Meeting The Iron Man Of Irish Cycling
I WAS led on a pleasant detour by Caherciveen butcher and golfer Jimmy Curran to meet somebody known as ‘The Iron Man’, on account of his exploits as a cyclist back in the 1950s. Cycling as a sport was gaining popularity back then, and the annual stage race around Ireland, An Ras Tailteann, now known as the FBD Insurance Ras, was responsible for a great deal of it.
The Christle brothers, especially the late big man Joe, were the principal organisers and their motivation came from a nationalistic fervour and a love of all aspects of Irish culture. They were inspired by the Tour de France and had a vision of developing such a spectacle in Ireland in their time. Joe Christle was a great character and a brilliant organiser and I cannot recall an occasion when we spoke other than in Irish. He was married to a French lady, Mimi Battutt. Years later, I taught Mel Christle, one of Joe and Mimi’s three boxing sons, when I was on the teaching staff at O’Connell School in North Richmond St, Dublin.
Joe served a few prison sentences due to his involvement in republican causes, but he remained as Ras Director until 1972. The whole family served cycling well but one of them, Ando, was sadly killed near Tralee following an accident during the Ras of 1954. He had returned from England to help in the running of the race, and was driving a motorbike out of Tralee to watch his brother Colm in the closing stages. The leaders had already crossed the finishing line, but Colm had had a day of puncture problems so he was well behind; concern for him was the reason for Ando’s drive out of town, which finished in that fatal accident. Understandably, all members of the Gate Club, which included the Christles, retired from the race.
Those and other thoughts from the past were on my mind as Jimmy Curran and I approached the home of the Iron Man, Mike Murphy, a unique type of champion who hit the headlines in a major way in the course of winning the 1958 Ras. When I entered the house, I was expecting to see mementos from his sporting days, but the opposite was the case. Conventional furnishings were Spartan, in keeping with his lifestyle of the past 60 years: books, magazines, newspapers and an assortment of timber planks took up most of the space and he kindly fixed up a wooden seat for us, which was comfortable. Time did not seem to matter and I felt he was far more anxious to talk about topics other than cycling during our stay. I would naturally have preferred the reverse, considering it was cycling that had made him famous, but I let him speak as he wished and still managed to get a good insight into hiscycling escapades.
He was a man who had left school early and had learned how to read and write from his mother, but he amazed me with his detailed knowledge of the Hapsburg dynasty in Europe and the Royals of Spain and how they had influenced the history of Europe. It was the same when it came to the Papacy; it soon became clear that this semi-mystic had read a lot.
He is conscious of the benefits of a good diet when in training, and maintains that this knowledge helped him in his cycling days: “raw foods are best – meat, eggs, cheese, vegetables, honey – and I always took quantities of cows’ blood when I felt it was needed.” He told me how he always carried a penknife with him and knew how to extract blood from a cow’s vein without causing any damage.
He was anxious to tell me about his circus acting, something that started by accident when he was very young: “My neighbour Joe Burke performed with touring circuses that came this way now and then, and he took me on as his assistant at the age of 12.I was very interested in their training methods, weights and all of that, and before long I made my own gym here in the house.”
An incredible number of weights of all sizes, obviously home-made with concrete, were on display along with the iron bars required for lifting and squatting. They certainly played a part in his fairytale rise to the position of champion cyclist of Ireland in 1958 because he was known as a man with phenomenal strength, but he seemed more interested in telling me about history and his circus life before talking about the bike racing: “I learned how to move along upside-down using my feet, going from rung to rung of a ladder suspended above a stage. I could balance objects on my chin. I was a fire-eater. I could walk on my hands and performed those tricks on the streets of London and in other places years later when I needed money. One time, a man in London issued a challenge to race hand-walking from Brighton to London, taking rests every now and then. I volunteered to take him on, but he never showed up.”
We eventually got around to talk about cycling. By then, I had spotted a small photograph of a man on a bicycle above the fireplace and I went to inspect it. It was a photo of the Iron Man. I learned later that this, the only visible souvenir, referred to a stage of the famous Ras of 1958 when he confounded the cycling world by winning.
His interest in cycling developed from attending carnivals and sports meets all over Kerry, where prizes were offered to the winners – sometimes in the form of cash. Distance was not a problem, as he explained himself: “I remember leaving here on a common bike one day to cycle the 60 miles to Camp to take part in a cycle race. I won the race and cycled back home again.” Sometimes he might not return but stay, set up circus acts, sleep rough and prepare for a meet coming up shortly in another town.
From his circus connections he got the latest information on training techniques, and by 1956, he had decided to try and take on the best in cycling. Training then became more intensive, but due to his day job as a farm labourer, he did a lot of his training on the mountains by night. The final preparation for the 1958 Ras was carried out in a private camp close to Banteer in Cork, where he was working as a labourer. He created another ‘gym’ in a quiet wooded spot, trained as never before, gave up work, did stunts in Cork City and felt really ready for the Ras.
As usual, the Ras Tailteann began outside the GPO in Dublin and the 1958 race was the longest ever staged – 1,494km over eight gruelling days. “I believed in striking to the front any chance I got and defied others to beat me,” was how Mike explained his pre-race plan to me. He was not too concerned about team tactics or other race customs: “I had confidence in myself.”
Tom Daly’s account of the race is given in his excellent book simply called The Ras, which charts the history of the race from 1953 to 2002.
Stage 1 – Dublin to Wexford: Won by Dan Ahern of Kerry with the unknown Murphy claiming second place.
Stage 2 – Wexford to Kilkenny: The Iron Man disregarded established etiquette, rode solo away from the bunch and arrived in Kilkenny on his own. It was a performance that left the Ras astonished. The race leader’s yellow jersey was his. Legend tells that he then rode off that evening wearing the yellow jersey, did a 30-mile training spin, stopped at a stone wall, and with selected stones “did weights” for a hour before drawing blood from a cow and returning to base. It is believed he did the transfusion three times during the Ras.
Stage 3 – Kilkenny to Clonakilty: A remarkable stage, with Murphy well ahead of a scattered field on the climb at Watergrasshill outside Cork. But disaster struck when his bike failed on the run into Glanmire. He was at a stand-still and the field swept by and disappeared from view. Suddenly a farmer appeared at a gap holding on to an ordinary bicycle. This gave Iron Man an idea, and in a jiffy he was on the substitute, leaving astartled farmer behind holding another bike. In time,the team car reached Mike and gave him the spare racer. He chased for 40 miles and caught sight of the bunch close to Clonakilty and was with them at the finishand safely holding onto the yellow jersey.
Stage 4 – Clonakilty to Tralee: It was familiar territory to him, but he struck a bridge on a downhill bend near Glengarriff and fell heavily, damaging a shoulder and hip as well as putting his bike out of commission. Gene Mangan realised the gravity of the situation and gave Murphy his bike, on which he finished in a wrecked state in eighth place. He was taken to hospital but appeared for the next stage the following morning.
Stage 5 – Tralee to Nenagh: It was not a memorable stage for the injured warrior, but he did clock in six places behind the winner, Gene Mangan.
Stage 6 – Nenagh to Castlebar: Mangan won again, but Murphy pulled away from the main bunch shortly before the finish and gained a little on his rivals and held onto the yellow jersey with comfort.
Stage 7 – Castlebar to Sligo: Murphy started well in this stage and had a minute’s advantage when he crashed near Castlerea. On remounting, he rode the wrong way for a while, possibly suffering from concussion, but he soon turned and finished with the bunch, with the irrepressible Mangan winning once more.
Stage 8 – Sligo to Dublin: Though showing signs of injury, the Iron Man refused to ride conservatively over the final stage and attacked early, with Meathmen Ben McKenna and Willie Heasley. They were joined before the finish by Gene Mangan, and it was he who crossed the line in first place to create a record of four stage wins in a row that still stands. But the Iron Man from Su Greine, Caherciveen, was a comfortable overall winner of the Ras by four minutes and 44 seconds.
MURPHY was now a celebrity in the sporting world, but he remained the private, enigmatic figure he had always been. Both work and money were scarce, but he did compete again in 1959 and 1960. He recalled his defence of the title in 1959 as follows: “After getting to Dublin, I slept on the street and then took my place at the start the following day. I won two stages.” He finished third overall in 1960 and was crowned King of the Hills as well.
Like many others, he was forced to emigrate to England, in 1960, which really ended his career on the bike. When work got scarce in England, around 1990, he moved to Germany and in his own words “we built that country” – by ‘we’ he meant another 10 or 11 in the group as well as himself. “I stayed too long,” he admits with a tinge of regret, “I got a fall and was not fit for that work again.”
He is now back where his life began, but whether home or away, the ‘Iron Man’ will never be forgotten as long as the romance of bike racing lives on. God only knows what else he might have accomplished if the sponsorship and training facilities of modern times had been available to him, that dedicated, natural competitor.
– Micheal O Muircheartaigh