30 years on: Mike O’Leary recalls his attempt at the Circuit of Ireland Rally while, at the same time, the Ulster Automobile Club wanted to return the rally to Killarney. 

Easter and the Circuit of Ireland Rally go hand in hand. 

This year’s Circuit of Ireland Rally should have been celebrating the 90th anniversary of the first rally and over the course of that long period of time the rally has enjoyed strong links with County Kerry. 

Easter weekend, 30 years ago was significant for a number of Kerry reasons. 

With Easter being a moveable feast, Easter Monday, 1991 fell on April 1. 

One Kerry crew took part in the three-day rally while at the same time there were designs by the Ulster Automobile Club to bring the event back to Killarney after the club pulled the event in 1983 and ended a relationship that went back to 1936. 

The 1991 rally, sponsored by Bank of Ireland Finance, started in Belfast on Easter Saturday and after 12 stages overnighted in Dun Laoghaire. 

Sunday’s action was based around Carlow Livestock Mart and included stages mainly in County Kilkenny. The rally concluded on Easter Monday with stages in the Wicklow Mountains after which competitors would have completed 29 special stages – a far cry from the rally’s Golden Years of 60 or more stages but a big rally by the standards of the time. 

Topping the slim-line entry list — there are less than 50 cars in the main event — was the Subaru Legacy of Colin McRae. He was just 22 at the time and it was the first time a works Subaru Legacy was seen in Ireland. 

The 1991 Circuit of Ireland entry list

McRae set fastest time on 22 of the 29 stages to win the rally. He had nearly five minutes to spare over Bertie Fisher when the rally returned to Dun Laoghaire on Monday afternoon. Fisher was driving a Ford Sierra Sapphire Cosworth while third placed James Cullen was driving a more conventional two-door and two-wheel drive version. 

The only all Kerry crew was that of Killarney’s Mike O’Leary and Tralee’s John Crone. 

They had entered in a Group N Ford Sierra Cosworth and started at number 26. 

The car was prepared by McKinstry Motorsport and was entered in the highly competitive Group N category. 

Class rivals included professionals, semi-professionals or career aspirational drivers like Mike Sohlberg (Mitsubishi Galant VR4) and David Maslen and Bod Fowden in other Sierras. Several top Irish drivers, Kenny McKinstry, Liam O’Callaghan, Mike Dunnion and Ritchie Heeley were all on the Group N class entry list and were all driving Sierras. Even claiming the top Irish driver in this line up was going to be a remarkable achievement. 

Mike, who through his electrical business on College St in Killarney was the county’s Grundig agent and the television manufacturer’s Dublin importer put together the deal to enter the rally on foot of his excellent eighth overall in the Rally of the Lakes the previous December with the late and much missed Jimmy Devane in the hot seat. 

A Grundig press release prior to the rally

“The MD of Grundig Ireland at the time had a great interest in motorsport and wanted us to go, we were happy to oblige,” explains Mike, “It was different times. Grundig needed a entrant’s licence and that cost more than a competition licence for the driver or co-driver.” 

Co-driver John Crone, was living in Tralee at the time and  worked as a Science Teacher in St. Patrick’s  College in Castleisland. 

He was in his 16th year of rallying and had competed on the several old-style ‘Circuits’ alongside fellow teacher Fintan Foley. 

“There is no doubt that he steadied the ship a few times,” adds Mike. 

Their rally did not get off to the best of starts. The rigid rule setting by the Ulster Automobile Club and the easy-going nature of Kerry rallying were not likely bed fellows. 

“They wanted to make life difficult, if today was yesterday I don’t think I would have entered the rally,” adds Mike, “At scrutiny they decided our seats were too light for the Group N class and wanted to throw us out. We went away and got a few sandbags and cabled tied them in to the car. It was our way of saying we are not going anywhere.” 

The Kerry crew started well and recorded 12th fastest time on the opening Nutts Corner spectator stage. 

Officialdom raised its ugly head again at the start of SS2, Moyrusk near Lisburn. Mike and John placed their Sierra Cosworth inches inside the yellow Arrival Control board and while John did not hand over the time car until the appointed minute that start official penalised them for early arrival.

They dropped to 27th overall and spent much of Easter Saturday in recovery mode. 

Once the rally settled down and moved to the more traditional stages in Cavan and Meath the local crew were holding their own just outside the top 20 and were making inroads on the previous penalty.  

They ended day one in a creditable 17th place overall after 12 stages. They were on the road nearly 14 hours, the rally started at 7am and the first cars were not due in to Parc Ferme until well after 8pm that night. 

Official results show the Kerry’s position before retirement

They climbed up one more position during the early Sunday morning loop in County Kilkenny and held that position until SS19. Their their rally came to an end on the second running of Coon in the late afternoon.  The 19th stage of the rally started about 15kms west of Carlow town were the centralised service park was located. 

The rear differential failed in the Sierra and their run was over. 

Brian and Liz Patterson record the Kerry crew’s retirement

“It was a huge undertaking for anyone from Killarney to do that event in those times, I remember that a lot of Killarney people, not necessarily rally fans, made the journey up north and followed us around for the weekend– it was that unusual,” adds Mike. 


Around the same time the rally was taking place, the organisers, the Ulster Automobile Club learned that they would lose  British Open Rally Championship status the following year and as a result  both its International status and its European championship designations were at risk too.

With this in mind the UAC called a series of meetings with potential host towns. The club wanted to return the event to its old true circumnavigation of the country and were looking for sponsorship from willing towns. 

They had forgotten, very quickly, that eight years earlier they left Killarney high and dry and followed the golden trail laid down by Waterford business interests. 

That did not stop them making a bid for Killarney. Their plan was to run the rally on a three or four day format. 

Day one would take the crews from Belfast to Galway, day two would follow the western seaboard to Killarney paving a way for the return of the favoured (by competitors) Sunday Run. The three day rally would finish in Killarney but if funding was found a Bank Holiday Monday run back to Galway was on the cards. 

It was never going to be a runner in Killarney. One local organiser, who shall remain nameless, describes the UAC as the Seagull Rally. 

“They fly into town, shit all over the place, leave and let all the cleaning up to the locals,” he said. 

Even the town council was wary  and a new Easter Folk Festival had filled the void in Killarney. 

A report in a contemporary The Kerryman sets the scene. 

“The organisers of the Circuit of Ireland rally will have to agree to terms imposed by local interests in Killarney before they can include the town as a stopover for the rally again, local councillors declared this week. 

“They were reacting to a request from the Ulster Automobile Club to include Killarney in the Circuit of Ireland course once again, after dropping the town in controversial circumstances some years ago. 

“Labour’s Christy Horgan said the club wanted to “crawl” back to Kerry with the rally because it has floundered since it left Killarney. “If they want to come back again it should be at a price,” he said. 

“His comments were echoed by Fianna Fail Councillor Dermot O’Callaghan who said it would be unfair to ask Guinness Group Sales, sponsors of the Killarney Easter Folk Festival to the tune of over £6,000, to withdraw its support after building up the festival. 

“Council chairman Sean O’Grady said the council should act as intermediary between the parties if the town decided that the rally should return.” 

The 1992 rally eventually returned to Waterford.  

The local rallying landscape had changed too… the Circuit of Kerry was about to establish itself as an April rally, after beginning life in May 1975. in fact the May 1991 two-day Circuit of Kerry was followed by the single-day 1992 April event.

Killarney and District Motor Club were in the throes of moving the Rally of the Lakes from December to May, there is just about enough room on the calendar to include both local rallies in the space of a few weeks, a third one from an outside organisation just would not work. 

A move like the one proposed by the UAC would have had local ramifications in terms of road closing orders, overworked marshals and competitors.

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