The Early Days:
And individually the border club were winning races all over the place with Kookie O’Hagan, John Browne, Padraig Lynch and Martin Patterson crossing the line first in triathlons the length and breadth of the nation. But back to the start... Triathlon began in the Newry area one wet June night in 1983 when Pauline Lamph of the Newry and Mourne Council brought this new sport to the locality.
The Newry race was one of the first triathlons in Ireland (I think there were only two previous ones) and back then the sport hadn’t even started in England - although it was getting a foothold in places like Holland, Belgium and Germany.
Many of the competitors in the Newry race could hardly swim and the assortment of rusty, sit-up-and-beg bikes would have a present day triathlete laughing for a week. And by the way it stated in the rules that each bike must have a BELL or HORN affixed. Anyway in those days the run was first (5.5 miles from the swimming pool up the Camlough Road and round the Derramore Road and back to the pool). Then it was the swim (1000-metres) before a 12-mile cycle to Warrenpoint and back. Lots of competitors travelled from Dublin and far off parts of Ulster. Many of these got lost on the bike leg. John O’Hanlon, a current top man in Masters swimming, was fifth overall and the first local, behind winner Newcastle’s Trevor Spiers, Belfast’s Gordon Murray, Con O’Callaghan, and Joe Wright.
Others who dipped their toe in this strange sport that night were: Dessie McParland who was sixth, Kookie O’Hagan, sporting long hair down to his waist, Brendan O’Hagan, the Newry Triathlon Club’s first chairman, John Browne, who came from Omagh to work in Newry and became one of our biggest triathlon stars (and an extremely popular guy too) and Sean Hughes, the only man who competed that evening and has competed since on a regular basis. Some others who lined up that night were: Tony Bagnall, Brendan Campbell (one of the fastest marathon runners from the Newry area with a pb of 2.37), Larry Fox, Geoffrey McCracken (World Transplant swimming gold medallist and world record-holder), Eddie O’Hagan, Francie Craven and channel conqueror Peter Legge.
After that triathlon the Newry and Mourne Council picked a team to compete in the Ulster Championships at Craigavon and that team comprised: Brendan Campbell, Tony Bagnall, Peter Legge, Larry Fox and Dessie McParland, the latter who carried in a wee bag on his bike a puncture repair kit plus two big spoons.
The next year (1984) triathlon fever bit deeply and Newry founded a club with Brendan O’Hagan its first chairman. Also Tony Bagnall became a committee member of the first Ulster Triathlon committee that had Con O’Callaghan as chairman. And at one of those meetings, unbelievably world champion Mark Allen appeared.
Meanwhile Newry were producing winners: for example in the late eighties Kookie O’Hagan won quite a few races, including Ulster Championship victories in Warrenpoint, the Tramore Metalman, Ballymena, Dublin City and Rush. A funny incident at Rush: Kookie crossed the finish line - in both directions. He had taken a wrong turn near the end but he still had enough to hand to go back and still win.
Also the talented O’Hagan, who incidentally never trained in swimming and amazingly was never far off the pace in the water, completed the 1987 Hawaiian Ironman, the only Newry person ever to do so, and was once fifth at the Irish half-Ironman Championships in Sligo. By the way Sligo was the big race in the eighties and early nineties, a race that always had fields of over 400.
Tony Bagnall twice won the Irish veterans’ title at Sligo and four times made the top twenty (he could run a wee bit then). John Brown was another Newry winner, taking first place at the Dublin Airport race in the eighties and he added various other successes including victory in Ballymena. Martin Patterson also won at Ballymena and added a first place the Cuchulainn (Enniskillen) Triathlon for good measure.
Also the dedicated Brown won a high-profile trial (that took place in the Newry area) for selection for the Irish team to travel to participate in the European Team Championships at Mansfield. Another teak-tough Newry triathlete, Padraig Lynch was second and he also went to Mansfield. This duo was the first from the locality to win triathlon representation honours. Quite a few Newry men and women followed Brown and Lynch in representing Ulster and Ireland and these include Martin Patterson and Greencastle girl Mary McElroy, the pair selected to travel to Auckland for the 1990 Commonwealth Games as part of the Northern Ireland squad. That was a huge honour with over 20,000 spectators watching the race that was started by Prince Edward. Both members of the Newry club finished strongly in a world-class field.
Kookie, along with Martin Patterson and Padraig Lynch, travelled to Trier, in West Germany for the European half-Ironman Championships: incidentally Newry triathletes made up three-quarters of that four-strong Irish team - the odd one out being Belfast’s Noel Munnis. Also Kookie, John and Padraig were picked for the European Championships in Milton Keynes. Tony Bagnall represented Ireland twice in the European Ironman Championships in Almere Holland. Both times he was the second Irish person to finish and on the last occasion (1991) he took the Irish Over-45 Ironman record with a time of 11.20. Shortly after that race he was also named Ulster Triathlete of the Year.
But as well as the good times, there were some bad times too. John Brown was knocked down by a drunk driver in Warrenpoint while taking part in an exhibition triathlon, organised by the Newry and Mourne Council and featuring many of the top European triathletes. Top Ironman champion Rab Barel (Netherlands) won the race. That injury stopped John from competing in the Hawaiian Ironman race just a few months later. He had entered along with Kookie.
Even more serious was Padraig Lynch being hit by a car on the Dublin Road and suffering a life-threatening leg injury. A person at the scene of the accident said his leg was almost cut off at the knee. It was first feared he would die and then it was thought that he would never walk again. But five months later the super-strong Lynch was actually running. By the way a few days before Padraig’s injury he was second in Skerries in a race that boasted one of the best Irish fields ever assembled.
The Newry Triathlon Club won the Irish Championship team prize in Sligo three times: 1987, 1989 and 1990 with triathletes such as Padraig Lynch, Brendan Campbell, Kookie O’Hagan, Tony Bagnall and Martin Patterson as part of the squad.
And on the strength of that last success Newry Tri Club won the Senior Team prize in the 1991 Sports Awards.
Furthermore between 1988 and 1990 the Newry club hosted and staged the Ulster Championship Olympic distance races at Warrenpoint: and on one of those occasions, as earlier stated, Kookie O’Hagan was the overall winner. Plus at the turn of the century Newry once more organised a major race. At Carlingford, mostly through the efforts of Martin Patterson, Sean Hughes and Myrtle Copeland, the border club hosted the Irish Sprint Championships three years in row. In the nineties Martin Patterson, Sean Hughes and former chairman Jim Belton kept the Newry flag flying, by competing in races such as the Liam Ball Triathlon and the Sligo Half-Ironman.