The Gordon Bennett Race of 1903 brought Athy to the notice of an international audience for what was perhaps the very first time. The race inaugurated by the proprietor of the New York Herald was a truly international event and one which captured the public’s imagination at a time when the “horseless carriage” was still in its infancy. Nowadays it is difficult to realise the vast scale of the 1903 event which was centered on what is generally described as the “Athy Circuit”, even though that same circuit went through parts of Counties Laois and Carlow as well as of course Co. Kildare. The term “Athy Circuit” arose from the fact that the Gordon Bennett Race Circuit consisted of two loops which overlapped at Athy, thereby necessitating two trips through the narrow streets of the South Kildare town on each complete circuit.
For a generation or two after the race the Gordon Bennett was still part of the folk memory, not least on account of the tremendous excitement it created in the area. Not even the visit of King Edward to Ireland in July of the same year matched the Gordon Bennett Race for popularity and excitement. It’s no wonder the entire Irish nation was captivated by the idea of cars racing over the public roads around South Kildare and the adjourning counties. After all there was still on the Irish Statute books a law which required cars travelling on the public road to be preceded by a man carrying a red flag. Indeed 1903 was the year that requirement was repealed and replaced by a 20 m.p.h. speed limited.
In time folk memory faded and with the passing of those who had lived through the events of 1903 the Gordon Bennett Race became an almost forgotten note in the annals of Irish motoring history. I first became aware of the Gordon Bennett Race when in 1953, its 50th Anniversary was celebrated by the Leinster Motor Club. I recall the vintage cars parked in the back square next to the Abbey when the drivers stopped in Athy for lunch. In my minds eye I can visualise a photograph taken at the time which subsequently appeared in the local newspapers. As I am writing this I have before me a copy of the programme produced, for the golden jubilee of the Gordon Bennett Race. The 1953 event was the sixth annual Gordon Bennett Race promoted by the Leinster Motor Club and took place over the original course, but with an eleven o’clock morning start on Saturday 20th June from the Curragh. Fifty years earlier the race had started at Ballyshannon, with the first car off at seven o’clock on the morning of 2nd July. The 1953 commemoration event had a number of prizes on offer, including a silver Salver donated by the motor traders of Athy for the best turned out car and crew to reach the town. Among the veteran cars participating in the jubilee race of 1953 was a 1903 Benz owned by Charlie Taylor of Forest. The programme notes indicate that Taylor’s car had been found under a coal dump in 1938 where it had rested for 30 years. I wonder where is that car today? Another entrance was Benny O’Gorman, garage owner of Crookstown who drove a 1912 Ford. Within a few years Benny would open a new garage on the Carlow road in Athy where he was to carry on business for many years.
I was interested to read the advertisements inserted in the 1953 programme by local businesses. These included, as you might expect, Shaws, but what about the following two businesses which are now long gone. Do you remember James Fleming, carpenter and registered timber merchant who carried on business at the Sawmills, Chapel Hill or E.T. Mulhall, Hardware and General Merchant as well as a publican of Barrow Bridge House, who advertised that his business was established in 1840. The Leinster Arms Hotel was also included, noting that it had two telephones on the premises, one for visitors, the other for management. One advertisement proudly claimed, “You always get the best in eats at Bradbury’s Restaurant Athy”, while Maxwell’s Garage, motor and general engineers, then located in Leinster Street carried on business as main dealers for Volkswagon cars and vans. The remaining advertisements placed by local firms were those of Bryan Brothers of Commercial House, and Industrial Vehicles (Ireland) Ltd. which held a Morris car dealership.
A report in the local newspapers of 20th June 1953 described the scene as the vintage cars passed. “All along the route cheering crowds gave the competitors who were dressed in period costumes a hearty welcome. Many of the cars carried lady passengers whose attire was one of the picturesque features of the colourful calvacade and notwithstanding the threatening weather the ladies appeared to have enjoyed their long trip of 80 miles”. Later in the same newspaper reports we read, “Over 3,000 people gathered at Emily Square, Athy on Saturday to see the 39 old crocks that halted in the town for a lunch interval during the 80 mile run over part of the old circuit to mark the golden jubilee of the Gordon Bennett Race of 1903. Present in the crowd were several persons who witnessed the famous race won by Jenatzy fifty years ago.” What a pity that those who witnessed the 1903 event had not committed their memories of the Gordon Bennett Race to print. The newspaper report also referred to the marshalling for the 1953 event, praising Athy Fire Brigade under Robert Webster and the Knights of Malta under Eamon McCauley. The mention of Bob and Eamon brings back memories of untroubled days when as a youngster I “sported and played” on the streets of Athy.
I gather there are plans in hand to celebrate the centenary of the 1903 Gordon Bennett Race on the weekend of Saturday, 31st May when vintage cars will once again make their appearance in Emily Square. The town will be in festive mood over that weekend and I am assured that everyone in Athy will be encouraged to emulate the fashion style of the drivers and the spectators of one hundred years ago. I am told the organising committee are offering a free drink to every person who makes an effort to appear in period dress, with a special prize going for the best turned out person. Veteran cars will be on show in the back square throughout 31st May, while a number of 1903 cars will take part in a time trial over a course at Ardscull before returning to Athy for the official opening of the Gordon Bennett tourist trail in the late afternoon. More details will be given later.
An announcement will be made shortly concerning a number of musical events that weekend but it is confirmed that Brendan Lynch, author of “Triumph of the Red Devil”, the definitive history of the 1903 Gordon Bennett Race will give a lecture in the Heritage Centre at 8.00 p.m. on Saturday evening. The Heritage Centre will also host a special exhibition of Gordon Bennett memorabilia over that weekend, and, of course, actual film footage of the 1903 race is currently on show in the centre.
The 1903 Gordon Bennett Race was the first international race to be held in Ireland or Britain. It ensured international recognition for the 700 year old town of Athy and now 100 years later we have a unique opportunity to celebrate an event which astonished and delighted men and women of the time. If you would like to help the organising committee with their plans for the Gordon Bennett weekend, Frank English or Dave Henshaw would be delighted to hear from you.