First published July 2017.
“A Dash of the Irish” by Nigel Raeburn.
I recently re-watched, courtesy of YouTube, a 30 minute film of the 1971 Circuit of Ireland Rally – called “A Dash of the Irish”. It’s well worth a watch, to remind us of what a great event the Circuit was in those days. It was more than a great rally but part of the culture of Ireland, especially for the youth. It was a sort of rite of passage for the late teenagers and early 20s to spend a few days following the rally at Easter all over Ireland (north and south), enjoying the spectating and especially the partying. This film demonstrates this, covering both the rallying and partying, particularly in Killarney where the rally had a two night stop, with the ‘Sunday run’ on the very scenic Ring of Kerry in between.
The rally started at Ballymena in the north (at the Gallaher cigarette factory as I recall) on the Friday evening, and ran through the night and Saturday to arrive at Killarney late in the afternoon. Then came the Sunday run, including famous roads like Moll’s Gap and the hairpins of the Tim Healey Pass, as well as stages on some tiny lanes along the beautiful Kerry coast. The film has some fine action shots – much the better for coming from the pre pace-notes era where cars were driven in a more sideways style and the roads were often dusty and slippery, making braking hard to judge (see the film!). On the Monday the rally set off to complete its clockwise circuit of Ireland through Donegal overnight to finish on Tuesday morning at Larne.
The film features Paddy Hopkirk driving an Escort camera car over the stages, and giving a commentary on what he could remember from the days when he won the Circuit several times and interviewing some of the leading drivers. It also includes some not very ‘PC’ comments on some of the partying on film – all good fun in those days but sadly frowned on today!
So it was a tough rally – over three days and two nights on the road, mostly tarmac with no pace-notes and very poor maps – mostly it was driven on sight. The pace was frenetic as even the road timing was often quite tight. Real non-stop action. In my memory the weather was usually good, as spring and sunshine was arriving, which helped lift the whole atmosphere of the event.
I did the Circuit four times, and finished twice. The first time was 1966 with my university friend Chris Baker-Duly in a Cooper S. We had to retire about 3/4 of the way through when the front suspension collapsed. With no service crew (and indeed we did not know anyone in Ireland!) we had to leave the car at the road-side, hitch-hike across the border into Enniskillen, find an overnight hotel and next morning we were at the BMC dealer to buy the necessary parts to repair the car. We then hitched back to the car (fortunately it was undamaged and nothing had been stolen overnight) and repaired it at the road-side to allow us to limp back to the rally finish in Larne and join in the evening prize-giving party. Quite an adventure.
My next Circuit was in 1969 with Will Sparrow in his first rally Mini 397EOE (silver with blue roof). We had a pretty good run and finished 12th overall – not bad as we were still on the learning curve. I remember one major panic on the last night when we somehow managed to take a wrong turning, in the dark, between a stage arrival control and the stage start control – and found ourselves on the live stage without having got a start time! There must have been an arrow missing or we did not see it – we were not the only crew to do this. What to do? We finished the stage and then decided to return on the public roads to the start again, and do it properly. Luckily we did not get penalised for visiting two controls (arrival and finish) twice! However, the time spent doing this detour added up and we were now well behind our scheduled time and close to OTL – so for the next hour or two we drove as if on a Motoring News road rally – i.e. nearly flat out on the public roads – to get back to more or less on time.
That 1969 event was notable for the emergence of one of Ireland’s rallying legends, Billy Coleman, along with his co-driver in the early days, Dan O’Sullivan. His Escort was a very prime example of a ‘tatty Escort’. Registered TIU250, it was ragged round the edges and in a nearly khaki shade of dull green. But could he drive it! Seeded number 115 (not far way from us so we saw a bit of him) he was soon running in the top four (behind Clark, Hopkirk and Boyd). At Killarney Billy was re-seeded as he was going so well. It didn’t last and he went off into a bog but he certainly made an impact on the event and set his career as a top driver off in fine style.
Billy’s service arrangements were interesting – with due respect his service crew looked like a bunch of country yokels! There must have been no fuel gauge as a dipstick roughly fashioned from a tree branch was used to ‘dip’ the fuel tank as required! It was hard to believe he was running 4th overall.
Will and I came back in 1971, now in his much more highly developed red Mini, WNX700H. We gained a good result, 4th overall behind three Escorts driven by Adrian Boyd (who had first won in 1960 in a frog-eye Sprite), Chris Sclater and Billy Coleman, and ahead of hot-rod and rallycross star Barry Lee (I was always impressed by how well he went on rallies, given that he did so few). A very respectable result for us. We had one notable problem during the rally that year, when the rear sub-frame started breaking up. Peter Scott (who writes in Old Stager and is still a very active rallyist) came to our rescue – he seemed to know someone in every Irish village and appointed himself our service manager (with our agreement and thanks!) and arranged for us to stop at a garage with a ramp and welding gear at frequent intervals, enough to keep us going. Otherwise our service crew consisted solely of Will’s wife and a friend – neither of them mechanics! Another example of how rallying has changed.
In 1972, still in ‘WNX’ I think, we were not so successful, having to retire at the breakfast halt at Blessington on the Saturday morning with a transmission breakage. That was my last ‘Circuit’ although Will did a number of others in Vauxhalls and probably the Mopar Avenger he drove in 1977 with some good results. It took up too much time away from work for me to do any more!
With such wonderful roads, it’s a real shame that the means to run a WRC rally in Ireland cannot be found. It would make a great event – but we were lucky enough to enjoy it when it was.