, the rally’s Killarney headquarters. The UAC had one more trap for the remaining crews.


The Conor Pass.

 A full feature could be written on the stories that occurred over what is widely said to be Ireland’s highest paved mountain pass.

This was the only time the pass was used on the Circuit of Ireland but it was a firm favourite on the Circuit of Kerry until 2004, the last time it was used and likely to be never used again as modern progress makes the road simply too fast for modern rally cars.

The location of the start line of the 1974 Conor Pass stage

The Kerry event traditionally used the pass from north to south, but the 1974 Circuit went the opposite direction, offering the perfect way to get the rally back to Tralee for an official fuel halt at Tralee Autos.

The town’s Chrysler dealer (at that time) was located in the yard directly across from McDonald’s on the Killarney road but tracing the last section of the original route from the finish of the Conor Pass to this point cannot be done today.

The crews turned right in Blennerville and followed the River Lee through Ballyard to a place locally known as Kearney’s Lane. This area has been vastly built up over the last 46 years and while it is possible to walk the route, over Ballymullen Bridge, which is now reserved for pedestrians only, the only way to drive it is by the newly aligned roads at the Aldi Supermarket.

From Tralee the crews headed east, to where the Earl of Desmond Hotel now stands, and on to Farranfore, to Parc Ferme just off Killarney’s New Street.

“Cahal Curley is the unofficial leader of the Benson and Hedges Circuit of Ireland Rally at the end of the third stage at Killarney yesterday. Billy Coleman, who was in second place at the start of yesterday’s run, lost time when he hit a bank on the Slea Head stage and dropped to third place behind Ronnie McCartney,” said the Irish Press on Easter Monday morning.

That is how they finished when they arrived at the finish in Newcastle, County Down on Tuesday after another 24 hours of rallying from Killarney.

And that is another story.

Easter Sunday Run results

Unofficial placings at Killarney: 1, C. Curley-A. Frayer (Porsche) 25 mins. 21 sees.; 2, R. McCartney-P. Scott (Porsche) 32-54; 3, B. Coleman-L. Whyte (Escort) 34-03; 4, D. Lindsay – D. Cunningham (Escort) 36.55; 5, A. Boyd-B. Crawford (Escort) 38.04.

My thanks to Kevin O’Driscoll for releasing the 1974 roadbook from his collection for the purpose of this exercise and to local co-drivers Diarmuid Falvey and Mark Kane for their assistance too.

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