There is something quite moving about the loss of a sports ground, writes Paul Rouse.
Bound up in the bricks and mortar and grass are the lives of generations of people who passed through the gates. These are places where people dreamed of winning and sometimes even saw those dreams come through.
More than a mere ledger of wins and losses, however, it is the human connection to place which gives sports grounds meaning. The reality of this connection and the meaning that flows from it was underlined with the news that Harold’s Cross Greyhound Stadium has closed.
This sporting mecca on the southside of Dublin has been an essential part of sporting life in the city since it opened in 1928. It mattered to locals and it mattered to country people who found themselves in the city.
Those first years of greyhound racing in Ireland were truly different. A track had opened across the southside at Shelbourne Park — between Ringsend and Ballsbridge — in May, 1927. (One had also opened in Belfast — at Celtic Park — the previous month, April, 1927).
The opening of Shelbourne Park for greyhound racing is a reminder of how new waves of sporting enthusiasms remake the landscape. Before 1927, Shelbourne Park had been home to the famed Shelbourne soccer club (it played there from 1913), but the Park was remodelled in the 1920s to accommodate greyhound racing. This newly imagined sport was an apparent attempt to recast the old sport of coursing in an urban context, replacing live hares with mechanical ones.
The men who founded Harold’s Cross were inspired by the immediate success of greyhound racing and set up their own track in 1928.
It, too, was an immediate success and drew huge crowds. It has remained a success across the decades and its longevity is a tribute to the sport that it offered and by its ability to move with the times in terms of the type of night out that it offered.
Harold’s Cross Greyhound Stadium was a great place to spend a few hours. It teemed with dog-owners and dog-fanciers and gamblers and office parties and people just having a rip. Its loss is a loss that extends far beyond sport.
In a pure sporting sense, however, more than the history of greyhound racing was lost when this track closed. It is now long forgotten that it was at Harold’s Cross that the first truly significant strides were taken in establishing the sport of speedway in Dublin.
This sport — in which four motorcyclists raced around an oval track — was a genuine phenomenon of the 1920s.
The cinder track was perfect for allowing the skidding motion that allowed riders take their bikes into bends as quickly as possible while maintaining power to speed away down the straights.
It says much for the stripped back, raw power of the sport that the riders ultimately raced 500cc machines, with no suspension, no brakes, and only one gear.
The methanol-powered bikes could reach speeds in excess of 100mph and could go from 0 to 60 in just three seconds.
That speedway was raced on an oval track left it the perfect bedfellow for greyhound racing.
The idea to use Harold’s Cross for speedway, as well as for greyhound racing, surely came from JB Frazer, chairman of the new stadium. The experience and contacts he had gathered at the famous White City stadium in London must have shaped his decision to bring the sport to Dublin. So it was that a dirt track was laid around Harold’s Cross and the first races took place on September 15, 1928, some five months after it began to be used for dog racing.
The first night’s speedway was covered extensively in the press and it thrilled those who attended. These thrills were related — not least — to the fact that crashes and other incidents were part and parcel of every race on the programme.
Thousands of people were present to see riders engage in a reckless pursuit of victory — this recklessness saw men such as PT Kehoe stretchered from the track.
And who were the riders? Some had been brought over from England and Wales to lend a certain distinction to the proceedings, but others were members of the Leinster Motor Cycle Club.
Across the night there were 21 races held, with the fastest lap (440yards) being undertaken in 25 seconds and the fastest mile in one minute, 43 seconds.
Across the rest of the racing two more speedway nights were held. The stars of these nights were the Belfast man Stanley Woods (who was beloved of motor racing fans in Ireland) and Larry Coffey, a star professional motorcyclist who was celebrated for his many wins on the tracks of England.
And then it ended. After three meetings, it was decided that the workload in organising speedway did not match the return – especially when greyhound racing was thriving.
It was to be fully 20 years before speedway returned to Ireland with a special international contest between Ireland and England staged at the Santry Greyhound Stadium.
Later, the sport was also taken on at Shelbourne Park and at Chapelizod, but it never took the hold in Ireland that it had in England, where it routinely drew in extraordinary crowds.
That speedway was staged in Ireland at all is a reminder of how the sporting world is never static. Sports rise and fall in popularity. Some become so embedded in public life that it is impossible to imagine a world without them.
Others flicker and fade, having once flared in full flame.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved