We will be shortly welcoming to Athy the Chilean team for the Special Olympics. The town will host the team until its departure to the various venues to participate in the competition. The arrival of the special Olympians in the town and in towns across the country has been eagerly awaited over the last few months. As the event draws near it occurs to me that there are very few events held or hosted by this country which focus the eyes of the world upon us
One such event held over 100 years ago on the 2nd of July 1903, in the area of South Kildare and Athy, was the Gordon Bennett motor race,. I recently came across a publication entitled “Automobile Fortnight in Ireland”, printed in Dublin at the time of the race which was a guide for all those who wished to attend and watch the race. The guide detailed the arrangements for the race and faithfully records the meticulous preparations of the races organisers. On the day of the race at 6.00am on Thursday, 2nd of July, the roads over which the race would be run would be closed and every road running into the main road of the course would be blocked at the same hour, with two RIC men placed in charge of each barrier.
At 6.30am two pilot cars would start to make an entire circuit of the course, one going east and one going west. The purpose of this was to warn the public that the race was to begin, and that nobody was to be allowed on the course until the race had been completed.
In the weeks preceeding the race an enormous amount of work was undertaken in the area where the race was to take place. The Automobile Club Journal published on June 11th 1903 reported “that the roads had been thoroughly repaired throughout the circuit, certain bends had been straightened, and right angled turns rounded off, and the hedges had been cut down for two hundred yards on the approach side of each corner. Caution and warning signs will be fixed if necessary and the roads stewards will be supplied with flags, for the purpose of warning an approaching car in case of obstruction on the road. All animals are to be put into fields and not allowed to stray, and not a single spectator will be allowed either on the road itself or on the roadside at the hedges. As a further precaution all the inhabitants on the road and within three hundred yards of each side of it will be personally circularised with warning notices, and in addition, public notices will be posted in every convenient site, setting out in detail the name of the roads closed for the purpose of the race, and also giving a general warning to the public to remain behind the hedges and to obey strictly the police and club officials”
It would appear that these warnings were necessary as one of the teams which had practiced on the roads three weeks before the race believed that the roads in Ireland were used more or less as farmyards for the breeding of chickens and other birds and beasts. The drivers found that they had to take the greatest care to prevent accidents occurring between themselves and these animals, although occasionally even their great skill could not prevent the killing of an unfortunate chicken. On all such occasions compensation was agreed between the driver of the vehicle and the owner, who retained the carcass. It did occur to some of the more cynical drivers that perhaps the number of chicken increased on the road daily. However this was balanced by the increasing intelligence of the birds, quipped the English driver Jarrott, in that they knew what to do when a car appeared in sight!
A canvas village was erected at Ardscull consisting of approximately one hundred tents which supplied dining and seating accommodation for over five hundred people. Indeed all the towns in the area surrounding the race rushed to ensure that the adequate facilities were made available to the visitors to the town. It was perhaps inevitable that some people would take advantage of the demand for accommodation and food around race day and there were complaints at the time in the local press that outrageous prices were being charged by hoteliers. It was alleged that some business people and farmers were charging 6 pence for a glass of water, 1 shilling for a wash-up at a farmyard pump and 6 pounds a night for a room in a cottage near Athy! The Athy Urban District Council was moved to contradict an statement which had been published regarding the nature and expense of hotel accommodation in the area. The UDC emphasised that the ordinary Summer rate of £4.4s per week would be available at all times during the racing period.
The elaborate arrangements for the event extended to the provision of viewing facilities for the thousands of people who would come to the race.
Perhaps the most dramatic and defining image of the race itself was the huge grand stand which held almost a thousand people, which was built straddling the main Dublin to Athy road at Ballyshannon, in such a way as to allow the competitors in their cars to pass safely underneath.
The race is also notable for the first recorded motor accident in Laois. On the Stradbally side of the Dunamaise hill an English driver Jarrott crashed when something went wrong with his steering gear and he lost control of the machine. The car careered into a bank on one side of the road rebounding off the bank and throwing both Jarrott and his companion out of the vehicle. The injured men were attended to by Surgeon Ormsby from Broomfield Cross and both men were then conveyed to Rheban Castle where the English team were staying prior to the race. The race itself was won by the enigmatic German Camille Jenatzy, in a time of six hours and thirty nine minutes. Driving a Mercedes, Jenatzy, was a popular winner with the crowd who admired him for his daredevil driving. He would later die tragically in 1913 when he was accidentally shot by some of his friends while hunting for wild boar.
In the year that marks the centenary of the race a series of events are planned in and around the town for the June Bank Holiday weekend when the roads will again roar with the sound of these magnifient vintage cars, the pioneers of modern motor racing.