In the annals of the Rás, the Cookstown Incident rings loud. It was a day in which a bike race was brought to a halt in a strange and all-too-serious game of Capture the Flag as police and race organisers scuffled over the Irish tricolour. With the Giro d’Italia bringing it’s tricolore to Northern Ireland in 2014, it’s a tale worth re-telling.
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Flags are funny things, especially at bike races. Take a story from the Tour de France, back in the way way back days before the First World War. Back then, the French had their own version of Ireland’s Six Counties, the lands of Alsace and Lorraine, which had been seized by Germany in the Franco-Prussian War. Henri Desgrange, like many French people of the time, lived for the dreamed day when the annexed territories would be returned to France and the country would be whole again. While waiting for that dream to be realised, Desgrange used the Tour de France to temporarily re-appropriate the lost provinces by including stages in his Tour de France that travelled through Alsace and Lorraine. This was in the Tour’s between 1906 and 1910.
The race’s politically sensitive journey through these contested lands had to be negotiated with the ruling German authorities. One rule they insisted upon was that none of the race officials’ cars should fly the French tricolore. Hard as it was for Desgrange to swallow, it was a price he felt worth paying for including Alsace and Lorraine in the Tour’s itinerary and symbolically making France a nation once again.
For the most part the Tour’s passages through Alsace and Lorraine passed without incident. But on one occasion, in Metz, local police seized a Luxembourg flag from a spectator – presumably a supporter of François Faber – after a local doctor had mistaken it for the French flag and complained about its presence among those cheering the race along. The Luxembourg flag is a horizontal tricolour with the same bands as the French vertical version. I guess one does look like the other, if you turn your head sideways, close one eye and squint.
Ok, so that’s a mildly amusing story about flags from the annals of the Tour. Let’s try a more serious story, this one take from the grande boucle‘s Iberian cousin, the Vuelta a España. The year is 1977 and at this stage in Spain’s history Franco was dead and the country was going through a period of transition. To demonstrate how much Spain was changing, the Basque flag, the ikurriña, had recently been legalised, after years of suppression under the Generalissimo.
Demonstrations and strikes calling for freedom for political prisoners were on-going throughout the Basque Country as the Vuelta passed through it in 1977. Franco in his time had created quite a few political prisoners: one estimate has the figure at six thousand in the Basque Country alone during the dictator’s final two years. In the Basque Country, the demonstrators calling for the release of these men and women were faced by a Civil Guard that was armed and willing to shoot. Real bullets, fired from machine guns. With nearly a quarter of the Civil Guard garrisoned in the Basque Country, there were a lot of machine guns facing the demonstrators.
That year’s Vuelta was due to end in San Sebastián. But before getting there the peloton still had the penultimate day’s racing to be negotiated, which included the climb of the Urkiola, where the stage ended with a summit finish. At the base of the climb the peloton had to skirt barricades and scattered nails as the protesters tried to disrupt the race. At the top of the climb, though, things were a getting a lot more serious. When the Basque fans waved their ikurriñas and called for an amnesty for political prisoners, the Civil Guard responded by shooting at them. Not exactly a proportionate response to a but of flag waving, but flags can be dangerous things.
Two stories, then, one mildly farcical, one deadly serious. A third story for you, one which threads the line between the two. The story of the Rás and the Cookstown Incident.
The Rás – for those who don’t know it – is an Irish stage race that dates back to 1953 and the days when cycling in Ireland was governed by too many different bodies (the CRE in the Republic, the NICF in the North and the NCA claiming authority over the whole island). The NCA, who organised the Rás, had been chucked out of the international cycling family by the UCI after the Second World War, because they wouldn’t restrict their activities to those parts of Ireland south of the border. NCA riders were thus banned from international competition. But nothing could stop them organising themselves at home in Ireland.
That NCA members would surrender the opportunity to ride in officially-sanctioned races – all the way up to the Olympics and World Championships – in order to proclaim the political unity of Ireland is important to remember. Because when it came to the Rás, sport and politics were firmly melded together. The man whose idea the race was – its Henri Desgrange – was a Republican called Joe Christle. While Desgrange may have eschewed mixing politics and sport, for Christle there was no separating the two. Most of the Rásanna he organised down through the years had some political message, from celebrating the rebellions of 1798 and 1916 through to praising James Connolly and Vladimir Illyich Lenin.
In 1956 – the year this story is set – the Rás was on to its fourth edition. At this stage the Troubles – that wonderful euphemism for three decades and more of violence in the North of Ireland – were still a decade in the future. This was the year the Vuelta a España was won by Angelo Conterno. The year Charly Gaul won the Giro d’Italia. The year Roger Walkowiak surprised everyone by winning the Tour de France.
The Rás of 1956 was running clockwise around the island of Ireland with stage finishes north and south of the border. As with Desgrange and Alsace-Lorraine, Christle’s message was clear: the border was a political fiction he didn’t believe in. Departing Dublin the 1956 Rás headed north and across the border for a stage finish in Newry followed by another stage north of the border, finishing in Armagh. From there the riders were due to head west and back into the South, with a stage finishing in Ballina, before they headed down through Nenagh for a couple of stages in the Kingdom, stopping in Tralee and Kenmare. Then they were due to head over to Clonmel and back up to Dublin and the race end. It was on the road from Newry to Armagh, the second stage of the race, that the story of the 1956 Rás was written.
Joe Christle was at the front of the race in the lead car, driving ahead of the peloton. Proud Irishman that he was Christle was flying the Irish tricolour from his car as he led the race through the North. Flags, in case you weren’t aware, are problematic in the North. The Westminster government had passed the Flags and Emblems (Northern Ireland) Act in 1954, which effectively suppressed the tricolour and more or less said that the only flag to flutter in the breeze in Northern Ireland was to be the Union Jack.
Most of what happened next occurred as the race went around the shores of Lough Neagh, that big lake west of Belfast you’ll see if you ever look at a map of Ireland and which – myth and legend has it – Fionn MacCumhaill carved out one day when he picked up a clod of earth and chucked it into the Irish Sea (that clod of earth, myth and legend has it, is now the Isle of Man). No one in the Rás had much time for myth or legend that day though. Especially when, at Lenaderg near Banbridge, an officer from the Royal Ulster Constabulary stopped Christle’s lead car an asked him to lower his flag. Rather than comply Christle drove away. In later years that’s just the sort of behaviour that would be enough to see your car riddled with bullets but in 1956 the British Army had yet to be called in to police the Six Counties. Instead, an RUC roadblock was set up near Lurgan, where Christle’s car was again stopped and he was again invited to lower his flag. Again he demurred.
This time words were exchanged. Then Christle’s tricolour was seized by the RUC and a fracas broke out when someone got the taste of a RUC officer’s baton. The men of the Rás had by now caught up with the lead car and surrounded Christle, who himself had by now reclaimed his flag from the hands of the RUC. Police reinforcements arrived and the two sides faced off, bicycle pumps on one side, police batons the other. Jim Killean, the head of the NCA – the cycling body under whose governance the Rás was run – turned up and tried to negotiate peace. No one was for backing down. The RUC offered an ultimatum: surrender the flag or cancel the stage. A memorable defeat being the norm in Irish history Christle kept the flag and cancelled the stage.
The riders still had to get to Armagh and set off, with RUC vehicles topping and tailing the now neutralised peloton. Some of the men of the Rás were more politically motivated than others and they started singing Republican anthems as they rode along through Randalstown and Magherafelt. A couple of Kerry riders proudly carried Christle’s tricolour at the front of the neutralised peloton. One of them stopped to try and seize a Union Jack which was flying from a telegraph pole (in the North Union Jacks fly from telegraph poles as if they’d sprouted there). The RUC waded it again and more batons were swung until the riders got the message and got back on the road and rode on.
At Cookstown things boiled over when the riders rode into a road block made up of RUC officers augmented by members of the Ulster Special Constabulary, the B-Specials, and local Unionists. For about ten minutes the now infamous Cookstown Incident ensued, fists and batons, along with bottles, bricks and bidons, flying this way and that. Eventually the riders retreated to the Nationalist end of the town and the heat slowly dissipated out of the day. It was nightfall before a heavily escorted peloton finally made it to Armagh and rested up for the night.
In those days, the winning of a stage of the Rás in those days was back page news in the local papers. The cancellation of a stage of the Rás was front page news the length and breadth of the country. As far as Christle was concerned, this was a victory, his bike race had kicked the issue of the border to the front of the news.
Even today, when people speak of the 1956 Rás it is the Cookstown Incident that merits most mention, rather than Paudi Fitzgerald’s overall victory. It’s not that Fitzgerald’s victory isn’t worth talking about, for it is. On the road to Ballina he suffered a defailance and almost abandoned the race, but his team-mates got him back on the road again. Coming out of the two stages in Kerry he was just twenty seconds off the lead, having taken back-to-back victories in Tralee and Kenmare. On the road to Clonmel he managed to drop the yellow jersey when he scooted up one side of a funeral cortege while the race leader found himself blocked on the other. It’s a rare day when a corpse helps win a race but this was one of them. Fitzgerald’s was a victory that was earned and deserved and certainly one worth talking about. But it’s a victory shaded by that wee fight over a flag. A wee fight you’ll probably hear mentioned more than once between now and the start of the 2014 Giro.
Those three stories, they were all a long, long time ago and so much has changed since the events they portray took place. Alsace and Lorraine are now once more part of France and no one’s going to get arrested for flying a tricolore in Metz, not even one from Luxembourg. The Basques, well today they can fly their ikurriña where they please, without fear of being fired upon. As for the North of Ireland … well in the North of Ireland flags are still a funny business. But now it’s an argument over the flying of the Union Jack that’s filling up the column inches, at home and abroad, not one over a tricolour.
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To learn more about the history of the Rás, seek out a copy of Tom Daly’s The Rás: The Story of Ireland’s Unique Bike Race (The Collins Press).