By Frank Taaffe
The Gordan Bennett race of July 1903 made Ireland, for a short time at least, the epicentre of the motoring world. The race took place seven years after the speed limit on public roads was increased to 12 miles per hour from the earlier limit of 4mph which originally applied to steam driven locomotives. The Gordan Bennett race was run over a figure of eight course centred around Athy and the huge national and international interest in the race brought many visitors to south Kildare. The race won by the Belgian Mercedes driver Camille Jenatzy in the German colours was regarded as a highly successful event which went from strength to strength until abandoned in 1906 in favour of the Grand Prix.
One young onlooker in Athy during the 1903 race was William Ringwood McCulloch from Sawyerswood whose livelong interest in motor cars was formed as he watched the dare devil drivers from Germany, France, England and America drive at an average speed of 45 – 49mph over three laps of the Gordan Bennett course. His interest in cars was sustained throughout his adult life and it was William Ringwood McCulloch who rescued and restored the 1902 Arrol Johnson car which is on display in Athy’s Heritage Centre.
1903 was also the year the Motor Car Act increased the speed limit to 20mph with provision for a 10mph limit if any local authority wished to apply it. Motors cars were expensive and invariably owned by the well to do. The Irish Motor Directory for 1911/’12 gave a list of car owners and bicycle owners for County Kildare. There were a total of 316 cars registered in the county, with 173 bicycles or what we would now describe as motor bikes. Those early motor bikes were spindly motorised bicycles with large, yet generally unreliable engines. Rev. P.T.S. Large of Carnalway, Kilcullen, registered the first motor car in county Kildare and so secured the unique registration no. IO 1. Dan Carbery of Athy was the owner of car IO 3. He was the founder of the building contractor firm D&J Carbery & Co. Ltd. Also registered as the owner of the motorbike IO36 was Daniel Carbery, whom I assume was a son of the car owner of the same name. Reginald Alvey of Rockhouse, Fontstown and George Ash of Narraghmore were also bike owners registered IO 53 and IO 71 respectively. Who was F.R. White of Athy, another bike owner whose machine was allocated the registration no. IO 105?
Hugh Hurley, with an address in Duke Street, registered a motor bike IO 83. It has often been claimed over the years that Hugh Hurley was the first car owner in Athy. It would appear that Dan Carbery held that honour. Another bike owner was Francis Jackson of Leinster Street who was the owner of IO 91. Many of the registered owners for both cars and motor bikes in the county of Kildare would appear to have been members of the military based in the Curragh, several of whom gave their UK addresses.
S.M. Telford of the Abbey, Athy, registered his car IO 135, while his near neighbour John A. Butler of Emily Square was the owner of car IO189. Coursetown resident Henry J. Hosie was the owner of motor bike registration no. IO 210, while car registration no. IO 280 was registered in the name of James Duthie, the Foundry, Athy. This was obviously Duthie of the firm Duthie Large which emerged some time later. Not to be outclassed by his brother, W.B. Jackson registered his ownership of motorbike IO 303, while another Jackson, this time William, again of Leinster Street, registered motor bike IO 351 in his name.
A name which would feature in Athy’s commercial life for many decades was that of J.S. Maxwell whose car IO 357 appeared on the list with the address 50 Duke Street. Another person, once very prominent in this area, was T.A. Lumley who from his home in Holmcroft registered his car IO 394. Matthew J. Minch of Rockfield acquired his car not too long after Lumley and was allocated the registration no. IO 458.
The last Athy person to register a car for inclusion in the 1911/’12 listing was James Duthie, owner of IO 495. With an address at Leinster Street, was he I wonder the same James Duthie who registered the car IO 280 from an address at the Foundry?
The number of cars registered in neighbouring county Kilkenny came to 57, with 35 bicycles, while the vehicle numbers for county Kildare were about six times higher. The number of British officers in the Curragh involved in acquiring cars and/or bikes in the early years of motor travel would appear to explain the huge disparity.
Recent years has brought car ownership within the reach of most people and in the process has changed the landscape and the way we live. Those early pioneers of car ownership in Athy could hardly anticipate the way in which modern motor traffic has impacted on all our lives in the early decades of the 21st century.