Echo Sport Replay: Kelly- a true great of Irish cycling in a time of war and fierce political divide

By Stephen Leonard

AGAINST the backdrop of global conflict and bitter political divisions at home in the 1940s, the late Ollie Kelly still managed to emerge as one of the true greats of Irish cycling.

Bursting on to the scene back in 1939 when he won the National 25-Mile Time Trial title, the Palmerstown man would continue on to dominate so many areas of the sport in this country for the next seven years.

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Ollie Kelly

Indeed he bowed out of cycling with a massive haul of 42 All-Ireland titles to his name across a multitude of disciplines including road, track, grass track, tandems and time trial.

And yet, while his roll of honour, which includes five successive National 100-Mile Road Race Championships and a multitude of National Time Trials titles between 1942 and '46, speaks of phenomenal success, he was, in many ways, a victim of his time.

Political divisions within the country and the outbreak of World War Two would shackle any prospect he had of achieving international renown in the sport, something many believe he was otherwise well capable of.

This was never more clearly demonstrated than in 1948 when he was among 11 cyclists selected to compete at the London Olympics.

Yet, having travelled to the Games, they were all withdrawn as a result of a dispute regarding the jurisdiction of the NACAI (National Athletic and Cycling Association of Ireland), who insisted they catered for all 32 counties.

That ran counter to the views of Lord Burghley, head of the then London organising committee, who argued athletes from Northern Ireland must represent Britain and any opposing stance by various sporting bodies was to result in them not being officially recognised.

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The late Ollie Kelly (far right) competing in the Isle of Man Road Race in 1948

It was to cost Kelly and many other Irish athletes at the time the opportunity to fulfil their dreams of competing on the Olympic stage, something the Dubliner would never be afforded again.

Still, while it may have marked a lamentable close to his time in cycling, the success Kelly earned and the heights at which he was at least chosen to compete is a remarkable story and one that began on the streets of Stoneybatter in 1936 as his son Noel explained.

“There was a man who lived beside my father in Prussia Street, Gerry Dunne and my father met him one day. Gerry was on his bike and said to him to come on and do a bit of cycling.

“Gerry trained my father for a few months in Round Towers Cycling Club. They were based in, what would now be known as, Stoneybatter.

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Ollie Kelly

“He bought a bike and his first race was the Leinster 10-Mile Time Trial Championships on the Navan Road in 1936 when he was 16..

“He would have been a novice, but he won the whole lot. He had the fastest time even against the seniors and juniors, the whole lot.

“He won the 25 Mile Time Trial in 1939 and he then won the National 100-Mile Road Race Championships five years in a row, starting in 1942

“There was a guy by the name of WG Robinson from Westport and a fellow by the name of Alo Donegan from Portarling-ton.

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The late Ollie Kelly from Palmerstown at the start of a time trial on the Navan Road

 

There was also the likes of Des Troy and Frank Baird and he would have had some great battles with all of them.

“The 25-Mile Time Trial in 1942 was his biggest thing. They said at the time it was a world record, but he said it was European record. He was never one to boast, but he won loads of those time trials.

“He won everything in those years. He won the 12-hour, he won the 24-hour, he won the 100-Mile. He won everything.

“I know for a 12-hour he did 264 miles and that would have been an Irish record at the time.

Ruairi and Noel Kelly 1

Ollie Kelly’s grandson Ruairi and son Noel with Ollie’s recently restored Rudge bike on which he won many Irish national titles back in the 1940s Photo by Paddy Barrett

“He had the Tandem 25-Mile Irish record with a fella by the name of Mick Anderson from Bohermeen. They even beat the English guys with their times.

“They used to race in Croke Park and the Guinness Grounds on Sundrive Road. There used to be big track meetings and there would have been the likes of Bertie Donnelly who competed at the world championships and Olympics.

“There also used to be a gang of them that went around in a van to sports meetings around the country.

“They would have been more flapper races. They wouldn't have been sanctioned by the federation, the National Cycling Association.

“But there would have been a gang of them that went around and they'd win the prizes in these big races.

“There'd be Jim McQuaid, my dad and a couple of lads and they'd win a canteen of cutlery or a crockery set, cups and saucers, that kind of thing.

“And I remember at home years ago there'd be canteens of cutlery all over the place, this, that and the other.

“My father would have been regarded as one of the top cyclists in the country, but the war destroyed everything, particularly his international ambitions.

“He always said he would have liked to put himself up against the Brits or the French and cyclists like that, but that was impossible at the time.

“But judging from his times, he was as good as anyone that they had. My father would just put the head down and nobody could really hold him” said Noel.

Current Cycling Ireland President Ciaran McKenna also spoke to The Echo about the impact Kelly had on cycling in Ireland during wartime years.

“It's amazing what he achieved. We all know the Bertie Donnelly's of this world, but when you see the amount of national championships that Ollie won, across all the different disciplines- grass, track, road and time trial. How many sports people in this country would have 42 All-Ireland titles?

“He was a superb time trialist. At 6'3" he just had this fantastic physique and, back in those days, a man 6'3" was classed as a giant. But it did allow him to excel in those time trial disciplines.

“Himself and Bertie Donnelly were breaking records, hour records.

“Back in those days, to ride a 25-Mile under the hour was kind of similar to a four-minute mile for a runner.

“Nowadays they're doing it in the 40s, but in those days they were nearly gravel-rowing and they were probably tanks of bikes with only one gear on them.

“So they were massive achievements. Breaking the hour was a huge milestone at that time and I think Ollie and Bertie Donnelly were breaking the hour regularly those days.

“Ollie, being the massive tall man that he was, I think his strongest was the 100-Mile and that was a massive feat in those days. But, Ollie, a big man, that's what he was built for.

“He was a locomotive with a big diesel engine on him that was able to just pull out that constant speed” he said.

And it was that strength and power, that stamina, that earned Kelly a place on the team to represent Ireland at the 1948 Olympic Games in London.

“They rode the Tour of Holland in 1948 in preparation for the Olympics” said Noel. “I remember my father said that when he rode in that tour, the place was devastated

“They also rode a race in Switzerland, himself and his great mate Andy Christle who later died in a motorbike crash in the Rás Tailteann in 1954.

“They all went over to London and they had done all their training on the course and all, but the night before they were to race they were told they couldn't compete. It was very bitter at the time.

“He never had a fair crack of the whip for racing because of the war and all of this that went on.

“He was very disappointed he didn’t get to compete, but he still got the chance to meet a load of competitors like Emil Zátopek (1948 Olympic 10,000m gold medallist and 5000m silver medallist from Czechoslovakia).

“He had his autograph. I remember seeing that. And he had a picture of them with their arms around one another. He also got to meet László Papp (1948 Olympic Middleweight boxing champion) from Hungary.

“He met a load of Dutch guys and kept in touch with them over the years.

“They had been staying in Nissan huts. It was like corrugated iron that was bent over and made into these huts. They were made during the war for the air force.

“They were living in those type of things, that's where their accommodation was. They were all living in them. It was their Olympic village and that's how they all got to meet one another” he explained.

There is little doubt that political divisions and war at the time conspired to cripple Kelly’s progress on the international stage and his hopes of competing and pushing for Olympic honours.

“Like everything else in those days, timing was everything for riders” stressed McKenna.

“They had a small window where they competed but, looking at his record and looking at the times he did at that particular time, he certainly would have been a contender in an Olympic Games if it was just maybe two years earlier.

“Ollie achieved all of those national championship awards probably within a five-six year period. He was able to achieve so much in such a short space of time.

“The Olympics were in '48 while, if you look at it, Ollie won most of his championships between '42 and '46, so I suppose that's when he would have been at his height.

“When you think back to that time and 'The Emergency' as we would have called it, it probably kind of slowed up his progress, so I suppose if he had gone to the Olympics at another time he may have actually done even better.

“But he won the Isle of Man Time Trial in about 1947-'48 and that would have been classed as one of the big time trials in European cycling.

“While he had a fantastic career here, I think the World War would have probably stopped him from having an international career. If it had been a decade later he probably would have made it in the pro ranks with that turn of speed that he had” he said.

Returning home from London bitterly disappointed, it was not long before Kelly brought the curtain down on his cycling career.

“My father ended up in the CRE Cumann Rothaíochta na hÉireann after the Olympics” recalled Noel. “We could ride international races, but the NCA couldn't because they didn't recognise the north. It became very political. It divided friendships, it divided everything.

“But he was 28 at the time and in those days if someone was 28-29 they'd be pretty much finished.

“Now they can go to nearly 40 with things because of all these different training methods.

“He married my mother Frances Byrne in 1950. He was working as a mechanic and they were saving for a house and they moved to Palmerstown. My mother's family were involved in cycling.

“My brother, Tony who was the eldest fella, he won the National Junior Road Race twice. He won in Drogheda and a place called Rathfriland in Co Down.

“Later a friend of my father, Jack Fagan, who had also done a lot of cycling, he and a fella named Bill Doran, set up Slade Valley Golf Club and my father was one of the first members of it. He became an honorary member later on.

“He was a decent golfer and his biggest thing in that was that he represented Slade Valley in the Carrolls ProAm in the Irish Open in Royal Dublin.

“It was a four-man team and they had a pro who was Sam Torrance. My father said he was a gentlemen. You couldn't meet better.

“They finished fourth in it and each of the members got putters in a little case with Carrolls Irish Open on it.

“He was into rugby big time and he was there at Ravenhill when Ireland won the Triple Crown and Grand Slam in 1948” he said

Kelly passed away in 2011 and was inducted in the Cycling Ireland Hall of Fame six years later, capping a short but illustrious career that McKenna still ranks as one of the best in Irish cycling.

“Today the chances of any athlete getting 42 national championships over their career is small and in them days their career wasn't particularly long.

“Times were tough and once you got married and had kids, cycling went out the window for the majority of them.

“Today's riders would be concentrating on road or would be concentrating on track and there'd only be very few crossovers while Ollie had all of his [achievements] across the road, the track, the time trial and the grass track.

“It just shows you that it didn't matter what he was doing as long as he was put on a bike and told to go fast. He was just an out and out champion no matter what he was told to go and do.

“He was so quiet, he wasn't a man who blew his own trumpet in any shape or form. He was a gentleman on and off the bike.

“He was very content with what he did and he looked after his family after his cycling career. That's what men in those days saw as what they were judged by, but his results over such a short period of time speak for themselves.

“It gives you an indication of how much of a top class athlete Ollie was in his day.”

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