51 years on, we can marvel at calibre of the field at Grange race

All-Ireland Junior Cross-country of 1970 acted as the selection race for the International C-C Championships in France
51 years on, we can marvel at calibre of the field at Grange race

John Hartnett (centre) leading the IC4A cross-country race in 1971. On his left is Villanova team-mate Donal Walsh and on his right, in the Manhattan singlet, is Midleton-born Mike Keogh. Picture: Villanona Running

THE two-page result sheet is hand-written and faded now, but it tells a remarkable story of a famous race and its participants which took place around the fields of Grange outside Fermoy all of 51 years ago.

The Irish Athletics History Facebook page, set up by former international racewalker and current World Athletics Indoor Tour director Pierce O’Callaghan, has been an unexpected success of lockdown.

It has thrown up some superb archive material of which these two pages, submitted by Raymond Wright, is a shining example.

The BLE All-Ireland Junior Cross-country of 1970, organised by Grange AC, also acted as the selection race for the International C-C Championships (the forerunner to the World Championships) fixed for Vichy in France the following month.

All eyes were on the host club’s John Hartnett. 

Going by his form the previous year when he had gained a magnificent fourth in the International held in Scotland, he should have been the odds-on favourite. But that winter, after a fine start, Hartnett had been plagued with injuries. Therefore, the pressure on him to deliver before his home crowd was immense.

The hot favourite was Dan Murphy from Ardfert, who had won five of his six previous races, along with Eddie Leddy from Leitrim, and 16-year-old London exile Bill Curtin. But Hartnett dispelled any doubts and he answered his critics when leaving the large field in his wake over the undulating four mile course.

Dublin’s Tom Gregan set a cracking pace, with Hartnett and Leddy right on his shoulder, and the trio were joined after a mile by Murphy. However, when Hartnett applied the pressure, only Leddy could respond. The Grange man opened up a significant gap to cross the line in 21:04, 20 seconds ahead of Leddy, with Murphy third, another 15 seconds behind.

A month later, on the day after Dana had won the hearts of a nation when winning the Eurovision with her ‘All Kinds of Everything’, there was another historic Irish victory as John Hartnett became the first Irish athlete since Tim Smythe, 39 years before, to win a major international title over the country.

Following that famous victory in France, Hartnett gained an athletics scholarship to Villanova University. Two years later, he established an Irish 5,000m record of 13:43.0 and competed at the Munich Olympics. In 1973, Hartnett went on to break Ronnie Delany’s Irish mile record with a time of 3:54.7 and the following year, on the Mardyke grass surface, ran the mile in 3:56.3.

But those left in his wake on that February day at Grange would also carve out a remarkable niche in their own right in the annuals of Irish athletics. Leddy and Murphy also took the scholarship route, the latter, in his first year at Washington State University, finishing a brilliant fourth behind the legendary Steve Prefontaine in the 1971 NCAA cross-country.

Tom Gregan, ninth in the race, went to Villanova University after a number of outstanding schoolboy performances which saw him at 16 ranked as the fastest miler for his age in Europe, but he never realised his full potential. Finishing 11th that day was Limerick’s Neil Cusack and he, along with Leddy, ended up at East Tennessee State University. Four years later Cusack would etch his name in the record books when winning the Boston Marathon.

Eamonn Coghlan needs no introduction but the future world 5000m champion had to be content with 15th position at Fermoy. 

This still put him seven places ahead of another future star, the recently deceased Jerry Kiernan who was only the third scorer on his Listowel team who just missed out on the medals.

Finishing in 65th place was John Foley from Limerick — later to become CEO of Athletics Ireland — while four places further back was another Listowel man, five-time All-Ireland football medal-winner and Fine Gael politician, Jimmy Deenihan.

With Hartnett first overall, Cork were second county as Pat Ryan (St Finbarr’s) finished an impressive sixth in that exalted company. Tony O’Leary (Leevale) – later to win seven senior Cork titles – came home in 21st.

Of the 117 finishers, there can’t be too many still active today. But one exception is Willie O’Riordan who, along with his brother Patrick, represented St Brendan’s AC from Ardfert.

Living in Cork now for the past 46 years and retired from Army life, up to the suspension of races a year ago Willie was a regular prize-winner in his M65 category.

And after all those years he still retains the same loyal allegiance to his beloved St Brendan’s club.

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