Tuesday, January 24, 2012

World-class events in Northern Ireland


The story goes that, shortly after Northern Ireland was established in 1921, the engineer and inventor Harry Ferguson approached the new Prime Minister, James Craig. Ferguson is said to have told Craig that to really put the new Northern Ireland on the map, what the country needed were glamourous world-class events.

"... British racing owes a great debt to Harry Ferguson, who was the moving spirit behind the revival of the Tourist Trophy. It was he who came to Brooklands one day in 1927 and approached Captain Phillips, Competitions Manager of the R.A.C. and later Clerk of the Course at all the Ards races. If the Ulster Government, Ferguson enquired of Captain Phillips, were to approach the R.A.C. with an invitation to run a race similar to Le Mans over closed roads in Ulster, how would they react? Ferguson was soon assured that they would warmly welcome the suggestion, and returned to Belfast to set the machinery in motion. It was originally intended that the race, like the French classic, should be a twenty-four hour affair, but this the Ulster Government would not permit..."

- from Tourist Trophy, the History of Britain's Greatest Motor Race by Richard Hough (1957)

The 1927 Le Mans 24 hour race was won by Bentley, and their driver Sammy Davis came over to look at the proposed Ulster circuit; he said it was 'fascinating, with every sort of curve a man could devise". And so the Ards TT race was born in 1928 (the same year that Ferguson invented the three-point linkage) and for 12 years glamourous Italian megastar drivers came to County Down to take part. The race carried on until 1936 when eight spectators were killed - it was then moved off-road to the track at Donington in England; but at its peak 500,000 people lined the roads to watch the Ards TT. Here's a pic of the Aston Martin Ulster from 1934:


Nowadays, the programme of world-class events for 2012 are different than they were back then. And I know some folk who get worked up about 'flashy events' and suchlike, seeing it all as trivial and definitely as a waste of money, and then harp back to 'the good old days when none of that oul nonsense was aboot'. For those of you who think like that, you'll enjoy this painting of the 1932 Ards TT - especially the advertising banner.

But it's an imagined nostalgia - people back in 1920s and 1930s had big ideas too, and that same thinking applies to the events calendar of today. So c'mon Northern Ireland, c'mon. (who's old enough to remember this ad from 1983?!)