Thursday, October 9, 2003

Athy 75

I got a huge response to the recent article on the Athy 75 motor cycle races which were organised by the Athy Motor Cycle and Car Club between 1925 and 1930.  Some of the cups presented to winners of the various races have been located, while one reader knew of the whereabouts of the helmet worn by the unfortunate Harry Sargeant who was killed while participating in the 1929 race.  I have also been told that Harry who worked as a shop assistant in the town lodged in a house opposite Whelan’s pub in Offaly Street.  This was either No. 4 Offaly Street where Murphy’s lived or next door where I lived in the 1950’s.  Harry who was from Naas was a member of the Athy Club and I am informed was also assistant secretary of the Club at one time.  He entered the 1929 race using the nom-de-plume “Sonny Boy” but wasn’t the only one of the 48 who started that day to conceal his real name.  Another motor cyclist described as being from Dublin hid his true identity under the name “B. Smith”.

Harry Sargeant was driving a 249 Dunlet which he had borrowed for the occasion and as well was wearing gloves which were too big for him.  Unaccustomed to bike racing and to the machine he was riding he crashed at the Moate of Ardscull, less than a quarter of a mile from the starting point.  He was the first fatality of the Athy 75 Race which had been run each year since 1925.  Incidentally the 500cc class race that year was run by the legendary Stanley Woods who set a course record of 70.60mph and completed the race in the record time of 1hr. 5mins and 50 seconds.

The following year the Athy 75 took place on Saturday, 24th May starting at 3.30pm from Russellstown Crossroads.  Riders had practiced runs over the course from 6.00 o’clock each morning for the two weeks prior to the race day but it was noticeable that the number of competitors in the 1930 race was down somewhat from the previous year.  Six Athy men had taken part in the 1929 race, but only one man, Jack Yates of Carlow but a member of the Athy Club raced in 1930.  Was this I wonder a result of the unfortunate accident involving Harry Sargeant the previous year?

The roads over which the course ran were closed from 3.00pm that Saturday and the race commenced at 3.30pm.  The 43 riders set off at intervals, each travelling eight laps of the quadrangular course.  In what would transpire to be the last of the Athy 75 races, the riders competed in four classes, 175cc, 250cc, 350cc and 500cc.

A serious accident occurred on the third lap when Peter Mooney of 72 Manor Street, Dublin was killed near Fontstown Cross.  Thomas Masterson, Road Marshall, told the inquest held the following Monday in Athy that he was responsible for marshalling the area in and around Fontstown Corner.  He saw two competitors, No. 28 Peter Mooney and No. 7 R.W. Kieran approaching Fontstown Cross.  Kieran’s motor bike struck the embankment and Mooney who was travelling behind was shrouded in dust.  Masterson then heard two terrific shrieks and saw a head and shoulder in the air above the dust.  He rushed to the scene with a St. John Ambulance Brigade man.  Kevin McNully of the St. John Ambulance Brigade recounted how Kieran’s bike struck the bank and rebounded and Mooney’s bike travelling immediately behind crashed into it.

A juror at the inquest enquired if there was heavy dust and on it being confirmed that there was said, “then it was a death trap”.  C.W. Taylor of Forest Farm, the President of the Athy Club told the inquest that the Club Committee had done its best to get the dust sprayed prior to the race, but did not succeed.  As clerk of the course he had arranged for stewards, doctors and St. John’s Ambulance men to be in attendance.

At this point Peter Mooney’s father who was in attendance questioned why his son was allowed to race since apparently he stood in at the last moment for another competitor, something which was prohibited under the Club Rules once the handicaps had been decided.  Clearly distressed Mr. Mooney claimed that the Club had broken its own rules and “if the rule had not been broken my son would be alive today.”  Mr. Taylor who had presided over the Athy Motor Cycle and Car Club since at least the inaugural Athy 75 Race in 1925, if not earlier, advised the inquest that the race would never be held again.  So ended the legendary Athy 75, the first road race to be organised in the 26 counties under powers granted to the Minister for Local Government permitting the temporary closure of public roads to facilitate racing. 

The Motor Cycle magazine of 29th May 1930 devoted an entire page to a report of the Athy 75, which included a photograph of J.J. Byrne on his 346 A.J.S. participating in the race.  In the body of the report which was highly complementary of the local Club’s “excellent handicapping” which allowed the race result to be in doubt to the very end was the following.

            “In the meantime most exciting things were happening on the tortuous back road of the course.  While the main stretch was fast and smooth, there was some miles of rutted laneway in which owing to the high hedges dust hung in a thick pall.  It was impossible to see more than a few yards ahead and the rider who kept open the taps and “chanced it” might win the race or go through a hedge.  D. O’Clery and R.W. Mulligan were among those who went through hedges.  E.J. Brady fell and hurt his hands, while J.R. Smith had his knee badly damaged.”

Clearly the conditions were not ideal for such a high powered race and the decision of the Athy Motor Cycle and Car Club members to end their six year old involvement with the race was quite understandable.

The 3rd Ernest Shackleton Autumn School is scheduled to take place in the Town Hall over the October Bank holiday weekend.  In addition to lectures on Saturday and Sunday there will be a showing of the documentary film “Endurance” which was shot by Frank Hurley during Shackleton’s “Endurance” expedition to Antarctica.  Kenneth Brannagh’s recent film “Shackleton” will also be shown over the weekend.  Some interesting drama presentations are promised - John MacKenna’s “The Woman at the Window” and Aidan Dooley’s “Endurance”.  Programmes for the weenend can be obtained at the Heritage Centre, Athy, Tel. [0507] 33075.  E-mail:

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