A little over a hundred years ago Cork was served by its own dedicated sports newspaper, The Cork Sportsman. A glimpse through its pages reveals the vibrant sporting landscape of a now faded past. Such trends as the huge popularity enjoyed by local athletic meetings, the rising strength of the G.A.A. and the one-time prominence of the sport of cricket feature in every issue.
In August 1908 the paper took it upon itself to sponsor and promote a long distance road race in a vein reminiscent to the way in which L’Auto (formerly L'Auto-Vélo, later L’Équipe) organised the first Tour de France in 1903 in a bid to boost raise sales. The yellow jersey, introduced in 1919, is said to have been inspired by the newsprint the paper used.
The road race was billed as “The Great ‘Cork Sportsman’ Marathon, Cork to Crosshaven” and was to be 14 miles in length. The Sportsman hammed it up a little, perhaps, by declaring “Irish and American Cracks Competing” and “Superb Struggle Ireland v. U.S.A.”. In fact in some ways it was a little reminiscent to one of our own road races such as the Cork to Cobh in October. While the ‘Sportsman’s Marathon’ certainly didn’t go on to enjoy the same longevity as the Tour de France it was, nonetheless, a landmark feature in its own right in the Cork sporting year of 1908.
It was held on Sunday, September 13th in conjunction with the Crosshaven Sports which were organised “under G.A.A. laws” and the first prize, valued at £7, was put up by the proprietors of the newspaper. After consulting with interested athletes it was decided that the event should be a handicap rather than scratch contest and it would start from outside the Sportsman’s offices on Bridge Street at 11a.m. “sharp”.
|Bridge Street, Cork City|
No women were included, though their participation in other events at Crosshaven that day was reported on – “The ladies’ cycle race was a great treat. Miss Nunan, sprinting from the bell, led Miss Gayer by ten yards at the back straight. On the bend for home the latter rode strongly, and pedalling with great judgement, drew level ten yards from home and flashed past the judges half-a-wheel a-head”.
In all 22 competitors faced the starter that Sunday morning and far from being “old stagers” the majority were novices, many of whom had never figured in any race, either on track or road, before. Being a time handicap there was around 30 seconds between each athlete starting, this caused some congestion with the crowd that had gathered to spectate and it proved difficult to keep a channel open. On starting off each runner was enthusiastically declared the likely winner by his own supporters.
Off of 4 minutes came E. Hogan of Ballynoe, aged just 18 he showed a “magnificent stride, hands hanging loosely at his side, palms to back – a real Indian stride, and remarkable for its ease”. His confidence was the same as that which he had displayed in the “Midleton go-as-you-please”. Following him came P. Mansfield of Waterford, a “great stayer” who had gained “no small prominence as a long-distance man”. Then came “that old stager”, Con Donoghue of Carrignavar who took the road in grand style, followed by W. O’Connell and B. Cremen, U.S.A. Last off was Hayes the great favourite of the lot, “smiling, and eagerly awaiting the word go”.
At the rear of the race were the waggonettes to carry the judges and the officials, with yet others for the “weary ones” and for the competitors’ clothes. The Cork Sportsman banner floated “gaily from the leading vehicle” and the crowd gave it a hearty cheer.
When the race reached the Blackrock Road Callanan of Crosshaven was in front, determined, no doubt, to reach his home town first. He was followed by D. Barrett (C.C.H.), P. O’Driscoll, E. P. Mansfield, young Hogan of Ballynoe, Con Donoghue and W. O’Connell. Hayes was still running last at that stage.
On reaching the top of Carr’s Hill, the old Carrignavar stager, O’Donoghue, had assumed the lead followed by Dennehy; also notable at that point was the way in which Barrett was picking off his men. These three must have been good on the hills, though O’Driscoll and Hayes were also going strong and looking perfectly fresh. Near Shannon Park Dennehy was unfortunate to lose his shoe, something that delayed him considerably.
These days we appreciate our water stations, and perhaps even some power drinks or jellies during a marathon, but it was Oxo, given out by cyclists, that kept up the strength of these runners in 1908.
Another novel feature and one that we might struggle to organise nowadays, was the laying on of a
train with saloon carriages which was timed to run alongside the race for a stretch and give the passengers a better than grand-stand view. Those availing were told to be ready to board at Carrigaline and that “they would enjoy the unique distinction of witnessing the actual race for a distance of four miles”. On approaching Crosshaven the train would pick up to full speed so as to allow the “enthusiasts to be present at the finish”.
A mile out from Carrigaline, Hogan took the lead; Hayes, now limping, had dropped back to fifth. Those capable of injecting some speed increased the gaps in the field but the sequence settled for a time – Hogan, Mansfield, Barrett, O’Donoghue, Cremen, O’Connell, Dennehy and Hayes. Meanwhile the excitement was mounting in Crosshaven as cyclists came in intermittently with news of how things were progressing.
Soon the large crowd at Kennefick’s corner could see things for themselves when Hogan rounded the pier corner. “Running strongly, but very tired” he managed to breast the tape in 1:20.02. Then came Barrett 25 seconds later, “running as if he had just started and smiling all over”. Both were not yet 20-years of age.
The close finishing times were attributed to the experience the handicapper, Mr. J. P. Collins, was able to bring in estimating the merits of the competitors. Such events, the Sportsman said, often ended in a “straggling fashion” but this was an exception. Another remarkable feature was the fact that as many as 17 of the 22 starters finished.
All in all, the paper reckoned the race “to be one of the greatest athletic events held in the country for some time”. The fact that no steps were taken by the local press to give their readers information on such an important race “shews how inadequately sport is catered for in Cork and how pressing was the need for such a paper as the CORK SPORTSMAN”.
The Cork Sportsman; Saturday August 29th, Saturday September 5th and Saturday September 19th 1908