John Henry Bailey was a well known business man in Galway at the close of the 19th century. He was a rate collector and an auctioneer but was better known for his selling and repairing Morris cars from his garage on the east side of Eyre Square, on a site now remembered as the former Odeon Hotel. He also had the distinction of being the first man in Galway to ride a bicycle.
His sons, Frank and Harry, followed him into the motor business. Frank expanded the bicycle trade which was becoming a very popular mode of pleasure and transport. Both brothers were well liked, and Frank is best remembered for his happy manner, cheerful disposition, and the unusual athletic feats he performed. When the River Corrib became frozen in the winter of 1904 he cycled up the river to Menlo castle and back.
In August 1906, in the same spirit of adventure, he announced to his friends that he intended to race the train from Clifden to Galway on his bicycle, a distance of fifty miles. His friends were delighted with such a novel idea, and word quickly spread. The people of Galway awaited the outcome with excitement and pleasure.
The train was supposed make the journey in 1 hour 50 minutes, but often took very much longer. The road, however, while fairly flat, was not in good repair. It was only tarred on the home stretch from Oughterard. Frank would have to average 20mph on what was largely unsurfaced roads to beat the train, but hoping for good luck, and the usual delays that kept the train lingering at some stations, and blessed by a born optimism, he just might make it. The day before the event, Frank took the train to Clifden, and had a good night’s sleep.
As the train pulled out of Clifden the next morning, with a shrill whistle, Frank set off happy to feel a good wind at his back. The passengers on the train knew about the race, and whenever they caught a glimpse of Frank they cheered him on.
At first he surged ahead but the train soon ran parallel to him as he ‘belted away his feet going like egg-beaters’, and then passed him out steaming along until it stopped at Ballynahinch. While the train was stopped Frank had the race to himself, and he made up the distance thanking God for the seven stations along the track. By the time he came to Peacock’s, at Maam Cross, he was aching all over, and reckoned he had time for a quick rest.
He stopped and ran into the dining room ‘just as Mrs Peacock came in with a fresh pot of tea. As Frank ate and drank, she told him how the station-master had phoned ahead from Recess, and the station-master at Maam had sent a porter over to let them know that Frank was just ahead of the train, so she was able to time making the tea so it would be just right’.
Refreshed, Frank set out again pushing hard on the poor roads. As he reached the top of the hill before Oughterard he saw the last of the carriages rounding the corner about a mile ahead of him. ‘He hurtled down the hill into the village throwing caution to the wind, and as he reached the tarred road, he saw the smoke of the train leaving the station’. But the going from now on would be easier.
The road as far as Roscahill was level, and with the occasional glimpses that he had of the train showed that he was gaining. Up the hill into Moycullen he could see the train amongst the trees on his left. He was neck and neck, and all the more reason to push down on the pedals even harder.
Then, as he was beginning to really feel the strain, to his surprise he began to meet other cyclists, and horse drawn vehicles bearing crowds of well wishers, who had heard of his exploit and had come out from Galway to see for themselves.
As he rounded a corner four miles from his destination he felt the wind at his back, and spurred on by the well wishes from the people on the roadside, all of which gave him renewed energy to press on…. ‘he ignored saddle sores, which were bleeding by now, shoulders which felt as though they were dislocated, and legs without feeling, yet he managed to increase his speed and could see as he approached Bushy Park, he was ahead of the train which was puffing away close to the river, by about 200 yards’.
He reached the top of the hill, and while the train had the shorter route to follow, Frank knew it had to slow down to negotiate the bends leading to the bridge, and to the station at Galway. People were beginning to run along beside him, and to follow on bicycles and carts.
With one more gigantic effort ‘he catapulted himself down the hill, through Newcastle, past the university, over the Salmon Weir Bridge, and as he did so he could see the train just reaching the bridge across the Corrib…down Eglinton Street, around Eyre Square, until he screeched to a stop at the station a bare 30 seconds before the train pulled in and stopped’.
The crowd erupted with joy. Frank was carried shoulder high around the Square by a cheering crowd.
Sources: The Connacht Sentinel August 19 1906, used by Maurice Semple in his book: Memories: Corribwise and Otherwise, published 1999.
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