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Cork to Cobh 40 Years Ago - Guest Article by John Walshe

CORK TO COBH RACE OF 1978 – WHEN WOMEN COMPETED FOR THE FIRST TIME

 cork to cobh road race 1978 photo evening echo sStart of Cork to Cobh Road Race 1978 - Photo: Copyright Evening Echo

 

This article by, John Walshe, appeared in the April 10th 2018 issue of the Evening Echo

This weekend marks a significant anniversary for Cork (and indeed Irish) athletics for it was on this Sunday 40 years ago that women took part for the first with the men in an Irish road race. The occasion was the Cork to Cobh 15-mile event and the iconic picture (courtesy and copyright of the Evening Echo) shows the three pioneering women – Marion Lyons, Dervla Mellerick and Elaine Kelly – at the start line on the Lower Road. The following article, published last Tuesday in the Evening Echo, tells the story of that historic day.

CORK TO COBH RACE OF 1978 – WHEN WOMEN COMPETED FOR THE FIRST TIME


On Monday next, April 16, the famous Boston Marathon takes place for the 122nd time. Twelve months ago, the race honoured Kathy Switzer on the 50th anniversary of her participation in the race which made her the first woman to run the iconic course from Hopkinton to Boston.

Entering by just using the initials ‘KV Switzer’, during her run a race official famously attempted to stop her but he was shoved to the ground by Switzer’s boyfriend and the 20-year-old went on to finish the 26.2-mile course. However, it wasn’t until 1972 that women were officially allowed to take part in the event.

This weekend also marks a significant date here in Cork for it was 40 years ago – on Sunday April 16, 1978, that women were allowed for the first time in this country to line up in a road race beside the men.

The occasion was the 15-mile event from Cork to Cobh, a race with already a chequered history as it had on a number of occasions hosted both National and Munster championships.

Road running in the 1970s was a far cry to what it is today. That year of 1978, the Cork to Cobh attracted just 33 entries, of which 27 finished. Race headquarters was at the old Arcadia Ballroom where entries (at 40 pence) were taken. The race started at 3pm underneath the railway bridge at Water Street and finished outside the post office in Cobh.  

Amongst that small entry were the names of Marion Lyons, Elaine Kelly and Dervla Mellerick – three pioneering women in the history of Irish athletics. A preview in the previous Friday’s Evening Echo stated: “It is an ambition at the back of every club athlete’s mind to finish the course [from Cork to Cobh]. It could be regarded as a race that separates the men from the boys but on Sunday next it will be a matter of separating the men from the women.”

The PRO of the Ballymore-Cobh club, the organisers of the race, was quoted as saying he was delighted to hear of women taking part. “They certainly show a lot of courage,” he said, adding that the club may in fact consider having a special prize for the first female to finish.

Marion Lyons is the only one of the three still involved in the sport. She is currently President of her beloved St Finbarr’s AC and as recently as a month ago was the winner of the F60 category at the County Road championship at Castlelyons.

She recalls that historic occasion on the road to Cobh four decades ago: “I suppose we were afraid that the men would object, but nobody really minded. If anything, I’m sure the men were delighted we were there and you could say we have never looked back.

“I knew Elaine and Dervla and we decided we’d love to take on the challenge of running against the men and doing a longer distance. We didn’t really want to tell them in case they would object as at the time there were no women running with the men, even though men were my greatest friends to train with, they were so good to me.”

Of the three, Marion was the most experienced having represented Ireland at senior level on a number of occasions, the highlights being the World Cross-Country Championships at Chepstow and Düsseldorf.

Dervla Mellerick had, a month before, made the Irish team for the World C-C in Glasgow but for Elaine Kelly, 15 miles was a lot longer than she was used to. She was mainly a 400m/800m track runner with two national titles over the latter distance to her credit in 1971 (2:14.7) and 1977 (2:06.07).

“As we got nearer to the race, the organisers heard about us and they said they would allow us run,” says Marion. “We had actually run the 15 miles in training and on the day we stayed together for most of the race and then towards the end I just stepped ahead and won it.

“We felt very good throughout the race, the men were saying to us ‘don’t pass up, don’t pass us’ but I said to them ‘come on lads, come with us, sure we’re all in the same boat’.”

Donie Walsh of Leevale was first across the line in the men’s race in a time of 77:35 ahead of Midleton’s Liam O’Brien who recorded 78:14 with former winner of the race, Richard Crowley, third in 78:48. The times of the three women on that historic occasion were: Marion Lyons, 1:42:30; Dervla Mellerick, 1:42:37; Elaine Kelly, 1:44:56.

Marion Lyons would go on to run six marathons - which included a win in the Cork Marathon of 1986 – recording a personal best time of 2:54:57 for the distance. She is one of the most enthusiastic and inspiring figures in athletics and her passion for the sport is as evident today as it was all those years ago.  

“I would still encourage people to get involved in sport because the self-esteem and confidence gained is invaluable. Everyone is important and can make a difference, whether you’re elite or down the field,” sums up this remarkable pioneer who has certainly left her own historic mark on women's athletics in Cork.


 

 

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