The day the country stopped to watch the Great Race

If you can imagine or even better recall the excitement that prevailed in Ireland pending the visit of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, President of the United States of America to his ancestral homeland in 1963 then you have some idea of the euphoria generated by the staging of the Gordon Bennett Motor Cup Race in the counties of Laois, Carlow and Kildare one hundred years ago this year.

That this world event was ever staged in the Emerald Isle was the result of a unique set of circumstances. An Englishman Selwyn Edge had won the 1902 race and the onus was on England to find a suitable venue for the 1903 event. Not as easy as you might think because at the time there was huge resentment in England against motor racing and motor cars in general by vested interests of the day such as the landed gentry, so much so that the politicians were afraid or unwilling to confront them. But more importantly there was a twelve miles speed limit on all roads in the British Empire, hardly ideal conditions for the staging of a motor race.

Then into the breech stepped the right Honourable John Scott Montague, an avid motoring enthusiast who also happened to be a member of Parliament at Westminster where laws were enacted that covered both Ireland and England. The Honourable John drafted the Light Locomotives (Ireland) Act 1903, which exempted cars from any statutory speed limit on the day of the race. To overcome any political opposition by County Councils the legislation would have to include an incentive or sweetener. The carrot dangled in front of the newly formed local authorities (formed 1899) was that the legislation would absolve County Councils from all road improvement costs on the chosen route. Cash starved County Councils embraced the Gordon Bennett Race with the enthusiasm and fervour of a Papal visit, what County Councillor could say no to such a gift horse. The filling of almost ninety miles of pot-holes and hope to be re-elected.

Several Councils passed resolution welcoming the race but South East of Dublin was always the favourite to be chosen as the preferred route as the level terrain and proximity to Dublin would eventually be the deciding factor.

The world press attention was now firmly focused on the chosen routes in counties Laois, Carlow and Kildare with Athy the subject of most of the publicity where the race headquarters was situated. Reports in the local papers indicated that local representatives were not letting the grass grow under their feet. At a special meeting of Queen (Laois) County Council the principal business was the consideration of the regulations for the Gordon-Bennett Motor Race suggested by the local government board. At the meeting fears that the emergency services would not be able to operate freely on the day were allayed by the executive.

Mr P.A. Meehan presided and on the proposal of Mr. M. Mahon Cuddagh and seconded by Mr. Dooley the Seal of the Council was affixed. Also present at that meeting were Mr. Lowry, Mr James Ramsbottom. James Conroy, Denis Shaughnessey (Stradbally) and Mr. T. Timmons (Stradbally). Maryborough (Portlaoise) Town Commission was not to be found wanting either in their eagerness to facilitate the great race. They convened and passed an order moving the Maryborough market from Thursday 2nd July (The day of the great race) back to Wednesday the 1st July. All was now in place for the preparation of the route. Queen County Council, whose responsibility for the Great Race stretched from the County bounds at Monasterevin to the County bounds beyond Ballylinan made ever effort that all would be right on the day. Council workers toiled from dawn to dusk preparing the circuit. Their final task was to spray a special mixture on the roads to keep down the dust. While the public sector had been getting about their business the private sector or entrepreneurs weren’t sitting on their hands either. Every known service to make you comfortable and enjoyable on the day of the race was advertised.

Advertisements appeared in local newspapers offering a range of goods and services guaranteed to make the day of the Big Race s enjoyable as possible. The Leinster Express carried notices of a Grand Stand at Aughnahila where the advert stated ‘A magnificent position for spectators, near the famous Rock of Dunamaise and immediately over looking the course. Unbroken stretch of seven miles plainly visible to the naked eye. Select, compact and well fenced site. Absolute safety. Teas and Coffee at moderate charges on grounds. Access of course up to 6 am. Tickets from 2/6d to 7/6d.’

Tickets could be obtained from Nicholas Lalor (owner of the site), Gaze and Jessop Auctioneers, Motor and Cycle Agents, Maryborough or Mr. P.A. Meehans Maryborough and Abbeyleix. The Windy Gap stand boasted of the ‘best view on course, cars can be seen for miles thundering down from Old Rock at Dunamise, through Stradbally and up to the Mountainous pass at Windy Gap.’ Mr. E. P. Hannigan and Mr. D.P. Shortall were in charge of the ticket sales for the Windy Gap stand which were priced at 3s. to 5s. each. For those that wished to view the race at the distance could avail of the offer of J.D. Rowe, Maryborough whose sale of ‘good field glass or telescope’ would guarantee them the best possible view of the race. Prices ranged from 12s, 15s, 20s, and upwards. If you wanted to while away the time as you waited for the Racing Cars to pass by you could avail yourself of the merchandise of a Mrs. Collins who resided near “The Ancient Ruins.’ A history of the famous Rock of Dunamaise could be obtained from her. Mrs. Collins talents extended beyond the role of bookseller as she could ‘provide teas to parties of visitors, on receiving notice and at extremely moderate charges’. A versatile Lady you must admit.

Everything was now in place for the Great Race. A huge contingent of Royal Irish Constabulary, (R.I.C.) Police Officers, some seven thousand in all took their positions around the course. From day-break crowds were taking up every vantage point available. By 6am all roads were closed off to the public. At 7am on July 2nd, 1903 Selwyn Edge in a Napier Racing Car took off from Kilrush to the cheers of the spectators. His advantage was short lived as Camille Jenatzy, (nicknamed The Red Devil because of his red beard) and driving a white Mercedes was soon in command and would lead all the way to become the eventual winner. But while the time-keeping and logistics were being carried out at Kilrush, Ballyshannon and Athy the drama and real action was happening at Dunamaise, Grange and Stradbally.

Charles Jarrott a member of the Great Britain Team and his mechanic Bianchi were careering down the perilous Dunamaise slope at 70 m.p.h. when the steering failed, the car hit an embankment and somersaulted into the air throwing the driver out but pinning the mechanic Bianchi underneath it.
Spectators rushed to the scene of the accident and lifted the racing car off, allowing the trapped passenger to be freed.

Jarrot who had initially directed operations now succumbed to his injuries and fainted, both were carried to the nearby farm yard of the Fingleton family of Grange where their injuries were attended to by Dr. Kennedy. They were then removed by ambulance to Rheban Castle Athy and despite being badly shaken and suffering some broken bones Jarrot and his mechanic made a full recovery to fitness and lived to drive another day. Camille Jenatzy driving a Mercedes was declared the winner of the 1903 Gordon Bennett Race with 1 minute 40 seconds to spare over his nearest rival De Knyff of France, driving a chain driven Panhard. Jenatzy who predicted that he would die in a Mercedes, and who by his daring exploits was never destined to live to old age foresaw his demise, but not in the way he had foretold. By 1913 he had acquired a hunting lodge in the Ardenes Forest in France. One night Jenatzy a practical joker slipped out from the house and hid in the bushes. He started to imitate the noise of a wild boar, then suddenly one of the hunting party leaned out of a window with a rifle and shot him. An ambulance was called and on his way to the hospital Jenatzy died. The ambulance was a Mercedes. His premonition was fulfiled.

The Great Race as it was known brought much prosperity to the area with the public houses and hotels doing a roaring trade and every available inch of accommodation occupied by visitors, who came from all over the world. It also left the legacy of much needed road improvements to the benefit of the local people long after the racing cars had departed.

Courtesy of the Leinster Express
May 2003