When karting was king in Castlebar

County View

County View
John Healy

IT is now just a three acre field of grass on the outskirts of Breaffy, and there is little to show that it was once the Mecca of motor racing enthusiasts from all over the country and beyond. But deep beneath the clay are the traces of the tarmac track which was the headquarters of the Connaught Karting Club, the only one of its kind in the west, and the Brands Hatch of amateur drivers.
The mid sixties saw the Karting Club at the height of its success. It had captured the imagination of car racing enthusiasts on the grand scale, and the Sunday weekly racing at the track in Breaffy brought participants in huge numbers.
The club had been set up by a zealous group headed by Paddy Mellett and Henry Downes, local motor traders, and its first flagship venture was a rally through the centre of Castlebar. The streets were closed off for the duration of the Sunday afternoon as the daredevil drivers kept the crowds enthralled with their skills and their apparent indifference to danger. From the starting point at the Courthouse, they raced around the Mall, engines screaming, down Ellison Street, swinging perilously down Castle Street, up by Rock Square and back to the Courthouse. Each race was of twenty laps, and white coated marshals kept the crowds at bay and replaced the huge straw bales at the chicane as the powerful engines roared through the streets.
The Monaco Grand Prix had come to Castlebar, and after that there was no holding back. Within months, the club had moved to provide a new dedicated track on a site at Breaffy. Local drivers like Jim Divney, Ned McGreal, Donal McEllin, Fintan Russell, Fergus Kilkelly and Bill and Eamon Whelan pitted their skills against their counterparts from Northern Ireland (where the sport was particularly strong) and Dublin, among them the pop singer, Dickie Rock.
Behind the scenes, a hard working committee including club secretary, Pat Ruane, Joe McCormack, Michael Heverin, John Surdival and Seamas Chambers was charged with the task of organising and coordinating the rallies at Breaffy and - more challengingly, as it turned out - of keeping the club on a sound financial footing. Events like the annual dress dance became highlights of the Castlebar social calendar.
But, in time, the novelty of karting began to wear off. While those involved in the sport remained as committed as ever, the fact that the action was no longer taking place in public view, together with the perceived remoteness of the venue from the town centre, meant that the crowds no longer flocked to Breaffy. Costs were rising and bank borrowings had to be met, and the committee found itself struggling with a mounting deficit. When the annual general meeting at the Imperial Hotel was attended by Mr Darcy, the bank manager, it was an ominous sign that things were not well.
By now, there were also rumblings of discontent from younger club members that the founding committee members were not as proactive as they should be. A coup at the annual meeting saw most of the older officers being ousted by young bloods, eager to take the reins and, as they saw it, put the house in order. The incoming treasurer was even heard to confidently predict “we will have the overdraft cleared within six months.”
Alas, it was not to be, and when local solicitor, John Garavan, advertised in 1972 a three acre field for sale at Drumcorrabaun, Breaffy, “property of Connaught Karting Club,” it was the beginning of the end for karting in Castlebar.