AN invitation that I gratefully accepted three weeks ago found me in the beautiful Sneem Hotel mixing with and interviewing some of the greatest cyclists this country has ever seen.
It was a reunion by over ninety cycling men, who had all taken part in the Rás Tailteann in the early 1950s and 60s. It was an amazing experience as I was introduced to names of legendary men, who have written themselves into Irish sporting history. A group of our own Kerry greats who had all taken part in the Rás at one time or another came up with the idea and, led by Lispole's Paudie Fitzgerald, they had been working on the reunion for over twelve months.
And this two-day get together proved to be a wonderful success with old friends and foes of the road renewing acquaintances for the first time in decades. Rás winners from the golden age of cycling in the 50s and 60s were in big demand. Kerry winners there were Paud Fitzgerald (1956), Mick Murphy (1958) and John 'Jacko' Mangan (1972), while Cavan born Brian Connaghton (1969), who raced to victory in the Meath colours, was meeting old friends and swapping stories from a era long gone.
It was amazing to meet and interview heroes from my youth such as Dan Ahern, the Lacey brothers from Tralee, Matt, Eddie and Jack, Sean O'Connor, Pat Healy, Arthur Caball, Paddy O'Callaghan and many more.
Hotel owner Lui Moriarty, himself a former Rás star, was the perfect host and looked after these iron men of the road as only he could. It was in many ways a very emotional reunion as in many instances over fifty years had elapsed since some of these men had last met.
For me one of the most interesting parts of the night was my discovery of a story that has been more or less forgotten over time. I had been told somewhere along the line that a Kerry man had been arrested for gate crashing the start of a cycle race at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. However, I had never been told the full facts of this astonishing story. But during one amazing introduction in the Sneem Hotel that historic and unbelievable event would unfold before my eyes. Chief organiser and great friend Paud Fitzgerald called me over and said:
"I want you to meet a great old friend of mine, this is Tom Flanagan from Kildare who was arrested with me in Melbourne in 1956."
And so I was given the opportunity to unravel one of the great Irish sporting / political stories of that or any other era. Paudie took up the story.
"I was one of three cyclists who lined up at Broadmeadows, Melbourne 56 years ago claiming to represent Ireland in those Olympics. The problem was the body that had selected us, the National Cycling Association (NCA) was neither recognised by Olympic Council of Ireland nor the International Olympic Committee. So when the protest was made we were removed (from the starting line). The race was held up for fifteen minutes or so as they sent for warrants for our arrest," recalled the Kerry man.
However, we were released halfway through the race without charge and our attempts to "gatecrash" the start made front page news all over the world. Irish cycling, as previously pointed out, was not recognised by the Irish Olympic Council, however, the cycling authorities decided to send Paudie together with team mates, Tom Gerrard and Tom Flanagan to the games. It was a bold move and one which would focus the eyes of the political and sporting world on Irish situation.
In Melbourne, the trio lived in High Street, Prahran, and rode to the road race course each day for training. They were supported by local Irish associations, who lodged and supported the cyclists and raised funds to cover their expenses.
"I left here with £100 in my pocket and I came back with £200," says Fitzgerald.
On race day, the trio travelled to Broadmeadows in a delivery van driven by a Maurice Kelly's brother, Pat. Fitzgerald says several times during our conversation that things were different then.
One thing definitely was different: Olympic security was so relaxed that a handlettered sign proclaiming the van as official Irish team transport gained entry into the competitors' car park. And cycling vests with the word 'Ireland' across the front passed for team uniform.
The Lispole man, Gerrard and Flanagan warmed up on the course with the other riders. They took their places on the starting line, but, despite appearances otherwise, they had been noticed It is said the Italian team raised the alarm – Italy's star, Ercole Baldini, won the race. Fitzgerald remembers press photographers somehow being alert to their presence and taking pictures.
"We nearly got away with it," Paudie recalled.
On his own calculations, he averaged a faster milesper-hour-rate in the Tour of Ireland than Baldini did in winning on a sweltering hot day. He thinks he could have been at least competitive, had he been allowed to ride.
"My own ambition was that I would lead the race for one circuit, even," he told me all these years later in Sneem.
Instead, he and his colleagues were led off the course, their supporters having to be content with distributing literature promoting their cause. Fifty-six years later, Ireland has a unified cycling association representing the 32 counties.
"I'm glad to say today we have one union for cyclists in Ireland and all can compete in each other's races," says Fitzgerald.
"So we got what we wanted those fifty six years ago."
It is another matter whether or not it was worth it. Fitzgerald and his generation won a battle, yet they were unable to enjoy the benefits of victory.
"I have four sons," says Fitzgerald.
"If I had one capable of doing what I was doing then, I wouldn't give a damn who he competed with. Sportsmen are sportsmen."
My great dear friend the late Liam Higgins, also a Lispole native had often given me fragmented accounts of the story, but now all these years later I had heard it 'straight from the horse's mouth.
There is, however, another astonishing story, but for another day surrounding these historic events. And that is the journey undertaken by Tom Flanagan all around the world to stage that protest with only a few bob in his pocket. He brought me step by step on that journey as he surmounted massive odds to reach his destination, Melbourne, and really it is the stuff of legend. It simply has to be told, but some time in the foreseeable future, perhaps.