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Tom Daly looks back at first Rás; the start of Irish cycling legend

Posted on: November 4th, 2018

Tom Daly Rás Tailteann

The first ever Rás Tailteann passes through a sodden Enniscorthy way back in 1953.

 

Following the sad passing last week of the winner of the first ever Rás Tailteann, Colm Christle, we take a look back at that maiden edition in 1953.

In an extract from his seminal book on the Rás, Tom Daly, explores how the first race was run and what it was all about; staged as it was in a very different Ireland still emerging from deep domestic strife.

 


The Rás: The Story of Ireland’s Unique Bike Race

By Tom Daly

Published by Collins Press 2012


The Rás had a modest beginning. On September 19th, 1953, fifty-two riders assembled in O’Connell St. in Dublin on a wet Saturday afternoon. It was a two-day affair, from Dublin to Wexford and back, totalling 200 miles (320 Km).

The riders had mixed feelings of anticipation and trepidation as there was little tradition of ‘mass-start’ road racing in Ireland and few, if any, of them had previously ridden a stage-race.

To the casual observer, there was an unusual element of flamboyance and showmanship at the start and a strong cultural and nationalist aspect was also apparent.

The two days, in fact, were to be a strong blend of athleticism, nationalist and cultural symbolism, and razzmatazz, indicating a strategy that was to eventually establish the Rás as a powerful Irish sporting institution.

By choosing to call it the Rás Tailteann, its founders associated the event, and those involved, with the characteristics of the ancient Tailteann Games.

This Celtic sporting and cultural festival was held on the Plain of Tailte in Co. Meath in pre-historic times, a form of Celtic Olympics that pre-dating the ancient Greek Games by centuries.

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, when emerging Irish nationalism was forming its identity, the period of the Tailteann Games represented a golden era of Irish nationhood.

The chosen name – Rás Tailteann – therefore expressed sporting, cultural and nationalistic connotations.

The start was in front of the GPO, again symbolically significant as it had been the headquarters of the Irish Volunteers during the 1916 Rising.

A group from the race entered the building and laid a wreath at the statue of Cuchulainn, the legendary hero of the ancient Irish sagas who had died heroically in defence of his homeland.

The nobility, integrity and generosity of spirit of the Fianna was being associated with the event.

They re-emerged and a dedication was read out to “The Youth of Ireland Honouring Nationhood”.

This referred to the cyclists, all members of the NCA (National Cycling Association) and banned from international competition because their association refused to recognise the ‘partition’ of Ireland.

Hence, they were presented as upholders of core republican principles.

 

Tom Daly Rás Tailteann

Tom Daly Rás Tailteann

Top, NCA president Jim Killean presenting the “prize” of a wreath of laurels to the winner of the first Rás, Colm Christle. Pat Kenna, from Carlow, who was second, is at the left. The rider between Christle and Killean is Pat Murphy. On the far right is Andy ‘Ando’ Christle, brother of Mick, who was killed in a motorcycle accident the Rás the following year. The second photo shows Colm Christle receiving a winning trophy from race director Dermot Dignam in 1998.

 

The Rás was started by the Lord Mayor of Dublin and set out on the 90-mile (144 Km) first stage to Wexford in strong wind and heavy rain.

Much of the route was littered with leaves and fallen branches and the riders had to negotiate a fallen tree in Wicklow.

Colm Christle, from the Gate Cycling Club in Dublin, did a lot of chasing to bring back an early break but Mick Carr, from Carrigtwohill in Cork, broke away at Enniscorthy and won the first Rás stage by 34 seconds.

Christle and his friend, Phil Clarke, were well-known riders from the Gate club in Dublin and roomed together in a boarding house inWexford that night.

They had ambitions of winning the event and were in good condition. Earlier that year they cycled to Italy to see Fausto Coppi’s attempt to add the World Championship to his three Giro d’Italia and one Tour de France wins.

They treated it as a training exercise and rode hard, doing ‘bit’n’bit’ from Calais, across Northern France, into Switzerland, over the Gothard Pass and south to Lugano in Italy.

Some 500,000 Italians lined the track and Christle and Clarke saw Coppi make the famous break that won the historic race.

Many of the boarding houses used by the riders on the first Rás had no drying facilities and Colm Christle was pulling on his wet cycling jersey the following morning when his brother and race organiser, Joe, came to their room.

He told them, in simple terms, that he had little money for prizes and one of them must win the race to get him out of this difficulty. Joe Christle was a man who was usually listened to without argument, and it was understood as an instruction.

The Christles were key figures in the event. The sons of a small farmer from Co Offaly, who came to Dublin to work in Guinness’s brewery, they inherited a strong sporting and nationalist tradition and five of them became absorbed in cycling.

The Christian Brothers, who were unashamedly nationalist, influenced them in primary school. One teacher in particular, Br O’Shea from Dingle, was an admirer of the Cuchulainn legend and the Pearse vision that portrayed the Irish nation as free and Gaelic, independent and strong.

At secondary school in St James’s Street CBS, Jack Sweeney was a further influence. He was a noted athletics coach of his time and dreamt of reviving the Tailteann Games. The Cuchulainn and Tailteann ideals remained in Joe Christle’s mind.

The second stage was again preceded by ceremony and a wreath was laid at the monument in Wexford that commemorated the pike-men of the 1798 Rebellion.

It was a 110-mile (176 Km) return route to Dublin and Colm Christle did not want to make an early move as he had slight cold from the previous day, but a group of three built up a lead of 2 minutes at New Ross.

Christle got across to them and went into the lead for the KOH at his mother’s native Leighlin Bridge, in Co Carlow.

A group of nine eventually developed at the front, including Kerry Sloane who was later to be instrumental in developing the Rás.

Christle began to cramp in both legs and measured his effort but was driven on by determination. He was motivated by his natural competitiveness as an athlete and his brother’s instructions to try and win the non-existent ‘prize’.

However, as a member of the Christle family, he was ideologically as well as athletically motivated and was keenly aware that the Rás Tailteann was a visionary concept, crucial to the survival of his cycling organisation and the political, cultural and sporting aspirations that it represented.

Christle punctured near Carlow but a rider from Navan, Frank Reilly, gave him his front wheel. Another rider from Kerry, who had been the main driving force in the bunch, ‘sat up’ and delayed the group until Christle regained contact.

He later learned that this rider’s name was Paudi Fitzgerald and was to remember the act of generosity three years later when Fitzgerald was trying to win the 1956 Rás.

Some early attempts were made to get away from the lead bunch but Christle was conscious of the danger of cramp in his legs and bided his time until the finish on Crumlin Road. Leo Collins led out the sprint but Christle was first over the line to win the first Rás.

The ‘prize-giving’ took place in the Iveagh Grounds pavilion, and Jim Killean, president of the NCA, presented Colm with his trophy – a wreath of laurels that had been picked at Aonach Tailte, the site of the original Tailteann Games.

Colm Christle had to wait twenty-five years for his ‘prize’, when he was presented with a substitute winning trophy during the Rás of 1998.

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