History of the West Cork Rally

Billy Coleman in the first West Cork Rally in 1977

Posted on: 6th March, 2014

Category: The History Corner

Contributor: Samuel Kingston

Samuel Kingston studied history at NUI Galway and has a keen interest in oral and local history. He is also interested in the Irish historical experience abroad especially in Canada and South America. The aim of this column is to tell the stories of West Cork people both famous and forgotten who, through their lives at home or abroad, made an impact on their time.

The Cork Motor Club was formed in 1976 to promote motorsport in the Cork area. Luckily at the same time, people in Clonakilty were looking for a new event to expand the tourist season in the town. The idea of a Rally was proposed and accepted and the West Cork Rally was born. The inaugural rally took place on Saturday, March 19 and Sunday March 20, 1977 and was won by North Cork legend Billy Coleman. The rally grew rapidly and by its third year drew a sensational field including Billy Coleman, Roger Clark, Malcolm Wilson (now head of Ford Motorsport), Jimmy McRae (father of Colin McRae), Ger Buckley and Bertie Fisher. The demanding West Cork stages proved too much for many of the big names who were forced out with Ger Buckley claiming the title that year.

Bob Fowden on his way to winning his second title in 1997

Bob Fowden on his way to winning his second title in 1997

The 1980s saw the rally continue to evolve and attract strong fields, as it was included as part of the Shellsport National Rally Championship and was sponsored for six years in succession by Zanussi. This was the era of Richie Heeley, Russell Brookes, Frank Meagher, Mark Lovell and Kenny McKinstry. The event applied for and received International status for 1986 with the aim of attracting more European drivers to come to Clonakilty. Two crews arrived that year (one French and one West German), but a series of accidents involving spectators in other events later that year saw all rallying in Ireland come to a halt for the first six months of 1987, as insurance premiums skyrocketed. As a result the rally did not run in 1987, and it dropped back to national status in 1988. It was still able to start 120 crews despite not attracting the star quality names of previous years. Drivers like Frank O’Mahony and Bob Fowden gained valuable experience in these years too.

The 1990s were an exciting time for the rally. Rallying in general was becoming more popular and this was reflected in the West Cork Rally. The rally was very competitive with many leading talents taking part including John Price, Bob Fowden and Liam O’Callaghan. Both Price and O’Callaghan won the rally twice but both were outdone by Fowden who claimed the title three times – 1995, 1997 and 1999. Fowden is something of an iconic figure at the Rally and his three titles are the most won by any driver. Other well-regarded drivers in this period were Frank O’Mahony, Gwyndaf Evans, Denis Cronin and Liam McCarthy. Liam, a Dunmanway man who has competed in 20 West Cork Rallies, finally won the event in 2009. In 1998, the rally saw its first local winners in Donal O’Donovan and Pat Lordan.

The late 1990s and early 2000s saw the rise of new drivers financed by the booming Celtic Tiger years. Drivers like Stephen Murphy, Derek McGarrity, Eamon Boland, Michael Barrable and Donie O’Sullivan all appeared in Clonakilty with some of the finest machinery available. 2000 marked the first victory for a Subaru Impreza in the hands of Stephen Murphy. Since that year, the Impreza WRC has won eight times, becoming the dominant car. Before the Subaru came along, Ford cars reigned supreme. The first four winners were all Ford Escort RS1800s and later the Ford Sierra Cosworth and Ford Escort Cosworth were strong, the Escort Cosworth being driven by Bob Fowden for each of his victories.

With the downturn in the economic climate, drivers faced greater challenges getting cars to compete in the rally. Despite these challenges, the rally continues to thrive and grow and is still an essential element to the Clonakilty tourism season. For 2014, it is part of the Irish Tarmac Modified Championship, which will provide a lot of interest this coming March 15 and 16.

The rally has only failed to run twice in the past 37 years, the first as referred to above, was due to an insurance crisis after a number of incidents in 1986. In 2001, it was cancelled to prevent the spread of Foot and Mouth disease, which was a major problem at the time. Jerry O’Mahony holds the record for competing in the most West Cork Rallies; having started in 32, he finished 18. The record for most finishes goes to Martin Daly with 19. I think most supporters would agree that the driver most deserving of a victory that never came was Frank O’Mahony, so often challenging but unfortunately never able to capture success.

Over the years, some of the stages of the Rally have become iconic – the most famous is the glorious Ring stage, which has drawn approval from many leading drivers. Other well known stages are Ardfield, Clogagh, Sam’s Cross and Glandore.

For further information, I would recommend the book ‘The West Cork Rally, A History’, written by Kevin O’Driscoll. The book is an exciting, detailed look at the wonderful history of the rally. Full of fascinating insights and stories, it’s a must read for any Rally fan. The book is available online through www.westcorkrally.com and www.corkmotorclub.com and local bookshops.

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