When writing PhD (or as I am, trying to!) you come across many little stories that you simply cannot find the space (or the relevance) to explore fully. This is one such story. History, and sport, share one thing more than any other in common: the failed endeavour. Here is a remarkable combination of the two.
Tramore, Co. Waterford is one of Ireland’s most well-known seaside towns. The long beach from which it gets it’s name (in Irish trá mhór means big strand) is well known to many a sun-bather; to those who enjoy the turf Tramore represents one of Ireland’s longest running and most popular race meetings; for children of all ages the amusement rides and arcades, the fish ‘n’ chip shops and sweet stands signify a thousand summer memories. Of all the things associated with Tramore, to my mind at any rate, motor racing’s pioneer era certainly wasn’t one of them.
As you walk down the Lady’s Slip, towards the Baldy Man, at the furthest end of the beach istelf away from the town, there lies the ruins of the first horse racing track built in Tramore. But these ruins aren’t our focus. Instead, imagine that there might have been yet another set of ruins, not of a horse racing track, but of a motor racing one instead. When most people think motor racing in Ireland, they think Mondello Park.
But back in the late 1920s plans were afoot to turn Tramore, Co. Waterford into a centre of the emerging appetite for fast cars and motor bikes and commercial, spectator sport. Although it would take a long time for the motor car to become a regular part of the street furniture in Ireland, Waterford had early connections with the motor car, as local brewing and steamship magnate, William Goff Davis-Goff, was the first chairman of the Royal Irish Automobile Club (RIAC).
The 1920s tends to throw up images of great poverty, depression and in Ireland, the anxieties and aftermath of civil war. But there was levity in life too and commercialised sport was just beginning to grow with greyhound racing tracks opening in both Belfast and Dublin in 1927 to be followed hot on the heels by tracks in Cork and Limerick (Waterford’s greyhound track opened in 1934).
It was also in this era that Phoenix Park saw Grands Prix, 1929-31, organised by the RIAC – prizes included the Phoenix Trophy, The Eireann Gold Cup, The Saorstát Gold Cup (sponsored by the Daily Mail no less!), and the Wakefield Castrol Gold Cup. In 1929, just months before the world was plunged into a deep economic recession, spectators gathered at Tramore strand to witness the first annual motor car races.
According to a report in September, 1929 in the Munster Express this inaugural meeting of motor car and bike races attracted somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 spectators – a huge number of people, from far and wide, who came by train, bus, and naturally motor car. Being beside the seaside of course, getting things going had their complications:
The tide was an important consideration in fixing the start, which took place shortly after one o’clock, laying out the course and deciding the probable time to be taken for each event, but so well was the whole worked out that, notwithstanding the encroaching sea, the programme was well through and the strand laid bare again before the encroaching waves could cause any inconvenience.
In total there were five races, including two for motor cycles. The Barrack Street Band played throughout the afternoon, their numbers including Rossini’s ‘The Barber of Seville’, Petrie’s ‘Asleep in the Deep’, a comedic foxtrot entitled ‘You Can Feel It Doing You Good’ – a hit from 1928, and finishing their programme with ‘A Nation Once Again.’ The majority of the prizes were put up by Wilf Iddon, proprietor of one of the arcades on the promenade, as well by another arcade proprietor, Mr. E Piper of the Atlantic Dance Hall. Other prizes were presented by Heine’s antiques, as well as the owners of the motor factors in the area. At the end of the day’s events, the mayor made a speech and Lady Goff distributed the prizes to the winners.
Such was their success, that the races returned in June of 1930. This time though the strand was quite wet causing at least one car, in the memorable phrase of the reporter to ‘turn turtle’ during a race. On this occasion there were five events, the final event being a lady-drivers-only, 10 mile race for cars unlimited by horsepower class. The winner of the race was Miss Peggy O’Connell of Kilkenny, who came in at a time of 13 minutes and 28 seconds. At a meal following on from the race, one of the attendees, George Jackson of Carlow saw no reason why Tramore could not surpass Southport as a racing venue. This time too, the races were help under the auspices of the Motor Car Union of Ireland (MCUI).
In 1931, in July, the races were back – bigger and better it seems. One of the reports of the event stated that
The big strand affords excellent facilities for such events, and the continued success of the races may lead to big developmwents in connection with the fixtures… Tramore was gaily decorated for the occasion, and business folk spared no effort to cater well for the huge gathering of visitors who enjoyed a right good day by the sea waves.
This wasn’t just idle, hopeful speculation either. Mr Beglin, the MCUI representative at the 1931 races, at the meal for competitors and organisers, possibly emboldened by the refreshments, said of Tramore as a motor racing venue
This is the finest beach in the country for motor racing and you have one of the finest organising committees. It will be the biggest motor racing centre in the British Isles in a few years, if you go on at this rate.
The following year, 1932, saw a similar programme of events as well as races on a different beach, Duncannon. There was calls in 1933 prior to the motor races at Tramore, to be the biggest yet, for public support of a flag day for the Tramore Motor Racing Club. According to the Irish Independent there were further races in July and September of 1934 but after this, things seem to peter out for the sport in the seaside town.
Local press, like the Munster Express, also seem to lose interest in giving the races at Tramore the same kind of coverage afforded it just a few years earlier. Although Tramore never did become a major epicentre of motor racing sport in Ireland, as it was hoped it might, for a few summers at least the thrills were fast and furious as thousands watched in wonder at machines tearing up the strand at high speed; machines that as yet had not become everyday street furniture.