We’ve all said it – or heard it – but who exactly was Gordon Bennett and why does a small corner of Ireland remember his name so well?
James Gordon Bennett was an American millionaire, owner of the New York Herald and the original playboy. He was renowned for his scandalous and controversial behaviour which was quite alarming to the members of high society he mingled with. It is this flamboyant behaviour that has leant his name to the well-known expression of shock or incredulity, ‘Gordon Bennett!’
Dowsing the Flames of Romance
Perhaps Bennett’s finest moment was when he arrived late and drunk to a party at the mansion of the family of his fiancée, socialite Caroline May, where he proceeded to urinate in the fireplace in front of all the guests (some accounts even say he urinated in the grand piano). How utterly frightful! Not surprisingly, the incident saw the end to his engagement to Miss May. He left America, travelling to Europe, to scandalize the Europeans instead.
In the late 1800s, Gordon Bennett leant his name to the Gordon Bennett Cup – an annual automobile race, which eventually became known as the Gordon Bennett Race. He never participated in the races himself, preferring to mess about in yachts and hot air balloons – as you do.
Slaughtering, Stinking Engines
In 1903, the fourth Gordon Bennett Race was due to be held in Great Britain, after a British driver, Selwyn Edge, unexpectedly won the 1902 race. But motoring rules in Great Britain at the time prevented anyone driving over the crazy speed of 12mph and, in any event, motor cars were not held in very high regard in Britain. As one MP for Orkney and Shetland put it: ‘A few people claim the right to drive the public off the roads. Harmless men, women and children, dogs and cattle, have all got to fly for their lives at the bidding of these slaughtering, stinking engines of iniquity.’
The Luck of The Irish
So, Britain needed an alternative venue and since Britain exercised jurisdiction over Ireland back then, the Emerald Isle was the perfect solution.
The Irish community welcomed the idea, considering it to be a great opportunity to boost their economy and develop the country’s tourist industry. Special laws were passed to raise the speed limit on the day of the race, over the specially selected, closed-circuit route which passed through the counties of Kildare, Laois and Carlow, covering a distance of 327.5 miles. Team entries were received from America, Germany, France and Great Britain. It is suggested that the British team chose an emerald green colour for their cars in honour of Ireland, thus creating the colour ‘British Racing Green.’
It was estimated that some 1,500 cars arrived in Ireland (with their owners, presumably) to view the race. For much of the Irish population, this was the first time they had seen an automobile.
Jenatzy, 1903 Gordon Bennett winner, driving a Mercedes (Postcard, published by Hely’s Ltd., Dublin)
On Your Marks …
Race day was set for July 2nd, 1903 (a weekday, so that it wouldn’t interrupt attendance at Mass). The race started at 7am from the start at Ballyshannon. The race favourites Camille Jenatzy, Selwyn Edge, Charles Jarrott and Rene de Knyff sped off, leading the field of twelve cars.
But I’m NOT Dead!
Drama was high as British driver Charles Jarrott lost control on a series of downhill bends and saw his car rolling and landing upside down, trapping his mechanic beneath. Lifting his Napier car with his own hands, and rescuing the mechanic, Jarrott then collapsed. Spectators and race officials thought them both dead and laid them out in a nearby field, covered with white cloths. A good dose of Irish whiskey revived them both, much to everyone’s relief.
Léon Théry, winner of the 1904 Gordon Bennett, driving a Richard-Brasier (Old postcard of 1904)
The Gordon Bennett Race continued to be run annually until the 1906 race, which operated under a new set of rules and was called the French Grand Prix. This set the wheels in motion (groan!) for what we know as the Grand Prix World Championships. Take that Sebastian Vettell!
Gordon Bennett finally married at the tender age of 73 and died in 1918 in France. He is buried near Roland Garros, the site of the French Open, which is on the Avenue Gordon Bennett.
You can follow the fully signed Gordon Bennett Route around Kildare, Laois and Carlow today.
Hazel Gaynor lives in a small town in County Kildare which formed part of the 1903 Gordon Bennett Race route. Some of the drivers stayed at the local pub in the town, where Hazel can ‘occasionally’ be found enjoying a pint of Guinness.
Hazel’s first novel, THE GIRL WHO CAME HOME – A Novel of the Titanic will be published by William Morrow, in April 2014.