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

Mid Louth Independent - - NEWS SPECIAL | OBITUARIES -

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.

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