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When Irish Eyes Were Smiling - The Historic Speedway Class of 1951
By Tony Webb

I had heard stories of speedway in Dublin and those remarkable times when star riders and novices raced side by side from my dear friend the late Ipswich rider Rod Laudrum who raced there in those years. Rod said to me he would be in awe as he lined his bike up in the pits at Chapelizod and Shelbourne park and surrounded by names like Split Waterman, Williams, Aub Lawson, Ronnie Moore and Bill Kitchen who had come over on the overnight ferry for a Sundays racing. Tales of being with characters like Bruce Abernethy, Mike Tams and Howdy Byford are only appreciated now as I look through the speedway magazines of the times. What a vision the promoters had to bring world class riders to Dublin and in turn provide their enthusiastic novices into riders capable of riding in league speedway by training them in teams alongside experienced performers.

What rekindled my interest in the years of 1950-1953 was a photo on Facebook of a Speedway trophy from the 1951, Irish novice Championship, owned by an Australian resident. Further enquiries revealed the owner was the son of Derrick Edwardes, an Irish lad recommended by New Cross rider Eric French as a star of the future in 1950, His son knew little of his father's career so I took up the research and this is what found. It was the most ambitious scheme I have ever come across to groom speedway novices. The whole story had been well reported weekly in the Speedway World, Speedway news and the Speedway Gazette by several prominent journalists, Mike O'Reilly, Tom Morgan, Fionnbar Callanan, a book had been written, the Dublin experience by George Kearns, there is a photographic archive by a noted Dublin studio, and the local press gave great coverage, my task to compile was made easy.

Back in 1948 speedway was a growing sport in Ireland, however the first meetings had been held in Dublin at the Harold Cross Greyhound stadium twenty years earlier in September 1928. The Australian star Buzz Hibberd was the star attraction, also sharing the limelight was the legendary Isle of Man champion Stanley Woods who tried out the new sport of dirt track racing. Speedway did not feature again until 1948 when a few long track meetings were held at the Raheny trotting track organised by the Leinster MCC,

Two years later a Mr Joe Donahoe opened Santry Sports stadium for speedway with an Ireland versus England match on May 30 1950. The home side won 40-33. Team racing continued until July 1950 when the stadium was closed forcimprovements, average crowds had been in the region of 4000 per meeting

In the same year a second track Shelbourne Park, a 385 yard circuit in the Dockland area opened up on May 1950. Ronnie Greene the Wimbledon promoter was appointed manager and throughout the summer 19 matches were held against British clubs that made the journey across the Irish Sea for Sunday racing. An American team was based at Shelbourne Park who also travelled to England. Crowds of 20,000 were common with a supporters clubrooms that was opened seven days a week. There was little Sunday speedway action in England and riders were keen to have a relaxing days racing away from the demands of league speedway. Fun and games, and when you add a mix of Bruce Abernethy, Howdy Byford and Split Waterman the mind boggles at the antics they got up to!

A third stadium at Chapelizod had been opened on August 19 1950 by English rider Wal Morton, Wal's team the Lizods, competed before a 12,000 crowd for the first meeting, Geoff Woodcock Speedway Echo journalist and former British Speedway Association secretary took over from Wal in late 1950 in conjunction with legendary motor sport promoter Reg Kavanagh. The 441 yard track was revamped with floodlights with a grand plan to give opportunities for Irish novices to race in matches against teams from England.

The new team was the Dublin Eagles, a training school run by Howdy Byford, Split Waterman, Eric French and Fred Williams. Howdy's mother and the fathers of Williams, Waterman and French all helped in the promotion. The winter of 1951 unearthed ten youngsters from 150 applicants who were ready for public appearances by March 1951. The forward thinking Woodcock had the supporters club open every night of the week and the future looked good. A number of events for the novices including an Irish Championship and the Dublin Belt were instigated and the creation of a Young Ireland team was the icing on the cake. Mick Savage, Derick Edwardes, Roy Spillers, Harry McHugh, Ginger O'Brien, Alan Marr, and David Couse were all ready for action. .

1951 would be a wonderful time of opportunity for the Emerald isle in speedway and I will take you through the events of that historic year with references to the Speedway Researcher, George Kearns, Michael O'Reilly and Fionnbar Callanan who all have written comprehensive reports Local novices had only been given limited opportunities at Shelbourne Park in 1950 but it was the vision of Geoff Woodcock whose star pupil was Derrick Edwardes, 22 year old jeweller from Bray in County Wicklow, who would form the basis of the Dublin Eagles team with weekly matches held against English teams. A series of local events were held including the Dublin Belt for local riders the forward thinking Woodcock had a dream of a young Ireland team and he achieved this in May 1951.

The season had started at a floodlit Chapelizod with the Easter cup on March 28, Mayor Karl Mullen performed the opening ceremony before 10,000 fans. The Dublin Belt the promised monthly competition for novices which was won by David Couse, favourite Derrick Edwardes who won his two heats fell in the final while leading, Cork born Eric French won the Easter Cup.

April 4 saw a match between Fred Williams' team and Split Waterman's boys, Williams' team won 50 -34 Derrick Edwardes scored 6 in his first team match. Couse and Edwardes were the winners of the novice events

Bristol Bulldogs were the opposition on April 11 this was the first public appearance of the Dublin Eagles and the novices were relegated to the second half as the Eagles needed the strongest team to meet the powerful Bulldogs. In a night of thrills, spills and drama the fans went home happy as the Eagles won 42-41.

April 18 was the first day of sunshine since the track opened and the Eagles celebrated by beating the Odsal team from Bradford 44 to 39, Edwardes and Couse were blooded into the team for the first time.

Southampton Saints were the visitors on April 25 and again the Eagles won 44-27, Couse defended his Dublin Belt successfully and top scorers in the match were Howdy Byford and Charlie May for the Saints.

World Champion Tommy Price brought his Wembley Lions to Chapelizod on May 2. This was a tough match for the Eagles who had lost their star riders the Williams brothers for that night as they were Wembley riders. However the eagles held the Lions to a draw.

May 9 saw the Eagles lose by 2 points to Wembley's Bill Kitchen team.38-40. Derrick Edwardes scored 4. The Karl Mullen cup for novices was held in the second half with 12 riders taking part, the winner was David Couse from Derrick Edwardes and Ginger O'Briene.

The Whitsunday Cup on May 14 was won by New Cross rider Cyril Roger in front of the largest ever crowd at Chapelizod

London team Walthamstow Wolves were the opponents on May 23. Top for the Eagles were the Williams brothers and POW veteran Harry Edwards was the top Wolves rider

Edinburgh Monarchs, with the first Australian visitor of the year Australian Jack Young, were the next visitors on May 30.It must be said that although Jack was the first Australian in 1951, the track record had been set the previous year by another Australian Graham Warren. The Eagles without Fred Williams went down 35-37. Kilkenny novice Roy Spiller was a new face in the junior events winning the final from Des Monson and Ginger O'Briene.

June 6 heralded the return of Freddie Williams and another good win for the Eagles over the Lanarkshire Eagles 48-24. Novice Derrick Edwardes scored 4 points for the Eagles, top for the team from Scotland was veteran Geordie Joe Crowther on 7

Halifax came to test the Eagles on June 13 and returned to Yorkshire happy with a 39-33 win. Test star Oliver Hart thrilled the home fans with spectacular riding and there was further joy with another new novice Kevin Lambert from Howth making his first public outing. Now halfway through the season the weather had to date been unkind and had an effect on crowd numbers despite the entertaining racing week by week.

New Zealand wild boy Bruce Abernethy was in town again this time with his Abners team on June 20, but his team failed to halt the Eagles who ran out winners 42-30 with the Williams brothers leading the way.

The following week 40 tons of dressing was added to the track to provide action for the Allience Cup, donated for the winner to keep by the dedicated Eagles supporters club. Great expectations were held for the legendary Jack Parker, however Jack had to give second best to eventual winner Birmingham star Ron Mountford, Oliver Hart and Eric Williams gave stiff opposition. The Dublin belt changed hands when the fast improving Derrick Edwardes won from Roy Spiller.

Swindon Robins held the Eagles to a draw the following week on July 4, top scorer for the Eagles was Bradford star Eddie Rigg who was unbeaten and Australian Hugh Geddes headed the Robins scoreboard with 8 in a rather lack lustre encounter.

AII eyes were on the next meeting, the first appearance of Geoff Woodcock's Young Ireland team, the dream was coming true. This was what Irish fans were waiting for, on July the proud locals that lined up for Ireland were Mick Savage, Derrick Edwardes, Ginger O'Breirne, Alan Marrr, Des Mosmon and Charlie O'Hara. The opposing team representing Young England were from Liverpool where they trained on the Ainsdale Sands. Ireland ran out winners 44-27. The fans were happy, the riders equally so, top scorer for Ireland was Derrick Edwardes with 11 points.

The following week it was back to the Eagles team action on July 18 with an unexpected reverse in fortunes, Coventry Bees took advantage of a weaker eagles team missing its English star riders, four novices were brought in who failed to score and the Eagles went down to their biggest loss 31-41 This raised the question would the Irish speedway public support speedway with a more local content without the big names from England?

To date promoter Geoff Woodcock had delivered on all his promises, He had created a National team, giving the fans the chance to see the best riders in the world and groomed a team of novices to a standard that would get them consideration to race in British speedway.

The future of Irish speedway was in the hands of the supporters filling the seats.

The race date had changed as it was reported that neighbouring track Santry had applied to race on Fridays, Chapelizod jumped in and moved from Wednesday, they need not have worried as Santry's track licence was refused.

July 27 saw the second appearance of young Ireland to meet a Halifax team. The home team won 38-30 with Derrick Edwardes topping the score chart with 11 points, New Cross star Eric French brought more joy for home fans when he won the Moby cup in the second half

August 3 was the wettest night of the season and the young Irish novices floundered as the went down 28 -48 to a Young England side that tracked two Australians! Birmingham's Bill Jemison and South Australian Don Prettejohn helped England to victory. The following week saw the arrival of a Speedway Word novice team, trained at Rye House they were regarded as the best English novices.led by Cockney Pat Flanagan who later rode for Exeter, the London based novices gave a lesson to the locals winning 50-20

August 17 gave the local young Ireland boys a chance to up their game and in a thrilling match they beat a Halifax team by two points, Ginger O'Beirne topped the local scorers and Ken Stratford was the best Yorkshire man,

Promoter Woodcock had kept all his promises and the final event in his grand plan was the Irish Novice Championship on August 24. In a night of fast and furious racing it was Derrick Edwardes who carried off the trophy that 70 years later sits in his son's home in Queensland.

Local dairy farmer Dom Perry showed his vast improvement by finishing third, Dom was to carry the flag for Irish novices into the future when he signed for Wimbledon and rode for England in 1954!

The press were making noises that all was not well behind the scenes and there was gloom in the air as the Eagles lined up for a match against arch rivals Shelbourne Park's Americans on September 1. Fred Williams rallied the Eagles to a 60-48 victory over the American riders, One could say this was the Eagles finest hour

Chapelizod had planned thirty meetings and September 7 signalled the last but one, a match for the Irish team with Liverpool, the fans were totally unprepared by the pre meeting announcement that this would be the last one by the present promotion. Although the home team won 56-36, the fact that Des Mosmon scored a 15 maximum proved the point that Irish riders had come of age.

The final curtain came down on September 14 with the visit of an Australian team led by Frank Malouf. The home side went out on a victorious note, winning 48 to 42. The post mortem on the 1951 season was that the targets on rider development had been successful. Team racing, encouragement of talent with a mix of world class riders was a winner but against this was the terrible weather. To blame lack of spectators fails to add up as overall the attendances for Shelbourne Park, Santry and Chapelizod were healthy, the jury remains out on why they suddenly put up the shutters. There were two matches in 1952 and a few in 1953 but details are sketchy. Chapelizod 1951 will go down as a unique year in speedway heritage,

Epilogue

Dom Perry was part of the legacy going on to a noted career.

A couple of meetings were held in 1952 and 1953, Des Mosmon ran a training school for a while. It is not none to the author if any of the other novices progressed to the British league.

On a final note, in Ian Patterson's. Cinder to Shale collection in Scotland presides a lasting testimony to Irish speedway, being ahead of its time in promotion and technology the Shamrock JAP 1952 Laydown speedway bike and in a Queensland home pride of place goes to a much loved and cherished silver Trophy engraved Derrick Edwardes 1951 Irish speedway Novice Champion . Need we say more

 

This article was first published on 13th June 2021

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  • Jeff Hill:

    "A very interesting article. I've always wondered why speedway never lasted or really caught the public's appreciation in Ireland, North or South, to the extent that tarmac racing did and continues to do so. "

  • Jim Henry:

    "You can see the Chapelizod heat details on the Speedway Researcher web site. Having gathered some Irish meeting details I have noticed a lack of records of timess, for the races involving Irish novices. I have concluded, maybe wrongly, that times were not announced as the times were quite far adrift from those recorded by the visiting riders. I would welcome any thoughts on the matter. I would, as always, welcome any information which can fill gaps in our records of meetings staged in Ireland both in Dublin and Belfast."

  • tony webb:

    "I never noticed that it was only the novice races that the times were not recorded. could well have been a ploy by Geoff Woodcock the manager not to discourage the novices as there was a big margin in the quality of the riders from world class to one year novices. Overall I think it was a bold and brave project to encourage the youth, the like we have never seen since. Reg Fearman tells me that Woodcock was involved with Isle of Wight in later years."

  • Doug MacFarlane:

    "When Irish eyes were smiling. An interesting article, but i couldn't help feeling slightly confused and the rider Ginger had his name spelt in 3 different ways in the article. And as far as I know, all were incorrect !!!"

  • Tony Webb:

    "Hi Doug, I was also confused as the various Irish reporters all spelled it differently, but for the record, what is the correct spelling as you do not say?"

  • Doug MacFarlane:

    "His name was William 'Ginger' O'Beirne. He died on 15.11.2014 and sadly I guess nobody ever took the time to interview him about his speedway career. It seems he ran a motorcycle shop near Dalymount Park, called Bohemian Motors after the local football team Bohemians. Known locally as 'da Bo's '. Quite by chance many years ago I had a few beers in the Bohemian Bar over the road from the stadium and around the corner from Ginger's shop, which probably at the time he was still running."  

     

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