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1959 Ben McKenna The Hard Way To Win The Rás
By Eddie Dawson
Feb 25, 2007, 20:41


Ben McKenna Meath Winner Of Rás Tailteann 1959
Anyone wants the formula for winning Rás Tailteann ?  Here It Is

 

Take one bicycle with a broken frame, a team van that won’t go, fall off and injure your leg, wreck your bike on a bad corner and wait two minutes for a spare machine, get a spare machine with a flat tyre and in between times take a wrong turning, win a stage, take a second and a third on two other stages and finish well up on the other five days.


Quiet simple isn’t it ?  You ought to try it some time.


Oh by the way, I nearly forgot one very important point. You’ll need Ben McKenna of Meath to ride the bike for you. He’s an expert on winning in that manner for that is exactly how he did it last year.

I might add that Ben hopes to win again this year, but intends to use a slightly less complicated formula for success.  As he says himself   ”There must be a simpler way of doing it.”

 

Ben is without a doubt Mr. Rás Tailteann himself, for since the marathon started in 1954, he most definitely has the outstanding record of any competitor to date.

 

He made his debut in the race at the tender age of eighteen, in 1956 and to his utter amazement managed to finish twenty-ninth. The following year he was third and King Of The Mountains. In 1958 he improved to second and last year of course he won it.

 

A Very Young Ben McKenna
When the ninety odd starters lined up at the G.P.O. ,
Dublin, on August Sunday last year, one name was on everyone’s lips Ben McKenna. There is no doubt that he was the hottest favourite of all time, a fact which I personally thought would automatically consign him to the sag wagon for no favourite had ever won before.

 

Not even Gene Mangan could rid himself of the un-welcome attentions of his fifty odd rivals when he started out in 1956, and here was Ben, faced with the task odd getting rid of almost twice as many challengers.

 

Had I known then what I know now about Ben’s pre-start adventures I would definitely have tried to cajole a few suckers into making a sizeable bet. How lucky I was, for I’d have lost. Ben won.

 

His misadventures started the week before the race when his frame broke. Try as he could, another one could not be got, not even the one he had won in the Tour of Ulster two day race. The day before Rás Tailteann, a local garage man, Jimmy Courtney, a brother, incidentally, of Jack Courtney, who was team manager of the Meath team, welded the break for him.

 

The Meath contingent set out for Dublin early on August Sunday morning in their team van all set to do or die. As it turned out they would have been better off to have set out on foot for as one of them aptly put it “ Then we’d only have had to walk. That would have been a ---------- of a lot easier than pushing that so and so van all the way to Dublin

 

So our hero duly arrived at the start with a welded frame and having expended more energy pushing the recalcitrant van they would have won a stage for him.

 

Needless to say he was not feeling very happy when the race shot out of Dublin as if the Devil himself was in hot pursuit.

Ben Admiring The "Sunday Review" Shield Which He Won In 1958
As the day wore hr felt even less happy. Anyone who saw the stage from the saddle of a bicycle will tell you that it  was the fastest thing ever, with the field goaded on by the enfant terrible….Cecil Donoghue flogging himself to death as if this was only a fifty kilos event and not the first stage a one thousand mile eight day race. To add to his misery the van got temperamental again, so, much needed drinks were scarce in the Meath camp.

 

Not even Ben McKenna could win that stage. Donoghue did as well he deserved it. There has never been an exhibition of such aggressive riding as Cecil put on for the 105 miles from Dublin to Dundalk.

 

However to get back to McKenna. As He Crossed the line down the field, browned off, gruelled and discouraged he got a message that made him forget all his hardships.

The elusive frame had arrived from Belfast.

 

Rising early next morning himself and mechanic J. O’Connor soon changed all the  equipment from the broken frame, which miraculously had held together, and on to the  new one. They did a good job for in spite of the statistics which prove that such last minute repairs just cannot be done successfully, the bike held together for the rest of the week except when it was damaged in a fall. However, more of this anon.

 

Stage Two

 

Stage Two saw many prayers being offered up for the race organiser, who had routed the race over a course of one hundred and forty something miles to take the riders the fifty odd miles from Dundalk to Longford. However, Ben was the exception, for he felt himself getting fit and able to make his presence felt, although not placed in the final tally for the day.

 

The third day’s racing was a one hundred and twenty mile course over western roads and taking the field from Longford  to Westport Ben attacked  early, with no more that twenty miles covered he was away in the leading group, which stayed clear all day. A few miles to go the 1959 race winner Kerry’s Mick Murphy gave the leading group the slip and Kildare man Paddy Flanagan half wheeled Ben down into third place over the line.

 

This stage, as it later turned out, was one of the vital days of the race and Ben with his uncanny instinct for the now-or-never moves in  a race was there. Unlike the previous two days this big brake came right at the start and although he was not in it he was in the next one which duly made contact with the fugitives from a hard riding bunch which was scattered over ten miles of Connaught roads at the end of the day

 

Mick Murphy Kerry Winner 1958
Before the race started one thing was clear in everyone’s mind and that was that the fourth day from
Westport to Ennis would be the most important stage of the race. One hundred and forty five miles long not including the notorious Corkscrew Hill which is reckoned to be  a stiff climbing test even for motor cars.

 

The Rás Tailteann riders had to climb it with one hundred miles of the fourth successive day’s racing in their legs.

As the race lined up at the start in Westport, McKenna waited impatiently as the preliminaries, the speeches, the presentation of the yellow jersey to Gerry Meehan and all the other details that are part and parcel of the starting process of the day’s racing in Rás Tailteann were gone through.

 

This was it. If he was to pull the race out of the fire he would have to be up to-day.

The narrow twisty roads, that made up the major part of the day’s course were of no great help to anyone, but Ben managed to get into all the vital brakes and with fifty miles to go was one of a ten man group, in the lead, about five minutes ahead of the posse.

 

The word came up that the bunch was chasing very hard and was closing the gap and the breakaway group that previously was going as hard as it could now had to go even harder. With the whips out in earnest the weaker started to crack one by one they dropped back until only five men were left. Ben, Mick Palmer, who had been race leader at the end of stage three, Frank Thompson who was at that time race leader on the road, Shay Murphy and Shay O’Hanlon

 

Without a doubt the unhappiest man in the group was the Meath man. Once more the team van was being uncooperative and he had no food or drink for miles. The little man with the hammer was having a field day. He hung on grimly awaiting the inevitable final onslaught of the “bonk” that was fast over-whelming him.

 

However the U.S. Cavalry was on the way in the form of  N.C.A. Racing Secretary, Jim Reilly who was on holidays in Galway. Typical bike man that he is Jim could not resist the lure of the “Eight Day”. As he drew alongside in a gaily decorated car, Bearing among other legends the comment “Don’t laugh lady, your daughter may be inside.” Ben’s  sagging morale started to rise.

 

The necessary refreshments came up in the proverbial  flash and in the sprint of the line at Ennis, Palmer pipped Shay O’Hanlon who was inches in front of Ben. Frank Thompson, who was fourth took over the race leader’s jersey, with McKenna breathing down his neck a mere 10 seconds behind.

 

As Thompson slept that night he must have almost literally felt McKenna’s breath on his shoulders for on the next day, the Ennis –Tralee stage, the Yellow Jersey was to change hands for the last time in the race….on to Ben McKenna broad shoulders.

There it was fated to stay.

Ben’s own description of this stage breaks a world record for eloquent brevity. He says.

 

By now I was really fit and on stage five into Tralee, I got up to beat John Gearon, Shay Murphy and Ronnie Williams, I took over the race leadership by two and a half minuets.

 

Stage Six

Ben McKenna 1959
The sixth say was one of drama in the Meath Camp. A Yellow Jersey had been won in spite of every obstacle that an un co-operative Lady Luck had put in the way. The royal County’s riders started the stage in high spirits, such that the worst was over and that from there on all would be well.

 

That was what they thought. Disillusionment was soon to follow

As the field raced towards Fermoy, misfortune struck again corning at speed Ben made slight error of judgement that ninety-nine times out of a hundred would have meant nothing but a scare.

 

This time, of course, it meant disaster and down he came to wreck his bicycle. I will not dwell upon what followed. It will be sufficient to say that the spare machine did not come up for two minuets.

If Ben thought that this was his quota of bad luck for the day, he was greatly mistaken for he was far from finished with misfortune. When the spare arrived it had a flat tyre.

 

We’ll draw a merciful curtain over the incident, too, for there is worse to come.

 

Ben eventually gave chase and in his own inimitable style began to catch and drop stragglers to get within less than a minute of the main bunch as the finish drew near.

Then the hoodoo struck again.

This time it was a matter of a wrong turn but he was soon back on course again and at the line in Fermoy he was ninety seconds behind the winner.

Then for the first time that day fortune smiled upon him. His minutes bonus as race leader plus the fact that his challengers were unplaced in the stage left him exactly as he had started out. In spite of everything, he is still race leader by two and a half minuets.

 

Stage Seven

 

Ben After One Of His Many Wins
However he was not to be happy for long. Just twenty-four hours later he was the most worried man in the race. He still held the Yellow Jersey alright but his margin was just one second.

 

The bruising disappointments and efforts of the previous day had taken their toll and the second last day’s racing which took the field of almost eighty racers from Fermoy to Waterford will long be the day Ben wants to forget.

 

Before the stage started the Red Cross Ambulance Crew which follows the race had a field day in patching up his cuts and bruises and during the day his dutiful team mates stood by him and helped him on his painful way, more help came from an unexpected source in the person of Cork rider Dick Barry, who also did his bit.

 

But for all these people Ben would not have finished. And it was, he held on to his lead by the narrowest of margins.

 

Once again in his darkest hour the sun broke through. This time by a strange quirk of fate he was saved by the rule, which gives the Race Leader a one minute bonus immediately he starts each day’s course. The one second by which he had held on to his lead on the seventh stage qualified him for this bonus at the start of the final day’s racing and paved the way for his final victory.

 

This was indeed a well deserved break for it was this self same rule that had beaten him the previous year.

 

In1958 he had actually the fastest time over the course but Mick Murphy’s bonuses had given the victory to the Kerryman. Ben had accepted this with his customary good sportsmanship saying: “Bonuses are part of the race and I just did not qualify for them. I have no crib.” Inwardly however he must have felt sore, little realising that he was to be glad of them within the space of twelve short months.

 

The Final Stage Of The1959 Rás From Waterford To Dublin Going Through Enniscorthy Fourth In Line Dermot Dignam. The Stage Was Won By Mick Murphy Kerry

 

Stage Eight

 

Ben himself sums up the last day’s stage from Waterford, up over the Wicklow Gap to Dublin in just four words…”Watching and hanging on.”

 

He was not fully recovered from the severe mental and physical gruelling he had received on the previous stages and to add to his troubles his gears started to misbehave.

 

At the top of the Wicklow Gap he had actually lost his race lead for at that point he was two minuets behind Ronnie Williams, the man who had failed by just one second to take the Yellow Jersey off him on the previous day.

 

They have a saying in Kerry that “a man is not down ‘till he’s dead and he’s not dead until he’s three weeks buried.” I strongly suspect that they have a similar one in Meath, for Ben was down but was far from being dead.

 

The main cause of his slow climb of the Wicklow Gap was that he could not get his gear to engage in the climbing ratios. Now at the top he was able to ride the high gears without difficulty and began the fight back.

 

Ben McKenna Cycling Official
His descent of the Gap was supersonic as he streaked past the men who had dropped him, in what was to be the fastest descent of the day. At the bottom he had regained one of the vital minuets and on the flat he seemed to be going just as fast as on the steep decent. Within a few miles he was back up with Williams and Co.

 

The final miles into Dublin will be debated for many years. McKenna was in a seven or eight man group which contained four Dublin-men, any three of whom could have snatched a dramatic last stage win.

 

He was in a tight spot, battered, bruised, tired, with-out team support and he was faced by four rivals, three of whom had every reason to have a go. It looked as if he was in for the biggest gruelling of his life with the inevitable result being the loss of his race lead.

 

However the Dublinmen did not attack. Why, we will never know. It is easy to say that they should have but the face is that they did not. It is easy to say attack when sitting comfortably in a motor car. It is another thing to do it when sitting on the saddle of the bicycle concerned.

 

Perhaps the Dublinmen’s failure to have a cut at him is the best tribute that could have been paid to Ben McKenna in the 1959 Rás Tailteann for when four racing cyclists fail to take their chance and attack a rival, it is not because they love him.

 

Ben was the best rider in the 1959 Rás Tailteann. If the Dublin team could have dropped him in those final miles into Dublin, they would have done so.

 

I’ll go further and say that he was the best man in any Rás Tailteann since the race started. His win was an epic one, that may never be repeated.

Rás Tailteann  

2nd. - 9th. August 1959

Route


Stage 1:   Dublin To Dundalk 104 Miles.
Dublin, Navan, Trim, Athboy, Kells, Slane, Drogheda, Dunleer, Ardee, Dundalk.

Stage 2: Dundalk To Longford 128 Miles.
Dundalk, Carrickmacross, Shercock, Bailieborough, Virgina, Ballinagh, Castlepollard, Mullingar, Ballymahon, Carrickboy, Edgeworthstown, Longford

Stage 3: Longford To Westport 116 Miles.
Longford, Roscommon, Frenchpark, Charlestown, Ballyhaunis, Claremorris, Castlebar, Newport, Westport.

Stage 4: Westport To Ennis 134 Miles.
Westport, Leenane, Maam, Maam Cross, Oughterard, Galway, Oranmore, Kinvara, Ballyvaughan, Lisdoonvarna, Ennistymon, Miltown Malbay, Inagh, Ennis.

Stage 5: Ennis To Tralee 108 Miles.
Ennis, Limerick, Killmallock, Rathluirc, Drumcollogher, Newcastle West, Abbeyfeale, Castlrisland, Tralee.

Stage 6: Tralee To Fermoy 120 miles.
Tralee, Killarney, Kenmare, Clonkeen, Macroom, Coachford, Mallow, Fermoy.

Stage 7: Fermoy To Waterford 100 Miles.
Fermoy, Mitchelstown, Cahir, Tipperary, Cashel, Clonmel, Carrick-On-Suir, Waterford.

Stage 8: Waterford To Dublin 118 Miles.
Waterford, New Ross, Enniscorthy, Gorey, Arklow, Rathdrum, Roundwood, Kilbride, Brittas, Saggart, Dublin.

Race Director:        Joe Christle

Ronnie Williams Dublin Second Overall @ 1-01

Stage Winners

Stage 1:  Dublin To Dundalk 104 Miles.    C. O'Donoghue (Dublin) 4.22-32

Stage 2: Dundalk to Longford 134 Miles.   M. Palmer (Mayo)  5-55-40

Stage 3: Longford To Westport 120 Miles.  M. Murphy (Kerry) 5-50-00

Stage 4: Westport To Ennis 134 Miles. M.Palmer (Mayo) 6-20-00

Stage 5: Ennis To Tralee 110 Miles.   B. McKenna (Meath) 4-44-35

Stage 6: Tralee To Fermoy 130 Miles. D. Byrne (Wexford) 4-40-00

Stage 7: Fermoy To Waterford 100 Miles. C. McLynn (Antrim) 4-16-10

Stage 8 : Waterford To Dublin 120 Miles.  M.Murphy (Kerry) 6-02-30

Dermot Byrne Wexford Winner Of Stage 6 Tralee To Fermoy
 

 

A Memorable day at the Rás Tailteann 1959.

 

It was August 8th 1959.  The day did not start out particularly well as myself and the team were “in recovery” after an evening socialising with the journalists covering the race, Tom Cryon and Con Kenealy, (hoping, of course, for a mention in their reports!.)

 

Despite feeling very delicate at the Start next morning, (due to my over indulgence) we left Fermoy, and I settled myself in the comfort of the middle of the bunch, as. we headed for Mitchellstown.   As the morning went on, and we neared Caher, I began to feel better and started to take on food and drink, and towards Tipperary I found myself starting to take a bit of interest in the proceeding and moved up towards the front.

 

At that point in the race, the leaders, Dan Ahern and Eamon Ryan, were 40 secs. ahead of some other good riders, Victor Atkinson, John Egan, James Roches, Cahal O’Donoghue , Eamonn Reilly and Mike Woods.

 

As we pulled them back a group of riders, including my team-mate Jim McConway, were at hand, and I called on him to join me as I made a break,  Jim, however ,was tiring ,having tried hard all day, and declined.  Eventually eleven riders, working together, managed to reach the leaders, and we were then a bunch of nineteen, just as we reached Carrick-on-Suir, and we stayed together for the next sixteen miles.

 

As I saw the bridge into Waterford approaching in the distance I decided to make a bid for the front and moved to the inside for the first corner, taking a chance that I could be boxed in, but, with elbows akimbo, I managed to retain my place, and we went into the second bend down to seven riders only, lead by Mick Murphy.  The six of us clung to his back wheel, streaming and weaving like the tail of a kite, and at the last 880 - 440 - 220,   I MADE IT THROUGH AND WON THE STAGE!

 

Result:     1st.Cormac Mac Lynn (Antrim),

               2nd.Mick Murphy (Kerry)

               3rd.TomWheelan (Tipperary)

               4th.Ronnie Williams (Dublin)

               5th.Pat O’Callaghan (Waterford)

               6th.Paddy Flanagan,(Kildare)

               7th.Christy Dunne (Exiles)

           

My reward was a huge and beautifully cut Waterford vase, which has graced our living room, (and has been filled regularly with very expensive flowers by my wife, who loves it,) and it serves as a lovely reminder to me of what was, without doubt, one of the best days in my life.

 

By Cormack Mac Lynn

Cormac MacLynn, Antrim winner of stage seven Fermoy To Waterford
  

General Classification

1.

2.      

3.

4.

5.

B. McKenna, Meath,  

R. Williams, Dublin      

S. Murphy, Dublin 

P. Flanagan, Kildare 

D. Ahern, Kerry        

43- 12-27

      01-01

      03-35

      03-37

      03-59


Team Winners
Dublin

Dermot Dignam and Myles Cullen, Dublin, at the stage start in Longford.

The Competitors Of The 1959 Rás

        Dublin

1.       R. Williams

2.       T. Finn

3.       M. Christle

4.       M. Cullen

5.       S. Murphy

6.       J. Ludden

7.       S. O’Hanlon

8.       C. O’Donoghue

9.       D. Dignam

10.    C. Christle

 

        Cork

11.    M. Twomey

12.    R. Barry

13.    M O’Hare

14.    V. Atkinson

15.    J. O’Connell

16.    N.Waddy

17.    M. Kearney

18.    J. Aher

 

        Meath

19.    B. McKenna

20.    W. Hasley

21.    P. Row

22.    G.Keogh

23.    L. Dunne

24.    J. Courtney

 

        Wicklow

25.    P O’Meara

26.    E. Dalton

27.    J. Murphy

 

        Antrim

        28  J.  McConway
        29.  G. Meehan
        30.  C. MacLynn
        31.  F. Logue
        32.  R. McGrogan
        33.  F. Thompson
        34.  E. Rafter
        35.  F. McDonnell
        36.  B. Magennis

 

        Kildare

        37.   P. Doyle
        38.   P. Flanagan
        39.   C. Carr
        40.   H. Conway
        41.   P. McCormack
        42.   E. Ryan
        43.   M. Logan
        44.   S. Delaney
        45.   E. Begley

       Waterford

       46.   T. McGuire
       47.   T. Power
       48.   P. O’Callaghan
       49.   M. O’Callaghan
       50.   J. Clarke

 

       Westmeath

       51.   K. Slaone

Mayo

52.   M. Palmer
53.   P. Conlon
54.   N. Bourke
55.   R. Kennedy
56.   P. Walsh
57.   D. McHale
58.   P. McHale

 

Kerry

59.   M. Murphy
60.   D. Ahern
61.   E. Lacey
62.   S. O’Connor
63.   P. Callaghan
64.    J. Drumm
65.   A. Caball
66.   J. Switzer
67.   B. Brosnan

 

Wexford
68.   G. Byrne
69.   D. Byrne
70.   W. Kinsella
71.   F. O’Rourke
72.   J. Roche


Derry

73.   M. Roddy
74.   M. McCarron
75.   D. Houston
76.   D. McGrellis

 

Tipperary

77.   T. Whelan
78.   T. Kiely
79.   A. Kiely
80.   J. Gearon
81.   M. Slattery
82.   M. Woods
83.   P. Wall
84.   J. Lonergan
85.   T. Ryan
86.   T. Williams

 

Kilkenny

87.    S. Cuddihy
88.    J. Hayes
89.    P.Breen
90.    F. Alward
91.    J. Flynn
92.    J. Collins
93.    J. Caulfield

 

Clare

94.    P.J. Doyle
95.    M. Guerin
96.    J. Lynch
97.    J. Keating
98.    M. Linnane

 

Carlow

99.    E. Murphy

 

Exiles

100.  C. Dunne
101.  P. Sweeney



The 1959 Rás start in O’Connell Street L to R Cecil Donoghue, Mick Christle, Sé O’Hanlon, Myles Cullen, Ronnie Williams, Kim Ludden, Gerry McKenna

Mayo Ras Team 1959 Ray Kennedy, Noel Burke Mick Palmer in Jerseys P.Conlon,P.Walsh D, McHale P.McHale

Wexford Rás Team 1959 Dermot Byrne, Frank O'Rourke, Willie Kinsella, Jimmy Roche & Gus Byrne

Ben McKenna winning stage 5 from Ennis to Tralee
 

A group of riders finishing the final stage in the Pheonix Park. In the picture can be seen R to L Mick Palmer Mayo, Gerry McKenna Dublin and Dan Ahern Kerry.

Certificate presented to each rider who finished the RásTailteann Here you can see the one presented to John Collins of the KIlkenny Team
 



1950's
Latest Headlines
1959 Ben McKenna The Hard Way To Win The Rás
1958 Mick Murphy Kerry Winner Of Rás Tailteann
1957 Frank Ward Dublin Wins An Rás Tailteann
1956 Paudie Fitzgerald Kerry Wins Rás Tailteann
1955 Gene Mangan, Kerry Wins The Rás Tailteann
1954 Joseph O'Brien Wins Eight Day Rás Tailteann
1953 Colm Christle Wins The First Rás Tailteann

 

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