‘Mike the Man of the Rás ‘73’ (Part 1 of 2)
Dermot Mulligan, Carlow County Museum
In May 2013 Carlow County Museum unveiled a special temporary exhibition to mark the fortieth anniversary of Carlow man Mike O’Donaghue winning the Rás Tailteann (now the An Post Rás), Ireland’s premier bike race in 1973. The exhibition launch coincided with Stage 6 of the 2013 An Post Rás stage finishing on Barrack Street, Carlow Town earlier that afternoon. The An Post Rás with the assistance of Carlow County Museum as the Stage End Coordinator brought the riders just over 154kms from Mitchelstown, Co Cork.
It is not often that museums mount an exhibition about a living person let alone hold a major street event in their honour. What resulted was an exhibition rekindling memories of an occasion that was front page news in 1973 with a link to the modern day with hundreds of spectators on the streets of the town cheering on the ‘Men of the Rás’.
Video of the ‘Mike the Man of the Rás ‘73’ exhibition held in Carlow County Museum in 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lc2JN0Ve5vQ
On Sunday July 8th 1973 thousands gathered on a sunny afternoon in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, to witness the conclusion of the twenty first edition of Ireland’s great bike race, the Rás Tailteann. This ten day gruelling race had visited each of the four provinces and the final stage saw Carlow’s Mike O’Donaghue in the coveted yellow jersey of race leader. After twenty laps of the Phoenix Park’s Polo Ground circuit Mike crossed the line as the only Carlow man so far and the first from the south east to win the Rás Tailteann.
In 1953 the first staging of the Rás Tailteann had taken place over two days under the auspices of the National Cycling Organisation (NCA). The race founder and the Race Director from 1953 to 1972 was a larger than life character Joe Christle. Joe along with a small committee oversaw its development through its difficult early years. Joe was able to generate much national and local publicity for the Rás, at times he courted controversy for the Rás. A Dubliner, Joe’s father Jim was from Offaly while his mother Johanna O’Keeffe was from Seskin, Leighlinbridge, Co. Carlow. During the 1950s and 1960s the Old Leighlin area was used regularly as a base for cycling training camps.
The first Rás in 1953 was modest, completed for over just two stages, from Dublin to Wexford. On the following day the return journey passed through Carlow. Based on the close Christle family connections to county Carlow it’s not surprising that Carlow featured on the second stage. Even less surprising is that the Leighlin area featured and thus began decades of a close relationship with the Leighlin area and the Rás Tailteann. The ascent of the Butts above Old Leighlin is classed as a Category 1 climb where the long steep climb is crucial to determining many stage outcomes. Based on the success of both the race and the publicity it generated the first Rás Tailteann quickly developed into at least eight days in length and many from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s were held over 10 gruelling days. It was not uncommon for a race stage to be over 200 kilometres (124 miles) in length.
The Rás Tailteann’s nationalist, indeed republican undertones, in its early political outlook helped shape its name. The ancient Irish Tailteann Games (pre dating the ancient Olympics) had had a revival from 1924 to 1932 during the early years of Irish independence. The name gave it an instant recognition that people could have empathy with. Through its toughness and endurance it quickly became a legendary race among the Irish people making heroes of its competitors and household names of its winners. Many cyclists considered it an honour and indeed the career highlight to have simply completed the race in full. The inter-county rivalry of teams, based upon that of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) proved to be a hit with the public.
In the early decades the starting point of the race was the GPO, O’Connell Street, Dublin with the finish always on a Sunday afternoon in the Phoenix Park. The majority of the Irish competitors in the race are amateurs, making their achievements all the more spectacular. In 1953 the first international team from Poland participated and over the years since, the Rás has hosted many foreign teams. The ‘peleton’ usually in excess of 150 riders is made up of amateur, semi-professional and professional cyclists.
In 1960 a fourteen year old Mike O’Donaghue read an advert for a beginners race in the Nationalist & Leinster Times newspaper. Mike cycled the 37km (23 miles) from his home just outside Carlow town to Monasteriven, Co. Kildare and entered the race. Although not having a proper racing bike Mike won and thus began a great cycling career. Following this early success Mike developed his cycling skills and with dedication his talent quickly emerged. As well as racing on the roads Mike enjoyed the thrills & indeed spills of fast paced track racing. It was on these tracks he set many Irish records. From the track circuit he emerged as a sprinter of some note. During those early years like many of his compatriots Mike cycled to the race location, cycled the race and cycled home. His track bike, like all track bikes, has no gears or breaks and must be continually pedalled. Mike recalls cycling this bike over the Wicklow mountains to a race, winning the race and making the return journey on the same day.
Mike wasn’t just a sprinter, he was well able to complete over longer distances and make progress up the climbs. Certainly competitors were wary of Mike in the closing stages of a race, if they hadn’t shaken him off earlier in the stage they would have a battle to beat Mike in a sprint. Like all good sprinters the final 200 – 300 meters was the strike range and Mike had the ability to make a decisive move at the right time and take race victory. Several photos of Mike in the 1960s and 1970s emphasis this, including a great photograph of Mike winning Stage 9 of the 1969 Rás Tailteann on the Staplestown Road in Carlow Town. Mike along with Jean Pierre Cabassut, France and Jim McConville of Down were leading the race down the Tullow Road and on towards the finish line on the lower Staplestown Road. In classic Mike style he made his burst with a few hundred meters to go and had a ten to fifteen meter lead as he crossed the line. Such was his lead that Mike was able to sit up, show off his Carlow tri-colour jersey sponsored by Corcoran & Co. Ltd much to the delight of the home crowd.
Such was Mike’s versatility he completed an amazing double in September 1967. He won the Dublin to Tralee Invitational, Ireland’s longest race, 308km (192 miles) from Dublin to Tralee, Co. Kerry and three weeks later he won the Sprint Championship of Ireland, Ireland’s shortest race, a 200 metres track race in Dublin. The Dublin to Tralee victory and subsequent two races clearly show Mike’s ability, dedication and stamina. The race left Dublin early on a Saturday morning and quite a number of the riders didn’t finish due to the extreme length of the race. A weekend of racing was organised as part of the Rose of Tralee Festival then held in September. On the Sunday and Monday evenings the town of Tralee hosted a ‘round the houses’ race. Round the house(s) race were quite common throughout Ireland where cyclists rode around a street circuit of a town for one hour and then cycled ten more laps. The majority of the cyclists who took part in Tralee round the houses races hadn’t undertaken the arduous journey from Dublin on the Saturday. Mike undaunted won the race on Sunday and was second on the Monday.
In 1962 Mike set his ambitions on entering the Rás, then a ten day gruelling race over 1,000 miles (1609 kilometres). Mike was just nineteen years of age in 1964 and he is credited as the first Carlow cyclist to take on challenge. Joe Christle never one to miss an opportunity decided that Carlow town would be the stage finish for the first stage of the 1964 Rás. Joe went as far as putting together a Carlow team choosing none other than legendary Rás Cyclist Kerry man Gene Mangan to be Mike’s team mate. Mike’s ambition was simply to complete in the Rás and hopefully survive the ten days and cross the finish line in the Phoenix Park. The Rás left the traditional starting point of the GPO on O’Connell Street and the finish line was outside St. Leo’s Secondary School on the Dublin Road. Gene Mangan, Mike’s teammate was in the leading group. On the Dublin Road in the vicinity of where Alyesbury Court housing estate is now Gene made his move. He apparently mounted the footpath and broke from the group and proceeded to win. Mike crossed the line in an excellent sixth place. The presentation of the stage prizes was made on the steps of Carlow Courthouse. Gene didn’t complete the Rás and Mike therefore without any team mates finished his first Rás in the Phoenix Park in sixth place overall. Mike in jest reflecting on his first Rás felt he could have done better but his father, concerned for his son’s safety, told him just before the start to take it easy!
Two excellent reference books on the history of the Rás Tailteann are: ‘The Rás, a day by day diary of Ireland’s great bike race’ by Jim Traynor, 2008 and ‘The Rás, the story of Ireland’s unique bike race’ by Tom Daly, 2003. Sincere thanks to Mike, Jeanne O’Donaghue & family for assistance and access to Mike’s archive for both the exhibition and research.