TOWARDS the end of his book ‘The Story of Mickey Palmer: Woollen Jerseys An’ Whiskey Legs’, Ray Kennedy recalls meeting Noel V Ginnity in the Burlington Hotel. The comedian had heard that the Dublin-based Westport native was writing a book on Palmer, and described his one and only encounter with the legendary cyclist.
It was the mid-1950s and Ginnity and a group of friends were on a hill near Newtownhamilton, Co Down, awaiting the arrival of the Rás Tailteann. “There was one man on his own and as he came over the brow of the hill, he suddenly stopped right where we were,” Ginnity recalled. “He began shouting that his chain was broken and with that, a young lad on a sports bike who was watching the race came along. The racing cyclist grabbed the bike off the young lad, jumped onto it and tore off up the road! ‘What about me bike?’ screamed the youngster. ‘I’ll get it back to ya’, said the racer as he vanished into the distance. ‘What’s yer name?’ shouted the lad. ‘Palmer’, came the reply. ‘Mickey Palmer from Westport’, and with that he was gone.”
That’s just one of the yarns that features in the book, which recounts the cycling career of a ‘gifted athlete’ who, Kennedy says, was ‘as good as Seán Kelly and Stephen Roche’. Yet Palmer, ‘an amazing racing cyclist’, was ‘set on the road to greatness by a harmless prank’, as he was persuaded to ride in the Kilmeena Sports to wind up another competitor. He finished second that day, and the rest is history.
Palmer dominated grass-track cycling throughout Connacht, and enjoyed national acclaim too. Kennedy has a particularly memorable account of his victory in the 1953 Laught Sports in Co Galway. Palmer competed in Dublin the day before and on the return journey, had to change trains in Athlone – where he left his bag after him. Having spent the night in Ballinasloe, he cycled back to Athlone in the morning and then re-traced his steps before going on to Ahascragh, Mountbellew and Moylough before arriving in Laught. Having done this 50-mile trip, he then rode three races, winning two of them, including the All-Ireland 10,000 metres.
Road racing gradually superseded the grass-track version of the sport, and Palmer’s growing prowess was the catalyst behind the setting up of Rás Mhuigheo, an event he eventually won twice. He also rode the Rás Tailteann on three occasions, twice finishing third and enjoying two stage victories in the 1959 event, when he wore the yellow jersey into Westport. Kennedy, no mean cyclist himself, paints vivid pictures of hard days on the road, and captures the excitement that the sport engendered in Westport, as people cheered on and were inspired by the local hero.
Although by his own admission, he and his fellow riders were often ‘oblivious’ to the efforts of Westport Cycling Club committee members, he has done a fine job of painting the behind-the-scenes pictures and sketching the personalities involved. Kennedy also has a keen ear for dialogue, and there’s a wry humour to many of the exchanges, although a knowledge of Covey slang is required to understand certain phrases.
Some of the best tales are saved ’til last, as when Mick McDonnell from Balla describes a sports meeting in Manulla where Palmer was well handicapped due to his talent, but still managed to pass and thereby lap other riders. “Utter confusion reigned!” writes Kennedy. “Passing where young McDonnell was standing, he shouted at the officials: ‘Who’s leading this f***ing race?’ The hapless officials were as confused as everyone else but as Mick McDonnell pointed out, ‘Needless to say he won it anyway despite the handicap’.”
The Story of Mickey Palmer Woollen Jerseys An’ Whiskey Legs’, by Ray Kennedy, is published by Covie Publications and Recordings (CPR) Ltd, Sheeaune, Westport.