Gordon Bennett Cup Race 1903

If you can imagine, or better still recall, the excitement that prevailed in Ireland before the visit of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, President of the United States of America, to his ancestral homeland in 1963 then you have some idea of the euphoria generated by the staging of the Gordon Bennett Motor Cup Race in the counties of Laois, Carlow and Kildare. That this world event was ever staged in the Emerald Isle was the result of a unique set of circumstances. An Englishman, Selwyn Edge, had won the 1902 race and the onus was on England to find a suitable venue for the 1903 event.

Not as easy as you might think because there was a twelve mile per hour speed limit on all roads in the British Empire - hardly ideal conditions for the staging of a motor race. Then into the breech stepped the right Honourable John Scott Montague, an avid motoring enthusiast who also happened to be a Member of Parliament at Westminster where laws were enacted that covered both Ireland and England.

The Honourable John drafted the Light Locomotives (Ireland) Act 1903, which exempted cars from any statutory speed limit on the day of the race. To overcome any political opposition by County Councils, the legislation would have to include an incentive or 'sweetener.' The carrot dangled in front of the newly formed Local Authorities (formed 1899) was that the legislation would absolve County Councils from all road improvement costs on the chosen route.

Cash-starved County Councils embraced the Gordon Bennett Race with the enthusiasm and fervour of a papal visit, and what County Councillor could say no to such a gift horse? This gift being the filling of almost ninety miles of pot-holes and the hope for Councillors to be re-elected. The world press attention was now firmly focused on the chosen routes in counties Laois, Carlow and Kildare.

Maryborough (Portlaoise) Town Commission was not to be found wanting in their eagerness to facilitate the great race. They convened and passed an order moving the Maryborough market from Thursday 2nd July (the day of the great race) back to Wednesday the 1st July. All was now in place for the preparation of the route. Queen's County Council, whose responsibility for the Great Race stretched from the County bounds at Monasterevin to the County bounds beyond Ballylinan, made every effort that all would be right on the day. Council workers toiled from dawn to dusk preparing the circuit.

Every known service to make the spectators comfortable and enjoyable on the day of the race was advertised. Advertisements appeared in the local newspapers offering a range of goods and services guaranteed to make the day of the Big Race as enjoyable as possible. The Leinster Express carried notices of a Grand Stand at Aughnahilla where the advert stated:

'A magnificent position for spectators, near the famous Rock of Dunamaise and immediately overlooking course. Teas and coffee at moderate charges on grounds. Access of course up to 6.00 a.m. Tickets from 2/6d to 7/6d.' The Windy Gap stand boasted of the 'best view on course, cars can be seen for miles thundering down from Old Rock at Dunamaise through Stradbally and up to the Mountainous pass at Windy Gap.'

At 7.00 a.m. on July 2nd 1903, Selwyn Edge took off in a Napier racing car from Kilrush to the cheers of the spectators. His advantage was short lived as Camille Jenatzy (nicknamed The Red Devil because of his red beard), driving a white Mercedes, was soon in command and became the eventual winner.