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The rally that ignited an annual Killarney pilgrimage

WRITTEN BY KEVIN O’DRISCOLL

When asked to write about my most memorable rally, it seemed a near-impossible task for the first minute.

But then one event crystallised in my mind.

The 1994 Rally of the Lakes will always hold a special place in my heart. It was my first proper introduction to the fantastic Group A supercars driven by Ireland’s best drivers.

I was a (typically) broke non-driving student in Tralee RTC at the time. Other than local events such as West Cork and the Fastnet I hadn’t been to many events in the previous number of years and certainly not at any of the internationals.

Plum Tyndall’s unique way of telling a story in the RPM series eased me back into it and the 1994 season had started with Stephen Finlay surprising the established drivers in Galway on his way to third place.

This was followed by a dramatic Circuit of Ireland with the weather changing each of the days as Finlay took his first international win.

RPM was a huge influence at this time, to the point where my mind started working overtime. On my next trip home I suggested to Dad that we should go to the Rally of the Lakes and he could stay in my rented house in Tralee.

Two uncles, my brother, and a cousin joined the bandwagon and a plan (well prior to mobile phones and internet) was to meet outside the Arbutus Hotel Killarney at 1030 on the Saturday of the rally.

With the event only in its second year as a summer rally, the crowds were sure to be out.

The fact that Bertie Fisher was going for his fifth win in a row in a brand new Subaru Impreza, along with the rally being an ERC round (this status was subsequently dropped on the eve of the event), meant a lot of excitement in motorsport circles prior to the event.

With the rest of the crew traveling from Cork, my part of the deal was to thumb a lift to Killarney with a big sign saying the same on the outskirts of Tralee.

The third car to pass picked me up, the driver was on his way to Molls Gap. He asked if I wanted to go there and offered to drop me back in Killarney after the stage. I declined due to the fear of delaying everything else and instead I killed some time in Killarney. 

At 1030 there was a clatter of noise as Fisher, Finlay, the list goes on, all descended on the town on their way to service. The sight and sound of these awesome machines filled the street after completing the first four stages.

We got our first taste of action on the fifth stage, KIlcummin, very close to the stage start.

It was clear that Fisher and Finlay, in the Michelin Pilot Escort Cosworth, were on an incredible pace. We’d seen nothing like this before.

That’s not to say Austin MacHale and Kenny McKinstry were hanging around but it was clear that technology had moved up a notch and these great drivers could only hope the pair in front hit some sort of trouble in order to win.

By this time many names had hit trouble, including Frank Meagher who had a big crash on Gortnagane.

Early sensation Liam O’Callaghan had lost a wheel on the fourth stage while lying second.

Stephen Roche and Enda Noland driving a Ford RS2000 prototype were also early retirements.

We got out our only glimpse of Kieran O’Neill’s Kadett as he was to retire after hitting a wall at Kilcummin creamery late on the stage.

The hot weather was only matched by the incredible pace.

Stages at Gortnagane and the second run of Kilcummin were taken in before we heading back to Tralee for the night.

Fisher held a 21-second lead following Finlay’s late surge on the opening day.

That evening we heard the sad news from Imola that Roland Ratzenberger had passed away after an accident in F1 Qualifying which was a shock as such incidents were rare.

The weather wasn’t quite as good on the second day. We still visited a couple of stages to see Fisher take an amazing fifth win in a row, giving the fabulous Impreza a winning Irish debut.

Finlay had given the seasoned drivers something to think about while MacHale and McKinstry had given it their best.

Peadar Hurson’s drive to fifth place was also noteworthy having been seeded at 20 in the Metro 6R4.

There were good battles behind the leaders as Mickey Farrell, Mike Pattison, James Cullen, Eamonn Boland, and Ian Greer rounded out the top ten.

The last trip back to Tralee brought further sobering news on the F1 front with the news of Ayrton Senna’s awful accident at Imola which cost him his life.

The first Rally of the Lakes certainly carried a lot of memories for me, and a few short weeks later RPM gave me the opportunity to relive those moments again with what I consider to be one of the best programmes Plum ever recorded.

It was the start of a yearly trip to Killarney for the next decade and a half without fail to one of the most beautiful corners of Ireland.

Photo by Adrian Crawley

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