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Pioneering Women of Cross-Country - Guest Article by John Walshe

52 YEARS AGO - Cork's Women's Team Win All Ireland XC Title

rice sisters 2019 cork athletics awards night "The Flying Rices"

This article, by John Walshe, appeared in The Echo, on Friday April 10th 2020

 rice sisters cork 1968


Over the past three decades this country has more than held its own on the world athletics stage, in producing medallists at the highest level, of course most notably our own Sonia O’Sullivan, who graced the world scene for so many years.

Half a century ago, it was a totally different world, as was recalled at the recent Cork Athletics Board International Awards Night, which took place at the Kingsley Hotel. Over the past number of years, through the efforts of Ballinascarthy-man Liam Fleming, a Cork men’s team of the past have received awards, but on this occasion a historic occasion for women also received due recognition.

representatives of cork womens xc team 1968

Cork's All-Ireland Winning XC Team of 1968

“These athletes shouldn’t be forgotten, as they were the first winners of a women’s All-Ireland, and were indeed pioneers of the sport,” said Liam, a man who has written a number of books on past champions.

That NACAI All-Ireland cross-country championship of 1968 took place at Dromoland, in Clare, at the end of March. Not alone did Cork easily win the first-ever women’s title, they also provided the first two finishers, with Imelda Rice taking the title ahead of her sister Angela, with a third sister, Teresa, also a member of the team.

They were known as the ‘Flying Rices’, from Tracton Athletic Club, and, for all three, it was an emotional reunion to meet up and swap stories with their team-mates, Ann Leahy and Mary O’Donoghue, in recalling that famous victory of over 50 years ago. The sixth member of the team, Sheila Leahy, has sadly passed away, but was represented on the night.

Teresa (now Walsh), who lives near Ballinhassig, recalled how it all began: “We were originally from Araglen, near Fermoy, and my father and mother, who had six in the family, then moved to Belgooly, where they farmed. My father wasn’t well and died at the age of 63, however my mother was a tower of strength but we had to work hard.

“I was the third in the family, and my father had sport in his DNA – he believed it was very important his children were involved, and it certainly set all three of us up for life.

“We went to school in Belgooly, and, subsequently, to the Convent of Mercy in Kinsale. I suppose we started with the school sports, and then the late Tom Brady, from Tracton Athletic Club, got us involved. When we started competing, for the first seven or eight races, there was no separating the three of us - it was first, second and third all the way. That’s how we got the name ‘The Flying Rices’.

“We got good home support and travelled to such places as Wicklow, Galway, Tipperary and Dublin – all over the country. We used to go in Vincent Kiely’s bus, and sometimes four of five or us would pile into the back of Tom Brady’s car.”

Facilities and gear were non-existent, Teresa recalls. “We had no proper shoes, only rubber dollies for running on the road and around the fields at home, over ditches, streams and everything. We were also warned to make sure, if we were wearing shorts, to wear long shorts!”

Local Sunday sports meetings on grass, which included cycling, were hugely popular at the time, and Teresa has also the distinction of winning the first-ever Cork County cycle championship on the track. “We used to do all the sports, sometimes, instead of medals, they’d give you sets of ware, knife sets, clocks and the like as prizes.”

Between them, the three Rice sisters won a total of 20 All-Ireland medals, including 12 gold. Uniquely, all three also ended up as nurses. “Our involvement with athletics was brief and short, as I went to Crumlin in 1969, before I came back to the North Infirmary, and when that closed down, I ended up at St Finbarr’s. Imelda was a public health nurse, while Agnes worked in the South Infirmary,” says Teresa.  

“We were delighted to be honoured, because we had put a lot of work into it. When we see all the women taking part today, it’s absolutely phenomenal what improvements have come, and it’s well justified,” concludes the woman, who along with her Cork cross-country colleagues, played a pivotal role in the recognition of female participation in sport all of a half-century ago.



Related Articles, Photos & Videos

International Awards Night 2020

Cork's 1968 Women's National Cross-Country Chamionship Winning Team - 22 Photos

Video - Presentations to Members of Cork's Winning Men's and Women's National Cross-Country Championship Team, 1968

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Cork Athletics County Board is a constituent member of Athletics Ireland. Cork Athletics is the governing body, administering athletics, track and field (T&F), cross-country (XC) and running in county Cork. The Board comprises elected representatives of constituent athletic clubs and running clubs. Cork County Board AAI organises Championship races and competition, including road, track & field (T&F) and Cross-country (XC), at junior, juvenile, senior and masters levels, and selects representation for the county. In addition, training and education is provided for coaches and officials. The Board also regulates the Athletics Ireland race/event permit (licence) process for county Cork.
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