50 years on from an epic Grange AC race in Fermoy led by Cork's greatest runners

John Hartnett, Donie Walsh, and John Buckley battled it out in January 1972
50 years on from an epic Grange AC race in Fermoy led by Cork's greatest runners

First three in the Cork Senior C-C at Fermoy 50 years ago: John Hartnett (Grange); John Buckley (St Finbarr's); Donie Walsh (Leevale).

THE Grange-Fermoy Athletic Club, formerly known as Grange AC, celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2020 with a four-mile road race, confined to an elite entry due to restrictions then in place.

Exactly 50 years ago this Sunday — January 2, 1972 — a famous race which was eagerly awaited by athletics fans took place at Fermoy.

It featured a showdown between three of Cork’s greatest-ever runners — John Hartnett, Donie Walsh, and John Buckley.

John Hartnett (435) in his Villanova cross-country days with fellow 1972 Irish Olympians Mike Keogh (174) and Donie Walsh (447).
John Hartnett (435) in his Villanova cross-country days with fellow 1972 Irish Olympians Mike Keogh (174) and Donie Walsh (447).

The occasion was the Cork BLE senior, youths, and women’s cross-country championships and the venue was Grange, just outside the town.

Nowadays, the county senior usually takes place in October, but the reason the championships were so late that season was to facilitate the afore-mentioned Hartnett and Walsh who, along with Billy Bolster, were home for Christmas from their respective American universities.

Hartnett and Walsh attended Villanova and both came with impeccable cross-country pedigrees.

Less than two years before, in March 1970, Hartnett had won the International Junior title at Vichy in France, while later that year Walsh finished second to the legendry Steve Prefontaine at the NCAA championships.

Five months before that Grange fixture, Walsh had also set an Irish 10,000m record of 28:52.6 at the European Championships in Helsinki.

Buckley did not chose the scholarship route, instead remaining at home where he carved out a special niche for himself on the cross-country front. At the age of 19 the St Finbarr’s man was already a county senior champion and in March 1969 he had the distinction of beating the then Olympic 5,000m champion, Mohammed Gammoudi, at the International Military Championships held in Ballincollig.

In ideal conditions, the scene therefore was set for an epic encounter before a large attendance at the well laid-out Grange course.

But first, two other county championships had to be decided. The youths (U18) race was over three miles and victory went to Leevale’s Gene Mealy who led home John McSweeney (Blarney) and Denis Hartnett, brother of John, from Grange.

Maire Buckley, who had finished second in the All-Ireland Intermediate Championship, added the County Senior title in impressive fashion with Joan Fleming (St Finbarr’s) and Tracy Roche (Grange) taking silver and bronze.

As the field of 61 toed the line for the start of the 7½ senior race, all eyes were on local man Hartnett. From the gun, the pace was fast with the 22-year-old Grange athlete at the head of affairs. Already, runners were strung out with only Buckley, Bolster, the St Finbarr’s pair of Richie Crowley and Finbarr Long, along with Hugh Parnell of Leevale, managing to stay in contact.

Walsh, who had been out of action with a leg injury a month before, was dramatically back in 10th place and his chances of retaining the title had vanished.

Into the second mile, Hartnett had shaken off all except the resolute Buckley who somehow was managing to stay in his shadow.

For the next four miles they ran shoulder to shoulder with Buckley even applying the pressure on a number of occasions as Hartnett suffered briefly from a stitch.

But with a mile to go, the Grange star put in a hard surge while negotiating a climb and Buckley’s gallant challenge faded, leaving Hartnett to cross the line with around 100 yards in hand after 36 minutes and 38 seconds of running.

Walsh — as he did so often in a glittering career — finished stronger than everyone else to take the bronze with Crowley fourth and Long (winner of the Youghal Round-the-Houses race two nights before) in fifth.

With Parnell running out of his skin in sixth position, further superb packing by Leevale saw Pat O’Riordan, Jack O’Callaghan, and Tony O’Leary take seventh, eighth, and ninth positions with their final scorer, Dick Hodgins, making a comeback after injury, closing in the team in 11th.

Having also won the youths and women’s team titles, it had been one of the great days in the annals of the Leevale club. And, as the Evening Echo reported on the following Wednesday, the three cups were duly filled in Pa Johnson’s pub that Sunday night.

MIXED

For the three main protagonists, that Olympic year of 1972 brought varying fortunes. Shortly after returning to America, Hartnett ran indoor times of 8:35 for two miles and 13:29 for three. Later in the year he established an Irish 5000m record of 13:43.0 when finishing ninth behind Dave Bedford’s European record of 13:17.2 at Crystal Palace.

In Munich, suffering from injury, he was eliminated in the heats of the Olympic 5,000m. He would go on break Ronnie Delany’s Irish mile record with a time of 3:54.7 and, on a memorable night, run a mile in 3:56.3 on the old Mardyke grass track at the Cork City Sports.

Walsh also suffered injury problems on his return to Villanova and just missed out on the Olympic qualifying time for the 10,000m. Deciding to go for the marathon instead, he made his debut at the Irish championships in Athlone which he won in an outstanding 2:15:21.

At Munich, despite suffering from flu symptoms, he gamely tried to go with the leaders before drifting back to finish 47th in 2:31.

For Buckley, the fact that he was able to stay with Hartnett for so long showed the form he was in. He duly won the BLE National C-C at Clonmel to add to the Southern Region and Inter-Counties he had already won that season. The International (now World) Championships were held in March at Cambridge where Buckley finished sixth of the Irish team in 62nd position.

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