The first motorcar was imported into Ireland in March 1896. John Brown, a scientist who lived on the outskirts of Belfast, had spent the previous summer travelling through France where he became acquainted with a steam-powered Serpollet motorcar. Having travelled over 200 miles on it during his trip, he became enamoured by the novelty and opportunity which this form of transport offered. He convinced the owner to sell him the vehicle, which was delivered to his Dunmurray home during the following Spring.
Legislation of the 1896 Locomotive on Highways Act in November of 1896 removed the strict rules imposed by MP’s who had been reluctant for the transport monopoly enjoyed by British railways to be challenged by the popularity of motorised vehicles on roads in the UK and Ireland. These rules, including the obligation for an individual to walk in front of the vehicle waving a red flag as a warning for other road users, had been hotly contested by many would-be motorists. They accused MP’s of being self - interested in preserving their stocks and shares in the rail industry. By the 1890s with growing numbers of motorcars appearing on the roads across Europe, politicians in Westminster had been forced to capitulate. Now the opportunity presented itself for many others to follow in Brown’s footsteps and officially become Irish motorists.
Unfortunately for Brown and his fellow motorists, he quickly discovered that steam powered motorcars were badly suited to both Ireland’s climate and roads. Belfast’s damp weather made it difficult for him to power the car’s steam engine. When he did manage to power the vehicle enough to take it for a drive, he then had to encounter the problem of driving along Irish roads which were often unsurfaced, full of potholes and crowded by horses, animals and pedestrians unfamiliar with motorcars. Greater success was enjoyed by John Malcolm Gillies, editor of the Irish daily newspaper the Freeman’s Journal. Gillies had purchased and imported a German Benz motorcar only a matter of weeks after the importation of Brown’s Serpollet. Better suited to the Irish climate and the somewhat more suitable road conditions which the capital city offered, Gillies’ Benz soon became a familiar sight to many as he motored through the streets of Dublin.
Reports of Irish people’s reactions when they encountered these early cars for the first time are fascinating and revealing. Some people mistook the heavy metal framework to be parts of trains which had broken off and somehow had ended up being found on the roads. Others who encountered the noisy and often smelly vehicles emerging out of the darkness of an evening along a quiet road being driven by faceless individuals – early motorists frequently wore goggles and head coverings to keep the smoke from the car’s engine and road dust from irritating their eyes and noses – thought them to be the work of the Devil and would bless themselves before running off so as to escape.
Those involved in the Irish cycling industry, which had taken off during the 1880’s ‘Bicycle Boom’ – following the reinvention of the rubber pneumatic wheel by John Boyd Dunlop, a Scottish vet who practised in Belfast – were much more positive of the motorcar. Men such as Richard ‘J’ Mecready, (‘Arjay’ to his friends), editor of the Irish cycling magazine The Irish Cyclist, recognised the opportunities such vehicles could offer to the Irish public. This included the ability to cover greater distances in less team than had previously been possible on bicycles or horse-powered transport. Indeed, Arjay, who was first introduced to the motorcar by the great Australian-born businessman and celebrated cyclist Selwyn Edge, became so convinced of the merits of the motorcar that he set to work raising enough capital to launch a motoring magazine. He succeeded, and in January 1900, the dawn of a new era for Ireland began with the launch of Ireland’s first motoring periodical the Motor News, which aimed to offer readers advices on motoring in a “comprehensible and pragmatic manner” Arjay set out to convince a suspicious and uncertain public that cars were central to Irish modernity.
Within three years, Ireland had secured its place in motoring history hosting its first International motor race. The 1903 Gordon Bennett Cup Race, named eponymously after the playboy American born newspaper magnate James Gordon Bennett Junior who sponsored it, was a pivotal moment not just for Ireland and Irish motoring but also for the future of motorsport. Only a few months earlier in May 1903, the Paris-Madrid motor rally, which had seen over 200 cars compete, had been forced to be abandoned after a number of fatalities involving both competitors and members of the public. Outraged by the bloodshed, the international press began a campaign to have public motorsport events cancelled citing them to be a danger for public health. Arjay and his fellow motoring enthusiasts, especially within the Irish Automobile Club – founded in 1901 to further and promote the “interests of automobilism in Ireland” – were keen to avoid this.
Selwyn Edge’s victory for Britain in the 1902 Gordon Bennett Cup race had presented Ireland and the Irish motoring fraternity with a rare stroke of good fortune. The rules of the race stipulated that the proceeding race was to be held in the country which was victorious in the preceding year’s competition. The British public however, were reluctant for the race to be staged in Britain as they were fearful of fatalities and widely considered those who participated in such competitions to be wealthy playboys with little care or concern for those less fortunate. In contrast, the Irish response had been quite favourable (notable exceptions had included James Joyce and Arthur Griffith however) as many considered it would ignite the Irish motor trade industry and boost Irish tourism.
With this in mind, those involved in organising the race continued with their plans amid the international outrage following the tragic events in France during May. Having devised a closed road circuit; consisting of two loops in a figure of eight which stretched through the counties of Kildare, Carlow and Laois, the Irish Automobile Club and Irish Tourism Association recruited 2,000 Royal Irish Constabulary officers from across Ireland and hundreds of volunteers who were extensively trained in crowd control. These officials moved into purpose built residential camps near the racing circuit ahead of the race, ensuring they were on hand to safely police and control the movements of the thousands of Irish and international spectators who flocked to the Irish midlands to watch the competition unfold.
Their efforts and strenuous planning was rewarded with a thrilling race that was full of drama and speed, but which was completed successfully – and most importantly safely. Camille Jenatzy, the son of an immigrant Hungarian family who founded Belgium’s first rubber factory, emerged victorious. Nicknamed the ‘Red Devil’, on account of his ginger hair and beard, Jenatzy secured a loyal fan base in Ireland as a result of this performance and subsequently became a familiar fixture in the motorsport section of Irish newspapers until his untimely death in December 1913. Having proved that it was possible to stage a large international motor race with minimal risk for spectators, the Irish organisers also proved that Ireland was an ideal location for staging motoring events. Moreover in the fortnight that followed the conclusion of the Gordon Bennett Cup race, numerous motorsport events; ranging from Hill Climbs to Motor Boat races were held throughout Ireland. All of these were well attended and firmly indicated that there existed a substantial appetite amongst the Irish public for and appreciation of motorsports
In the following years Ireland’s love affair with motorsport flourished. So much so that after the establishment of the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland, both governments sought to boost public morale by hosting national motorsport competitions. In Northern Ireland, the Ulster Tourist Trophy Races began in 1928 and were held annually until 1936; while in the Irish Free State the Irish International Grand Prix’s held in Phoenix Park occurred annually from 1929 until Fianna Fáil came to power in 1932. Although not financially profitable, the events fostered a strong community presence and garnered much needed positive press coverage after a decade of war and conflict. Even attracting motoring celebrities to compete, including British racing hero Malcolm Campbell and the celebrated Italian Baritone and Grand Prix winner Giuseppe Campari.
In the preceding decade, cars played a pivotal role acting as both medic and mercenary. Motorcars were utilised by nationalists and unionists during their gunrunning exploits in the pre-war years. Over 600 cars participated in the Ulster Volunteer Force’s infamous Larne Gunrunning in 1913, to collect and transport approximately 35,000 rifles and 5 million rounds of ammunition throughout the province, while evading the authorities. A year later, a number of the same cars were driven to the battlefields of France. There they transported soldiers and supplies to and from the front line of World War I. For many young Irish soldiers, this war was the first time that they were able to familiarise themselves with motorcars. And a lucky few even seized the chance to learn how to drive and repair the vehicles, thereby gaining themselves a valuable trade that would be welcome when they returned home.
The car was also responsible for influencing what kind of ‘home’ these young men returned to once the war ended. Cars and charabancs (touring-cars) had transported hundreds of British soldiers stationed at Dublin Castle and the Royal Barracks to the annual Fairyhouse horse races on the morning of Easter Monday in 1916. Therefore leaving the city’s defences substantially reduced ahead of the Easter Rising which began later that morning. During the course of the week’s Rising cars were employed by all participants in a variety of roles. Countess Constance Markievicz for instance, commandeered Dr Kathleen Lynn’s car and drove around the various Volunteer strongholds checking progress. The O’Rahilly used his famous green De Dion (later immortalised as a burnt out shell in a photograph taken on Prince Street) to transport food and supplies among the rebels. Many rebels, unappreciative of the cost and technology encapsulated in the vehicles, simply used them to construct barricades. Arguably a barricade built on Hatch Street out of cars taken from a nearby car showroom, may well have been the most expensive barricade erected over the course of the Rising when you consider that a car didn’t sell for anything less than £500 at this time. The high levels of civilian casualties also meant it became a matter of urgency for many privately owned cars to quickly be converted into makeshift ambulances transporting those wounded and fatally killed to and from hospitals and mortuaries.
Hopes amongst Irish motorists that the end of World War I would lead to the resumption of normal motoring practices were quickly dashed by the outbreak of the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War. The authorities, aware that cars could be used effectively by the rebels as part of their guerrilla tactics moved swiftly to impose tough regulations and eventually harsh restrictions on who owned, drove or had access to cars. In spite of this, commandeering of cars was frequently a key tactic employed by all sides. Tragically, travelling in cars during this period of unrest often meant motorists and their passengers were easy targets for snipers, as the assassination of Michael Collins, shot while travelling in the backseat of a car through his native Cork, proved.
While many facets of Irish life were challenged by Partition and the establishment of the two new Irish states, the car and the role of motoring was not one of them. In fact, though Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State’s politicians shared little common political ideology, private correspondence indicates all were enthusiastic to avail of ministerial cars.
Evidently, a new modern Ireland was set to emerge, one in which little was certain but the role of the car was assured. Within 25 years of its introduction to the isle, Irish life without the car seemed unimaginable and undesirable.