Gay was the true king of Stamullen
GERARD CROMWELL LOOKS BACK AT THE LIFE AND TIMES OF CYCLING GREAT WHO DID SO MUCH FOR CHARITY TOO - GABRIEL HOWARD
GABRIEL Howard’s lifelong love affair with the sport of cycling began in the early 60s when his father Pat encouraged him to join St. Patrick’s Cycling Club as a teenager.
His passion for the Rás Tailteainn started when he first travelled with the race on the back of a motorbike with his friend and club mate, the late Larry Dunne, in 1963 and one year later he found himself at the start line and on the way to completing the first of a record 21 Rás finishes, despite breaking a wrist with six days to go in the 1975 edition.
Overlooked for selection for Meath in 1964, Gabriel secured a berth on his first Rás with the Derry team after his father Pat agreed to pay the substantial amount of £15 to cover his costs for the race.
At the time, the GAA were part of the governing body for the sport and as such gave medals to the first four riders overall from each province. Upon finishing 19th overall on his Ras debut he was awarded an Ulster championship medal by the GAA for his efforts.
As a competitor he won the longest stage of the race into Birr in 1965, finished second on numerous stages, took third overall, fourth overall twice and fifth overall twice and probably remains the only Meath man to have won an Ulster football championship medal and a Leinster football championship medal without ever kicking a ball.
On 7 th February 1970 his second life long love affair began when he married girlfriend Kay McDonnell from Hollywood, North Co. Dublin, and since that day the couple were ever present at races around Ireland. When Gabriel went into race organisation years later, Kay was always at his side. They came as a team and it was no surprise when in 2015 both were awarded lifetime honorary memberships of Cycling Ireland for their tireless contribution to the sport.
“I’m blessed,” Gabriel said of Kay in a 2015 interview. “I’m married to the best lady in the country. There’s no doubt about that. She’s interested in cycling and she does more for cycling than most people in this country. She runs more races - on the quiet, nobody even knows she’s there. As Gerard Campbell from Drogheda Wheelers said when he heard we weren’t going to be at his race as we’re going to the Tour de France, he could do without a loud-mouth like me but he couldn’t do without Kay. She does all the results, all the publicity, for all of the local clubs and races in the area and I’m blessed to have her by my side. ”
In 1972, Gabriel was selected for an unofficial Irish team sent to the 1972 Olympics in Munich by the National Cycling Association.
Back then, cycling was divided into three fractions, with the 32 county NCA riders the only ones not allowed to represent Ireland internationally. To gain recognition and protest the fact that they weren’t allowed compete, an Irish team were sent to Munich to infiltrate the Olympic road race. While it caused uproar in the international media at the time, that demonstration eventually helped get the different groups talking to each other and finally paved the way to uniting the three cycling bodies under what is now the Cycling Ireland umbrella.
When he finished racing his bike, Gay decided to build up his own club, Stamullen Road Club, and ushered in a whole new underage section to the club in the 80s, spending the rest of his life ferrying riders to and from races in Ireland and abroad alongside wife Kay.
Soon Stamullen became synonymous with the sport of cycling and the club became renowned throughout the country, producing numerous Leinster champions, three national champions, a Rás stage winner and a Rás King of the Mountains jersey wearer.
His son Seamus was part of a three man team that dominated the national championships at U18 level in 1995, winning both the individual and team prize that year and the club were frequently invited to races in the UK and Europe.
Rás Tailteainn though remained Gaybo’s favourite and straight after he finished competing in the event he acted as neutral service for the race for the following 30 years and also reported live from the event for LMFM radio over the years.
While he earned great respect for his willingness to help any rider from any country with any problem during the race’s eight days, as a Meath man, Gaybo got the most joy out of seeing riders from the Royal County do well and none more so than when Stamullen riders Bill Moore won a stage in 2005 and Colin Robinson took the Mountains jersey on the opening day four years later.
“Gabriel Howard has probably driven me more than 50,000 miles to and from races over the years and I owe that Ras stage win to him and Kay, his wife,” says Moore, who is now living in New Zealand.
“It’s the reason I’d never left Stamullen Road Club since joining it as a schoolboy, because quite simply they have been better to me than anyone can ever imagine. I just remember Gabriel crying after I won. He had supported me since 1988 when I first took up cycling and he absolutely loved the Rás, so to win a stage on a Meath team filled with those lads from Stamullen that I’d grown up with was extra special.”
Apart from nurturing riders from his own club, the open door policy in the Howard household saw cyclists from the four corners of Ireland spend their youth in Stamullen in order to be able to race more frequently in Leinster, where most of the races were based.
Riders like Tommy Mannion, Eugene Moriarty, Robert Power, David Hourigan and Paul Slane went on to become household names in Irish cycling, as did American rider Greg Swinand, who
first arrived in Ireland from Boston 19 years ago.
“When I first moved to Ireland, my best buddy in Boston, Tommy Mannion, gave me Gay Howard’s number and told me to contact him,” says New Jersey born Swinand.
“Tommy had practically lived in Gay’s house in the 80s and Gay was driving him to races and looking after him. When I first came over, Gay made sure I had a lift to races. He’d phone people and tell them to give me a lift to races. He was a unique character and was always on the riders’ side if there was any sort of dispute or problem. I remember my first nationals in Ireland; they had messed up my license, and as I wasn’t yet an Irish citizen there was some question over whether I’d be allowed to ride, but Gay jumped in to argue my case. The next year was sorted with a rule introduced saying permanent residents on Irish club teams could ride but not be champions.”
Gay’s love of cycling meant that for years family holidays abroad often coincided with major races like the Tour de France where Irish riders like Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche and in latter years the new generation of Dan Martin, Philip Deignan, Sam Bennett and Nicolas Roche were familiar with the sight of the Stamullen man greeting them at the line.
“Having started out racing against my dad and being a big supporter of his, Gay then turned into one of my biggest supporters when I started racing as a kid,” says current Irish professional Nicolas Roche.
“It was always great to turn up at a race like Fleche-Wallone or the Tour de France and see Gay and his wife Kay and son Seamus there with an Irish flag and a big smile. I don’t think I’ve started a single race in the last 15 years as a pro without getting a good luck text from him beforehand. If my morale was low I could always count on him to give me a lift. He always had a kind word and gave me so much support and I really appreciated it over the years. It was devastating to hear he had passed away and he will be a big loss, not only to me but to the many other Irish cyclists he has helped along the way. He was a true legend of Irish cycling and a great friend.”
As well as being renowned in cycling circles, Gabriel loved horse racing and was a regular at the Cheltenham Festival as well as Fairyhouse, Leopardstown and Bellewstown while his job working with potatoes brought him around the country where he made some great friends in the farming community.
In Stamullen village though he will forever be remembered for his friendly nature and his charity work in the area.
His first major involvement in fund raising for his home village came despite breaking his wrist in that 1975 edition of the Rás. A day after the race ended, with his wrist in a cast, he still honoured a promise to cycle coast to coast from Stamullen to Galway and back – a continuous 300 mile round trip that raised enough funds to see the first ever community centre in Stamullen built and he continued to organise charity functions ever since.
Never one to shy away from a microphone, his ready wit and outgoing nature meant he was first port of call whenever there was a charity event to be organised and over the years he helped raise thousands of euros for various local groups and families in need in the area.
“When we bought this pub about 16 years ago, we put a little charity committee together and asked Gaybo to join us,” says Brendan Battersby, owner of Whyte’s Bar and Lounge in Stamullen. “Of course, by then he had been organising charity events in the village for decades and after our first meeting he said we were the worst committee he’d ever seen but we had the potential to help a lot of people. After that, he was the one who kept us on our toes. He was the one that held everything together, and we went on to raise a lot of money for families and community groups in the area. Any child that was sick in the area; he held auctions, draws, poker classics, charity cycles, anything to raise money to help with medical expenses or whatever they needed. It was all down to him and I honestly don’t know what we’re going to do now. He was a father figure in the village. Everyone knew him and he knew everyone. He was one in a million. There’s never going to be the same energy in this village again. He was the King of Stamullen.”
Gay’s willingness to help anyone and everyone, whether at cycle races or through his charity work saw a huge turnout at his wake and funeral, with people from all over the country forming a two hour long queue that took ten hours to pass through his house to pay their respects.
Such was his popularity, that all roads leading to the village of Stamullen were closed down by the Gardai the morning of his funeral and shuttle buses had to be run from St. Patrick’s GAA club to the packed church to accommodate the crowd, most of whom listened to the service on speakers outside.
He was given a guard of honour by the motorcycle marshals from the Rás and also from the riders, old and new, of his beloved Stamullen Road Club.
Gabriel’s wife Kay, daughters Siobhan and Sinead and son Seamus, sister Olive, brother Dessie and extended family would like to express their sincere gratitude to all those who called to the house, attended the removal and funeral mass and offered mass cards, letters of sympathy and gave donations to Our Ladies Hospital for Sick children in Crumlin.
A special word of thanks also to Father Declan Kelly, Johnny McQuillan, Alison (Blood) O’Leary and Elaine Blood for the beautiful funeral service, the ladies from the village who provided tea and food for the huge volume of people at the wake, and our neighbouring cycling clubs and St. Patrick’s GAA club for their help in our time of need.
In good mood...Gay
With wife kay, son Seamus and daughters Sinead and Siobhan at his 70th birthday in 2016.
Being interviewed at the Tour de France
Left: Gay in his racing days and above, Gay on the mic.