BY JOHN WALSHE
THREE sisters who were among the pioneering women of athletics in this country were recently honoured at the Cork Athletics Board International Awards Night at the Kingsley Hotel.
For the past number of years – through the efforts of Liam Fleming from Ballinascarthy who has written a number of books on past champions – a Cork men’s team has received awards but on this occasion what was a historic occasion for women received due recognition.
They were known as the ‘Flying Rices’ from Tracton Athletic Club and for Imelda, Agnes and Teresa it was an emotional reunion to meet up and swap stories with their team-mates, Ann Leahy and Mary O’Donoghue, recalling a famous victory over 50 years ago.
The sixth member of the team, Sheila Leahy, has sadly passed away but was represented on the night.
The NACAI All-Ireland cross-country championship of 1968 took place at Dromoland in Clare at the end of March. Not alone did Cork easily win the first-ever women’s title, they also provided the first two finishers with Imelda taking the title ahead of her sister Agnes.
Nowadays, up to half of the participants of the numerous road races held weekly are women. This country has, of course, produced some of the world’s greatest female stars, most notably Cork’s own Sonia O’Sullivan who graced the world athletics stage for many years.
But it was a totally different scene a half-century ago as Teresa Rice (now Walsh) who lives near Ballinhassig recalls.
‘We were originally from Araglen near Fermoy and my father and mother, who had six in the family, then moved to Belgooly where they farmed. My father wasn’t well and died at the age of 65, however my mother was a tower of strength but we had to work hard,’ Teresa explained.
‘We went to school in Ballingarry and subsequently to the Convent of Mercy in Kinsale. I suppose we started with the school sports and then the late Tom Brady from Tracton Athletic Club got us involved. When we started competing, for the first seven or eight races there was no separating the three of use – it was first, second and third all the way. That’s how we got the name “The Flying Rices”.
‘My father was interested in us to run and we got good home support. We travelled to Wicklow, Galway, Tipperary and Dublin – all over the place. We used to go in Vincent Kiely’s bus and sometimes four of five or us would travel in the back of Tom Brady’s car.’
Facilities and gear were non-existent, Teresa recalls.
‘We had no proper shoes, only rubber dollies running on the road and around the fields at home, over ditches, streams and everything. We were also warned to make sure if we were wearing shorts, to wear long shorts!’
Local Sunday sports meetings on grass which included cycling were hugely popular at the time and Teresa has also the distinction of winning the first-ever Cork County cycle championship on the track.
‘We used to do all the sports, sometimes instead of medals they’d give you sets of ware, knife sets, clocks and the like.’
Between them, the three Rice sisters won a total of 20 All-Ireland medals, including 12 gold. Uniquely, all three also ended up as nurses.
‘I went to Crumlin in 1969 before I came back to the North Infirmary and when that closed down I ended up at St Finbarr’s. Imelda was a public health nurse while Agnes worked in the South Infirmary,’ says Teresa.
‘We were delighted to be honoured because we had put a lot of work into it. When we see all the women taking part today, it’s absolutely phenomenal what improvements have come and it’s well justified,’ concludes the woman, who along with her Cork cross-country colleagues, played a pivotal role in the recognition of female participation in sport all of a half-century ago.