Six decades after a controversial World Amateur Road Race, Ryle Dwyer looks at a series of stunts at cycling events by militant Irish republicans
On August 27, 1955 the National Cycling Association (NCA) tried to enter a team in the World Amateur Road Race in Frascati, Italy. It was first time the association tried to engage in an international event since the cycling split of 1934.
The NCA team consisted of Gene Mangan of Kerry, who had won Rás Tailteann earlier that month, along with Seamus McGreevy of Down, Bernie O’Brien of Kildare, and Mick Christle of Dublin. The other two Irish rival cycling organisations in Ireland — Cumann Rothaíocht na h-Éireann (CRE) and Northern Ireland Cycling Federation (NICF) — had entered a united team representing Ireland.
The four NCA cyclists were allowed to mingle with other contestants. There was no problem until the two Irish teams presented themselves at the starting line. Then it was noticed that NCA riders had no numbers on their jerseys.
Words were exchanged between the two teams, and things got heated. “We are the Irish,” Mick Christle shouted. “We represent all of Ireland.”
“They started shoving us around like mules,” Christle later complained.
“One spectator grabbed me by the neck and when I turned a policeman grabbed me. Guess I cracked him on the nose and they say I kicked his shins, too.”
Christle was charged with assaulting the policeman and jailed for three days, before the charge was dropped and he was released.
In 1953, Mick Christle’s brother Joe had been the main founder and driving inspiration of Rás Tailteann. The first stage of 1955’s Rás had crossed the border to Newry, and the second stage, the longest of the Rás — 225km from Newry to Sligo — started in Co Down, and went through counties Armagh, Tyrone, and Fermanagh without any trouble.
It had been a great success, and there was general approval of the co-operation between the Garda Siochana and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). Hence it was decided to hold three stages in the North in 1956.
The first stage was again from Dublin to Newry. The second stage, which started in Newry, was to go around Lough Neagh and finish in the town of Armagh. Trouble started on the second day, after race director Joe Christle insisted on flying a large Tricolour from the roof the lead car. The flag had been banned in the North under the Flag and Emblems Act of 1954.
Two RUC officers stopped the car entering Learnaderg, and asked the occupants to remove the Tricolour, but they refused and drove off. On reaching Lurgan, the RUC stopped the car again, but this time they broke the flagstick on the roof and seized the flag.
“The national flag will fly as long as this national sports event continues,” Christle proclaimed, standing on the roof of the car. An RUC District Inspector at the scene responded that the Rás could continue but the flag could not be flown. Thereupon Christle announced that the stage was being cancelled. The cycle to Armagh would continue, but it would not be included in the general classification.
On entering Cookstown, the cavalcade was halted by a line of RUC officers who ordered the occupants of the escorting cars to remove all green and orange identity disks. Hostile spectators pelted the cyclists with stones and threw bottles on the street.
The Rás was resumed next day with a reorganised stage from Monaghan to Ballina. Thereafter, Kerry cyclists dominated the remainder of the Rás.
John Mangan won the fourth stage from Ballina to Nenagh, and Paudie Fitzgerald of Lispole won the next stage to Tralee, where there was a large crowd to witness the finish.
Afterwards, before the crowd dispersed, Paddy O’Callaghan of the Kerry team produced a Union Jack and proceeded to burn it, to the delight of the large crowd.
The controversy was essentially carried over to Australia that December during the Melbourne Olympic Games. Paudie Fitzgerald, who won that year’s Rás Tailteann, turned up to compete in the road race at Melbourne, joined by Tom Flanagan and Tom Gerrard, both from Navan. When the Olympic officials realised the three Irishmen had no race numbers, they were ejected. The incident led to a 15-minute delay but otherwise there were no difficulties.
The whole thing was essentially a publicity stunt that got plenty of coverage in Ireland, but little elsewhere.
Joe Christle was behind the Melbourne protest. An ardent Republican, he was one of the driving forces in the seven-year ‘Border Campaign’. He was considered so militant, however, that he had actually been expelled from the IRA earlier in 1956.
Ten years later, Christle was behind the blowing up of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin, and he instigated a further stunt at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972. This time, NCA tried to infiltrate seven riders into the Olympic road race.
Three of the NCA riders were detected and removed at the starting line before the race began. But Pat Healy managed to get underway. During the first of eight laps of the 22.8km course, three other NCA riders slipped into the race from a wooded area. They included John Mangan, the winner of that year’s Rás Tailteann, and his colleague Batty Flynn from Killoglin.
Flynn caused some dismay among the press and commentators when he went into the lead in the race. He had no number on his jersey, so the commentators could not identify him.
The Irish Cycling Federation, a combination of the old CRE and the NICF, had entered a four-man Irish team that included cyclists from both the North and the Republic.
Noel Taggart, a Unionist from Banbridge, was cycling for Ireland.
He said something to Jacko Mangan, who took exception and grabbed the handlebars of Taggart’s bicycle, dragging him to the side of the road, and holding him.
“By the time I got mounted again, the rest of the field were out of sight,” Taggart told reporters. “This was my last competitive race and I desperately wanted to do well.
“I am disgusted by the whole affair. Before this I had a certain amount of respect for the NCA but not any longer.”
Christle was making no apologies. “The NCA will avail of every opportunity and occasion to expose England’s interference in Irish sport and to assert the unity of Ireland in sport,” he told reporters.
The other team was an all-Ireland team and Christle was engaging in naked hypocrisy.
Taoiseach Jack Lynch, who was in Munich that day, was disgusted.
“These team representatives were cycling for Ireland and the interference was a travesty of sportsmanship — reflecting no credit on the country,” he stated.
The stunt got little international publicity, especially in comparison with a relatively similar stunt later in the week at the end of athletics events. A German student briefly deceived 84,000 people by racing in the Olympic stadium for a laugh, moments ahead of the leader of the marathon.
Moreover, the cycling and athletic intrusions paled into insignificance in comparison with the Munich massacre, two days before the cycle race. Eleven of the Israeli Olympic team had been murdered and five of their captors and a policeman were killed in a botched rescue attempt.
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