“COALISLAND CYCLIST WINS ‘TOUGHEST’ STAGE IN THE RÁS TAILTEANN” – screamed the newspaper headlines in August 1958 after local cyclist Seamus Devlin claimed victory in the toughest stage of the 8-day Rás Tailteann.
Seamus was one of four local men who represented Tyrone in the 1958 Rás Tailteann: the others were, Paddy Campbell, Joe Mc Ivor and Tommy Drumm. Their trainer was also a local man, Ned Devlin. At that time, to ride the Rás was the ultimate achievement for Irish cyclists, without betraying their principles.
From Left to Right: Paddy Campbell (Dungannon), Seamus Devlin (Coalisland) Stage Winner 1958, Joe McIvor (Dungannon) Stage Winner 1954, Tommy Drumm (Coalisland), and Ned Devlin (Coalisland) Trainer.
The Rás Tailteann was born out of a complex political and sporting context. After the Partition of Ireland in 1922, cycling in Ireland was organised by the NACA (National Athletics and Cycling Association) and later in 1938 by the NCA (National Cycling Association). Neither organisation recognised ‘Partition’ and cycling was organised on a 32-county basis.
In 1947 the BNCU (British National Cyclists’ Union) proposed a motion to the world governing body of cycling – the UCI “that the NCA confine its area of jurisdiction to the 26 counties.” This motion was strongly resisted by the NCA as its acceptance would have amounted to an endorsement of Partition. The British vigorously pursued the motion, and with the support of the block Commonwealth votes, it was passed by the UCI.
The UCI ruling was seen by the NCA as a product of British ‘guile’ and yet another British promoted conspiracy against the interests of Irish Nationalism. It was a setback for the Nationalist cause and the NCA was expelled from the UCI and its members banned from international competitions including the Olympics and World Championships. In the simple terms, Irish cyclists could not compete in major competitions unless they accepted Partition.
In order to give Irish cyclists a high profile national race to match the prestige and challenge of international competition the Rás Tailteann was born. The first Rás organised by Joe Christle of the NCA in 1953 was a 2-day event from Dublin to Wexford and back. In 1954 it became and 8-day race and has remained an 8-day race ever since.
By 1958 the Rás was well established as a unique and gruelling race, undertaken by only the fittest of cyclists and completed by only the toughest.
In the 1950’s cycling in Coalisland/Dungannon area was at a peak and it is no surprise that several local cyclists competed in the Rás Tailteann during the 50’s. In 1954 the Rás made the symbolically important journey across the border for stage ends at Armagh and Newry. The all important 32-county dimension was bolstered when Dungannon mad Joe Mc Ivor (the sole rider representing Tyrone), won the final stage into Phoenix Park in Dublin. Coalisland man Seamus Devlin also cycled the 1954 Rás as part of the Ulster Team.
In 1958 Seamus and Joe were together on the Tyrone Team along with other local cyclists, Paddy Campbell and Tommy Drumm. The 1958 Rás was the longest Rás of all time (almost 1500km) and the fourth stage from Clonakilty to Tralee (184km) was the toughest of this Rás. It was during this stage that Seamus Devlin showed his pedigree. Newspapers of the time described his victory as follows:
“Seamie Devlin of Coalisland C.C. carrying the colours of Tyrone in the 8-day cycle race around Ireland, was given a tremendous welcome as he streaked into Tralee 2min 40s ahead of the main bunch to win the 115 mile stage from Clonakilty to Tralee.
By virtue of his great win Seamie moved from 14th to 10th position in the overall classification. This stage is regarded as the ‘toughest’ of the entire race as it entails a lot of heavy climbing including “The Tunnel” and “Moll’s Gap.”
It was going down the mountain after the ascent of Moll’s Gap into Killarney that Seamie made a startling burst from a big group of riders and flashed through Killarney well clear. Four years earlier in the same stage of the race Seamie riding in the Ulster colours crashed and sustained injuries. Nevertheless he bravely continued on and finished the stage. Seamie did not forget this painful stage and his knowledge of the terrain ensured that he timed his ‘breakaway’ effort to perfection.
Seamie finished 1min 23sec ahead of Jack Courtney of Meath with Gene Mangan leading in the main bunch for third position 2min 40sec behind the Coalisland rider.
Fifty years have passed since Seamus Devlin’s dramatic stage win in 1958 and cycling is again at a peak in the Coalisland/Dungannon area. The local Island Wheelers Cycling Club have now over 60 members, male & female, young & old (the oldest is 75 this November 2008 – Mr Hugho Loughran from Lurgaboy Lane, Dungannon).
In the 1950’s to ride the Rás was the ultimate achievement for NCA members; to have local men win stages of the Rás is the equivalent to-day of a local winning a stage in the Tour De France: the difference of course is that in the 1950’s, the NCA members were all amateurs.