From grass to glory: Golden memories built at Mondello

A young fan blocks his ears as the bikes fly past at Mondello Park. Picture: Inpho/Andrew Paton

Muhammad Ali in Croke Park in 1972. Pele and Santos down the road in Dalymount Park the same year. 

The famous Santry Mile won by Olympic champion Herb Elliott in ’58. The All Blacks in Limerick 20 years later...

Just some of the memorable moments when little old Ireland was graced by international sporting royalty. 

So many of these events have been preserved in books, plays and documentaries. 

Others have sat neglected on the sidelines through the years, among them Ayrton Senna’s visit to Mondello Park in 1982 when the Brazilian — still using his dad’s name of da Silva at the time — showed his burgeoning class in Co Kildare.

Senna isn’t the only superstar to have navigated his way around the track. James Hunt, Jackie Stewart, Mika Häkkinen, Rubens Barrichello, Emerson Fittipaldi and motorcycling legend Mike Hailwood all hared around its tight bends and yet who outside the country’s small community of petrolheads ever knew?

Mondello translates as ‘Little World’ and it’s hard to think of a more apposite name for a facility that has served as the centre of the universe for Irish motorsport since 1968.

RTÉ will screen an hour-long documentary on the track this Bank Holiday Monday at 6.30pm. 

Golden Mondello — From Grass to Glory takes the viewer through its 51-year history, highlights its significance and lays bare the love affair that so many people have with the place and the sport itself.

“The sound of the engines is just in your blood. It’s weird.”

That’s Grainne O’Carroll, the documentary’s producer.

Grainne’s infatuation with all this was unavoidable given her dad Michael was the man who, via his work with RTÉ, first brought motorsport to Irish screens. Mondello was a second home.

The project that brought this film about was prompted by Martin Birrane, the Mayo-born, English-based businessman who rescued the place from financial disaster in 1985 and turned it into a facility capable of hosting every motor racing event you can imagine, short of Formula 1.

Birrane wanted the piece to accompany the track’s 50th birthday last year, but his sudden passing at the age of 82 was among the reasons why production instead extended towards the two-year mark. 

The fact those involved were working on it in their spare time as a labour of love was another.

The O’Carrolls were obvious candidates, director Stephen Vickers is a racing fanatic, and even Nicola Watkins, who is responsible for the press and publicity, is a petrolhead who has suited up and tested her racing skills at the venue. 

That passion has been tested more than once in getting this past the finish line. One of the film’s many strengths is the archive footage, but it wasn’t easy to find.

With RTÉ currently digitising their archives from the mid-1980s through to the late ’90s, they had to look high and low for alternatives, and old contacts such as John Fitzpatrick and Oliver McCrossan came up trumps time and again. 

The footage of the track’s opening day in 1968 is superb. Among the reels is a shot of a priest in full vestments showering the tarmac with holy water. 

Another find was a clip of the diggers as they worked on converting the 110 acres of farmland into a circuit worthy of the name.

“Some of the stuff came in and we were squealing,” says O’Carroll.

Maybe the hardest find was a photo from the 1980s of five Irish drivers — David Kennedy, John Watson, Derek Daly, Michael Roe and Kenny Acheson — who were competing at Le Mans in the same year. 

Kennedy assured O’Carroll it existed, and it was finally found in the Dublin attic of a man called Russell Murphy. 

All of those drivers served apprenticeships at Mondello. So did the legendary Tommy Byrne and Eddie Jordan, among others. 

If this documentary achieves nothing else, then it will highlight the stream of talent propelled towards F1 and other racing heights by the venue.

“What Mondello has done for Irish sport, not just for motor racing but for Irish sport and its folklore, is simply sensational,” says Jordan at one point. 

Jackie Stewart and Kennedy are among the names to have claimed that if you can do the business at Mondello then you can do it anywhere. 

That seems to hold good for two wheels as well as four. Joey Dunlop, for one, graced the same spread, but it is the stories behind the races that hit home. 

One of the best is told by two-time TT winner Eddie Laycock who hitched from Dublin as a teenager and slept in a storeroom full of hay bales for the corners — and mice — so he could stretch his first visit into a second day.

Alan Dukes, the former Fine Gael minister, shared how he had been one of the estimated 10-15,000 people who turned up for the grand opening in ’68 and, along with his wife and parents, broke out a picnic with red wine on a patch of grass behind what is now the main grandstand. 

That sense of community and family filters through the 60 minutes.

It’s a story that is handled as expertly as any car or bike that was ever gunned around the track, and one that is far more than just a sports story.

“That’s the goal, that it speaks to people who aren’t into their motorsport,” says O’Carroll. 

“It’s about human stories, ultimately.”

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