BY MARTIN WALSH
IN the normal course of events, this week’s Southern Star should be reflecting on the outcome of the Fastnet Rally. The use of the word normal has become very much part of our vocabulary since the coronavirus pandemic became a global issue.
Since then, we have the ‘new normal’ that describes the way we have changed lifestyle to cope with Covid-19 while Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People premiered on RTÉ television last April. In terms of motorsport, it was once so normal for the Fastnet Rally to be based at the Marine Hotel in Glandore.
Long before synergy was the term to describe a strong relationship in sponsorship, the Marine Hotel and the Skibbereen and District Car Club were one in the same when mention was made of the Fastnet Rally or motorsport.
From 1988 through to 2005 the Fastnet Rally was based in Glandore where the Marine Hotel, wasn’t just the headquarters, it was the overall sponsor of the rally through all of that time. Seanie O’Brien headed the family-run business in Glandore. It helped that he was interested in rallying. He is a keen sports follower and in his younger days was an extremely accomplished player with Kilmacabea GAA and also with Skibbereen RFC.
Even before the Fastnet Rally era in Glandore, a number of single-stage rallies were based there – sponsored by the Marine Hotel – while the hotel also hosted awards presentation for autocross events. In one of those single stage events Killarney’s Pat (Patie) Murphy took the ex-Demi Fitzgerald Vauxhall Chevette (NPI 666) to victory with Seanie O’Brien in the navigator’s seat.
Motorsport in the 1980s was very different to present times. In the early part of that decade, prize money – as much as £1,000– as well as cups and trophies were awarded for outright victory.
During that period, no fewer than five local drivers sprayed champagne outside the Marine Hotel. There was a brace of wins for Dunmanway duo Liam McCarthy (1988 and 1992) and Donal O’Donovan (1993 and 1999) along with Drimoleague native Frank O’Mahony (1996 and 1997). Skibbereen’s Bernard O’Brien (1989) and Ballylickey’s Denis Cronin (1994) were also successful in Glandore. There was no rally in 2001 due to the foot and mouth crisis.
Interestingly, Belfast’s Richard Smyth (Ford Sierra) clinched the Anglo Irish Bancorp National Rally Championship on the 1990 event – the first time that the Skibbereen and District Car Club hosted the deciding round of the series. It also happened in 2000 when Donegal’s Paul Harris triumphed. The 2004 event was very notable insofar that an overseas crew triumphed on the Fastnet for the very first time when Macclesfield’s Jim Harrison and his London co-driver Harvey Bell took their McKinstry-hired Subaru WRC to victory. Both have a great affection for West Cork with Harrison a regular visitor to his holiday home. Last year, Harvey Bell returned to watch his son Ruari compete in the West Cork Rally.
Waterford’s Ray Breen (Ford Focus WRC), who had already won the 2005 Dunlop National Rally Championship before the final round, was the last person to win in Glandore before the Marine Hotel closed for redevelopment.
Even now, the likes of three-time national rally champion Niall Maguire speak fondly about the event when it was based in Glandore; it had a unique atmosphere. The fact that mobile phone reception wasn’t great scarcely mattered. Most of the time, the people one needed to speak with were already in Glandore.
The whole setting was stunning. Television crews would interview competitors using the harbour as the backdrop and regularly feature Adam and Eve islands at the mouth of the Glandore Harbour. There were many times when a stage of the rally actually came down through the village with the sounds of the cars reverberating off the walls close to the hotel.
To cope with its ever-increasing popularity and attendance at the awards ceremony, a marquee was erected within the courtyard on rally weekends, and that brought another dimension. It was not uncommon to have traffic backed up from Glandore to the Poulgorm Bridge as people tried to drive down for the finish ramp celebrations. Inside the hotel itself, the noise was deafening, space was at a premium, with the stairway providing a tiered seating arrangement for those that couldn’t get space in the bar area.
Celebrations went long into the night and beyond and all in the perfect spirit as patrons recalled the event. For most of the time, weather conditions were very tolerant, even in late October. On the Monday’s after the rally, the buzz was still palpable and as competitors from outside West Cork made their way back home, the chat and entertainment for the locals continued. It was special and its location added to this. The early Monday morning sound of bottles being sorted and bed linen being washed in the laundry house was an indication of another busy weekend.
Former European police rally champion Donal O’Donovan remarked: ‘I have great memories of the Marine Hotel Fastnet Rally. In fact, it was my first event (1988) and we had a top-ten finish. It was really special to win in 1993 and again in 1999. There was a real family atmosphere and I suppose as a local winner, there was that extra special welcome from Seanie, Theresa and family. From sign on for recce on the Saturday morning all through the entire weekend and into the bank holiday Monday, it was really something else.’
Another double winner Frank O’Mahony also has great memories of Glandore. He recalled: ‘The rally always felt special. I always liked the atmosphere around Glandore. We always stayed down there. For us, it was a family outing and we stayed on the Monday as well. The hotel was superb, as was the food. There was a very homely atmosphere and the stages were great. Yes, Glandore was good to me. Monday was a great wind-down, very relaxing.’
However, it wasn’t just at Fastnet Rally time that the O’Brien family were central to the happenings at the Skibbereen and District Car Club. In the early 1980s the financial status of many motor clubs was more a shade of red than black. For the Skibbereen club, it was rebel red with a close to a five-figure deficit threatening the club’s very existence.
However, through several discos over the course of time (c1984), and all courtesy of the O’Brien family, the financial status of the club was solved.
There is no doubt that the generosity of all at the Marine Hotel at that time ensured the survival and continued existence of the club. Indeed, the fundraising discos were also beneficial to both Kilmacabea and Castlehaven GAA clubs and many other sporting organisations.
Glandore is often described as the Riviera of West Cork and the Marine Hotel Fastnet Rally has a special place in Irish rallying. Maybe, it wasn’t normal after all. It was unique, just like the O’Brien family.