A CORK couple that were a dominant force in rallying in the 1970s and 1980s were never referred to in the singular even though there was one novel exception.
Husband and wife pairings are still somewhat of a rarity in Irish rallying, especially at the top echelons of the sport. Some 50 years ago Mick and Anne O’Connell began rallying together, not just in Ireland but also in far-flung places and in marathon rallies like London-Sahara-Munich, London to Sydney and the Himalayan Rally.
They also rallied extensively here at home where they had tremendous battles with the likes of Billy Coleman, Russell Brookes, Jimmy McRae, the late Pentti Airikkala and Ger Buckley.
Just like it was yesterday Anne had no difficulty recalling the early days.
“A few weeks after we were married (1969), Mick came home one night and said we are going to do the Circuit of Munster, it was like saying we are going to do the Ring of Kerry, I remember ending up in Tom Burke’s shop in Washington Street looking for books on navigation.”
The first competitive outing was in a Triumph Vitesse, she reflects, “We were doing very well, leading the class and a good overall position, but then we demolished a stone wall bridge and ended up in a field. We got a lift home from a farmer.”
That was the first introduction to rallying. She added, “Of course, we had no service crews in those days.” Following the demise of the Triumph on the Circuit of Munster, they switched to a Ford Escort.”
Mick intervenes, “It was a 1.1 Escort and we bought a 1600cc pushrod engine and developed it as it went on. It was also an early time in development and indeed, that was the car we took to Spain in 1970 in the Cherry Rally, we won our class and were eighth overall.
Their first Circuit of Ireland was, either in 1970/71 (they can’t be certain) but they won the Knockmany Trophy as the best Southern crew.
Rally car registrations are unique and as TIU 250 is still associated with Billy Coleman and CIL 999 with the late Bertie Fisher, the registration number that gained notoriety for Mick and Anne was PI 999. It was also a clever sponsorship link to their company, Burgolarm that is still very much in existence just off the Kinsale Road roundabout.
Anne remarks, “We definitely saw it as a way of advertising our company and getting the name across, which it did quite successfully. In those days, there were huge crowds at the events.”
The Galway Rally was a firm favourite of the couple, however, it didn’t always turn out right. On one occasion they had a major accident when a wheel of their Escort dropped into a drain and then launched and hit a pillar that resulted in Anne sustaining a broken leg.
Even now, Mick reckons that he would have managed to get away were it not for the protruding pillar. From no service crews in the very early days, the sport progressed and in the late 1970s, their service crew consisted of Kevin O’Riordan and Pat Dwyer while the late Sean Hanley also helped out.
To this day Mick and Anne remain the only husband and wife duo and indeed mixed crew to have won the National Rally Championship (1978). Success in their home rally, the Cork 20 eluded them. Mick turns back the clock, “A third place was our best result, we never had any great luck, we had one big off when we hit a wall and both of us ended up in St. Finbarr’s Hospital, that will tell you how long ago that was.”
Another favourite rally was the London-Sydney in 1977 where they finished the 21,000-mile event in 21 days. They also did the Himalayan Rally in 1980 but the car was sabotaged in parc ferme when a substance was added to the fuel.
One of the big social scenes in that era was Vernon Mount, home to the then Munster Motorcycle and Car Club.
“We went there a couple of nights a week, the party the night of the Cork 20 was another great occasion. It was a totally different scene.”
On their motorsport adventure, Mick commented, “So many great memories I loved it and I look back on it and feel I made 100 mistakes as regards not being physically prepared and not having the car prepared properly.
“If I were involved now I would look at it in a totally different way. At that time all I wanted to do was drive, I didn’t want to know about the other things. But it was a great time, motorsport in Ireland was terrific, the social scene side was nearly as good as the event - to the detriment of competitors. There was a great camaraderie as well.”
The names Mick and Anne were familiar to all rally fans, but Anne recalls an exception.
“This man told me that on a Circuit of Ireland near Millstreet he was watching the rally as were many others including a man and his young son, probably aged around five and a half.
“The young boy would ask his father who each driver was and the father duly informed his son. After Billy Coleman and Ari Vatanen went by, we came along. The young boy asked who was that and the father replied - ‘that’s Mick and your wan’.
“You would be very surprised at the number of people that still remember our time in rallying and specific events.”
Perhaps even that five-and-a-half-year-old that is now in his mid-50s!