Flashback: Fermoy hosted some of the world's best athletes from the mid-'70s

Flashback: Fermoy hosted some of the world's best athletes from the mid-'70s
Waterford City athlete Gerry Deegan acknowledges the applause from the large attendance as he crosses the line to comfortably win the Grange six-mile international at Fermoy. 

DURING a glorious decade from the mid-1970s onwards, the north Cork town of Fermoy hosted an array of world-class athletes in the Fermoy International Cross-Country race. 

It was the brainchild of Tom Burke, then secretary of the Grange Athletic Club (now known as Grange-Fermoy).

The idea reputedly was conceived in the early hours of the morning, after the club’s annual dinner-dance.

The first race, in January 1976, was won by Andy Holden, of Tipton Harriers.

Holden, who died in 2014, after a long illness, had competed in the steeplechase at the Munich Olympics, the same year he set a British record, of 8:26.4, for the event.

The following year, 1977, on a day of strong winds and heavy rain, Bernie Ford, from Aldershot (who finished eighth in the 1976 Olympic 10,000m and would go on to run 27:43.74 later that year) maintained the British dominance.

In 1978, it was another British star of that era, Brendan Foster, who thrilled the crowds. Foster would, later that summer, run 27:30.3 for 10,000m.

Another outstanding athlete from the same North-East athletics hotbed was Mike McLeod and he maintained the British dominance in the Fermoy International Cross-Country race by winning in 1979, which meant that an Irishman had yet to win it.

But 40 years ago this weekend, on Sunday, January 27, 1980, the long-awaited home victory was finally achieved, by Gerry Deegan, from Waterford.

Deegan jumps clear from a ditch during the first lap followed by English athlete Steve Binns, with Robert Costella (Limerick), third, and John Woods (Grange and Liverpool) in fourth place.
Deegan jumps clear from a ditch during the first lap followed by English athlete Steve Binns, with Robert Costella (Limerick), third, and John Woods (Grange and Liverpool) in fourth place.

The Déise man first took up athletics when he was aged 10.

At that time, there was a good crop of young athletes in the county, including John and Ray Treacy, along with Tony Ryan, and, a few years later, Brendan Quinn.

In 1977, when he was just 21, Deegan won the first of five national senior cross-country titles in Ennis.

He finished an impressive 21st that spring at the World Championships in Düsseldorf and then followed the route of John Treacy, by taking up an athletics scholarship at Providence College, although he only spent two years in America.

Improving his World Cross-Country placing to 14th, behind John Treacy’s first world title, in the mud of Glasgow, he was the third scorer, a year later, on that historic day in Limerick, in 1979, when Ireland took the silver medals.

In between, Deegan scored a rare victory over his county-man, when, with a late surge, he won the IAC Invitational C-C, in Crystal Palace, in December 1978.

Over the 8,580m, twisting course, he was just a second ahead of Treacy, with future world marathon record-holder, Steve Jones, another second back, in third.

The Grange International of 1980 wasn’t the only major event to take place that winter on the lands of Patrick Coughlan, just outside the town, on the old Dublin road.

A month before, the BLE Inter-Counties moved there, from its previous Waterford venue, of Kilbarry, and John Treacy easily led his county to another title, finishing 45 seconds clear of Deegan, with local Ballyhooly-man, John Hartnett, in third.

Deegan was coming into top shape when, on January 13, he added his name to a prestigious roll-of-honour with a convincing victory at the Quinlan Cup, in Tullamore.

In what was Ireland’s top road race of the time, the Waterford man beat a classy field, including Neil Cusack, John O’Toole, Paddy Murphy, and Roy Dooney, over the 12km distance.

Deegan had been troubled with a knee injury in the weeks leading up to the Grange International, but showed no ill-effects as he spread-eagled the field after the opening half-mile.

Reigning European junior 5,000m champion, Steve Binns — he had set a world junior best of 13:27.04, the previous year — led the chasing group, but couldn’t regain contact, although he closed slightly, to finish nine seconds behind the Waterford man’s winning time of 31:21 for the six miles.

Dave Black, with a 10,000m best time of 27:36.27, took third spot, in 31:40. John Hartnett gave the crowd plenty to shout about, when taking fourth, ahead of Danny McDaid, one of the heroes of the Irish team at the previous year’s World Cross-Country.

Marc Smet, from Belgium, winner of the Berchem Marathon the previous September, in 2:10:00, could only manage 11th, just ahead of Jerry Kiernan, with Leevale’s Donie Walsh in 17th.

The Limerick team of Robert Costelloe (6th), Pat O’Callaghan (18th), and Ritchie Clifford (31st) took the team award, with 55 points, three ahead of Clonliffe.

Grange finished third, on 68 points, with Hartnett backed up by Billy Bolster (29th) and Gerry Murphy (35th).

Although somewhat overshadowed by the men’s spectacular, the women’s race, over two-and-a-half miles, saw an impressive victory for Vera Duffy.

The Glaslough athlete finished nine seconds clear of British international, Paula Fudge, with Eithne Kenny (DCH) in third. Fionnuala Morrish, of Leevale, in her first race of the season, did well to finish fourth, with two more Cork athletes, Marion Lyons (St Finbarr’s) and Valerie O’Mahony (Togher), fifth and sixth.

In 1981, Deegan had to settle for second, behind Hans-Jurgen Orthmann, from West Germany, and it was another Irishman, Limerick’s Frank O’Mara, who brought the Fermoy International Cross-Country to a close, winning the final race, in 1987.

The period that brought a galaxy of stars to the north Cork town was therefore at an end.

It was an era that is still fondly recalled by those who were fortunate enough to be part of what was truly a feast of world-class athletics.

On Sunday, January 27, 1980, the long-awaited home victory in the Fermoy International Cross-Country was finally achieved, by Gerry Deegan

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