Year after year I never cease to be amazed at the magnificent sporting stories that continually come to light in this county. Just when you say to your self no other story of great achievement will top the last one, along comes another. And the Paudie Fitzgerald story of his incredible winning ride in the Ras Tailteann of fifty years ago equaled anything that I have heard about in the past. The triumph of the human spirit over adversity and set back is here in all is glory. When you consider that his win in this most grueling of all Irish Cycle races was achieved in the so called "hungry fifties" when training facilities, diet, sponsorship and semi-professional were words you read only in the dictionary, then you begin to realize the magnificence of the West Kerry mans victory
Next Tuesday 23rd May the great cavalcade that is the Ras sweeps into Dingle town. It arrives there to commemorate and honour Paudie's historic win in 1956 and no man deserves the honour more. I have said here in this column many times in the past that sporting men and women outside the realm of the GAA find it very difficult to achieve the recognition they so richly deserve. Now this is only a personal opinion. Being a GAA activist myself for over fifty years I make no apologies for saying that the achievements of many great Kerry sportsmen and women are not lauded and applauded as they should in this county while GAA victories in all grades are generally the talk of every town, parish and village. Nevertheless I must add that that is the tradition and history of the county we live in. How many time have you the reader heard about Paudie Fitzgerald. Not often I would bet.
To emphasis what I say let me state a case in point. Some time ago I interviewed a great Kerry athlete of the past, a man who had covered himself in glory with a high finish in the biggest stage in the world a number of years ago. The Olympic Games. And he told me. "That year despite what I had achieved when it came to handing out the Kerry Sportsman of the Year, the award went to a Kerry footballer. Now in my book what I had achieved was far above what he had done in a team sport, chasing a bag of wind around Croke Park. I was bitterly disappointed with Kerry and the way they had overlooked me. It was not vanity or big headiness in any way in my part, I am not like that, but I felt very hurt and lost interest in most things Kerry".
So one day last week I made the beautiful scenic trip to Dingle where Paudie Fitzgerald, a busy man owner of a thriving and highly successful hardware business was most obliging to take time out to talk to me in his office, phone off the hook and recall in such vivid detail that memorable year of 1956 in his life half a century ago.
Born in the West Kery parish of Lispole Paudie began his cycling career racing around the roads of West Kerry and all participating in all the Kerry open sports meetings. He was a savage trainer and clocked up huge mileage racing over the Connor Pass or around Slea head on his way to work at the crack of dawn; this would be followed by even longer evening routs. A feed of porridge in the morning with raw eggs in sherry all provided by his mother was the normal morning diet.
|Paudie Fitzgerald Kerry|
He was well established in 1956, he says he could have won in 1953 if he had more experience under his belt while the following year he was left unsupported at a vital stage and in 1955 when his team mate Gene Mangan won Paudie had crashed and was injured." I had a very bad day in the early stages of the 1956 Ras and in fact dropped out at one stage exhausted and tried to abandon. However my father and some friends came along and forced me back on the saddle, I was in terrible shape. I made a great recovery and finished the stage into Nenagh second behind Gene Mangan. The next stage into Tralee was a memorable day for me. Thousand lined the rout and despite obstruction from an oil tanker in the town I avoided a collision and won. Ronnie Williams from Dublin took the yellow but then following day I bettered him in the Kerry mountains and won again as we raced in to Kenmare. Then came that Nenagh stage, John Keane from the Exiles team was with me the whole way, he then had yellow jersey. I was four minutes up at Mallow, took a wrong turn, lost time and took another wrong turn before Fermoy, lost more time.
Keane was still with me and he began to talk and tease me about my team mates, we began to argue, push and shove each other. We finished up squaring up to each other in the middle of the road and had to be separated. We came upon a funeral in Michelstown, I saw my chance, attacked up the left side of the cortege, Keane went up the right, got tangled up in the mourners and I was away and gained six minutes on Keane and took the yellow Jersey". When I put it to Paudie that it must be the only time that a dead man helped someone to win the Ras he got a great fit of laughing and then I asked him did he ever find out who was in the coffin he replied, "It would take you Weeshie to think of that but I offered up prayers for the departed".
The Lispole Legend held his lead to Dublin and Kerry's dominance was sealed when Paddy Moriarty won the last stage. So Kerry had won the team prize and individual prize and all but two stages. These were memorable times for Kerry cycling and I well remember the massive home coming afforded the boys. Thousands turned out to greet the Kerry cycling heroes, bonfires blazed, banners were raised and the Kerry colors were to be seen in every town. Paudie's home coming to Lispole is the stuff of legend; a massive throng was awaiting him. He was welcomed with a torch light procession returning as Irelands best cyclist to his native soil. Great stuff, wonderful memories of 1956.
But there was much much more to this Ras. There were dramatic scenes played out when the cyclists were on the second stage from Newry to Armagh. A car flying the Irish tricolor was stopped and ordered to remove the flag. Joe Christle a great NCA cycling man and his companions refused to do so and drove on. The police blocked the road further on and again ordered the flag be taken down, tensions were rising, there was a melee and the flag was retained by the Ras men. On to Cookstown and here serious fighting broke out as police and riders clashed with the Kerry team coming in for particular attention as their colors closely resembled those of the tricolor. Political slogans were shouted, a bottle was thrown at the riders, a hostile crowd joined by police with swinging batons who rushed the cyclists and serious fighting broke out. The Unionist women threw hot water at the riders and people were badly beaten. Joe Christle announced that that stage of the Ras was being abandoned in protest, the only Ras stage ever to have been abandoned. It has gone down in Ras history as "The Cookstown Incident".
Paudie was later that year selected to travel on a three man team to the Melbourne Olympic Games in Australia. The NCA were excluded from the competition and they traveled intending to highlight the injustice of their exclusion. With Paudie were Tommy Flanagan the National League Champion and Tom Gerard who was in Australia at the time. They achieved their goal disrupted the beginning of the Olympic race despite the huge security and then amid massive international publicly, were ejected by the Australian police. However assisted by a well organize expatriate group they distributed thousand of leaflets arguing their case. Paudie told me in this fascinating not to be missed interview that his one ambition was to lead the Olympic race for one circuit of the course. This he did not achieve, because he told me that they would have got away at the start but some journalist recognized them and came on to the track to interview and photograph them, this drew the attention of the stewards. Nevertheless what he did accomplish on that trip to Melbourne and that momentous year of 1956 is in my humble opinion one of the greatest of Kerry sporting stories.
Paudie lost the driving ambition to train and win, he had raced in the very first Ras and he completed for awhile in 1957. He then emigrated to the building sites of London. I have been told over and over again that he could have been one of the greatest cyclists this country has ever seen. His training routine surpassed even that of to-days men and his West Kerry steel like drive and never sat die competitiveness made him one of the finest Irish sportsmen of his ere.
Now a highly successful business man in West Kery he was very reluctant to talk about his achievements, however when we did get going in his office that day two weeks ago I sat enthralled and fascinated at his story. A warm friendly person the Paudie Fitzgerald story is one which will surly be told and re told to generations of Kerry sportsmen and women yet to come. And when the Ras stage ends in his native Dingle to-morrow Tuesday in his honour it will be safe to declare that no man deserves the honour more. In conclusion to my column led me add that Tom Daly in his superb history of the race entitled. "The Ras the Story of Irelands Unique Bike Race" states." Fitzgerald was a jewel that was left in the ground".