Peter O’Reilly (1955 – 1978)- by Brian Manning
Peter O’Reilly was only 23 years old when on Sunday the 17th of September 1978, he crashed heavily during the Formula Ford 1600 consolation race at Ratra Corner at the Phoenix Park Motor Races, and tragically lost his life. Remarkably given the dangers involved, Peter’s accident was the sole fatality in 67 race meetings at the Phoenix Park held between 1903 and 2012.
In this article we will look back at Peter’s life, and the events of that sad day in 1978, including interviews with those who knew him best, his family, teammates and fellow drivers and others who were there that day. The circumstances of how that day unfolded will be examined from eye-witness accounts of the accident, and from others who were there at the Phoenix Park, many of whom still recall Peter with great fondness.
Born in to a northside family of seven children to Jimmy and Phyllis O’Reilly on June 28th, 1955, Peter was first brought up in The Ward in north county Dublin not far from Dublin Airport. Peter was the first boy following older sister Helena. Then came Mary, James, Breda, Thomas, and the youngest Catherine. The family moved to Pinewood Avenue in Glasnevin, where Peter attended Beneavin De La Salle College. Peter was not very academically inclined so when an opportunity to move to England presented itself, he left school not long after his 16th birthday.
After a year away, Peter returned to Dublin to take up an offer of a job at Downes Bakery in Finglas, makers of Butterkrust sliced bread. Blessed with a cheerful personality and abundant charm, Peter took to his new position as van driver and delivery man with gusto and was soon one of the highest performing salesmen in the company. His closest friend, and fellow van driver at the bakery, John Abbott recalls first meeting Peter.
“Peter and myself were both van salesmen for the bakery although we didn’t know one another at the time. We both met in Walden’s Ford garage when we were both buying cars, and that’s when we became good friends. As we finished work early, we were always looking for something to do, playing snooker, or drinking lots of tea in his mother’s house. One day Peter suggested we go down to Mondello Racing School to try it out. We had a great time, so we went back time and again and Peter really got into it.
One day he said I’m going to buy a race car and he sold his Cortina to buy his first race car, a Van Diemen he bought from Pat McConnell. When Peter put his mind to something, he really went for it. From then on, my car became the tow truck. He then had to buy a trailer, so off to Dundalk we went to get a trailer. As you know racing is expensive, he tried to get some sponsorships but to no avail, he did it all himself. Thanks to a few friends we would all chip in to sometimes buy petrol. I would see Peter walking around the Mondello Park paddock looking to borrow parts like gears or whatever was needed to race. The race crowd were a good group of people. He would go regularly to Mondello to practice and try to get better times. Peter really got a great buzz for racing. He was a natural, had no fear and he loved driving. His time came too fast.”
It was also at the bakery where Peter would meet two of the mechanics that looked after the fleet of diesel and battery powered delivery vans, Brian Campion and Larry Dempsey. Peter, who now had a growing love of speed, was determined to get started with motor racing and he would call on Brian and Larry to be his mechanics. Using bonus money from his earnings at the bakery, the generosity of his friends, and some small sponsorships he had cultivated, Peter started racing his Van Diemen in 1977. Despite his lack of experience and race craft, Peter soon started to be noticed and even won a “Talking Point” award for the most talked-about driver at a race meeting in 1977.
For the 1978 season Peter had big plans, teaming up with Pat McConnell and fellow newcomer (but soon to be future star) Tommy Byrne both from Dundalk to form Team MBR Dundalk. Both Pat and Peter would be driving brand new Crosslé 32F FF1600s, with Tommy also in a new chassis from PRS. All three cars would carry Minister built engines.
Long time FF1600, FF2000 and Formula Opel Lotus racer, PJ Fallon recalled his early interactions with Peter O’Reilly as he set out the 1978 Irish Formula Ford Championship season.
“In 1978, I had not gotten to know Peter that well as he was not doing Formula Ford for very long. But what I can recall was he was making good progress and was getting up to speed. The more senior guys were taking note and I think he had upset a few. Like Tommy Byrne, who was also relatively new to the scene, he didn’t lack in confidence but getting the funding was always the difficulty. Any conversations with him were him looking for set up advice and how to go about securing funding. His brother James was a really nice guy and we spoke on many occasions.”
The 1978 Phoenix Park Motor Races would take place on September 16th and 17th and would be the 40th full race meeting at the famed Dublin venue. This would be the first time since 1960 that the original “Hawthorn” circuit configuration would be used. This layout was reviewed and signed-off on by Britain’s first Formula 1 World Champion Mike Hawthorn on January 15th, 1959, just days before he was to be killed in a car crash outside London.
The “Extended Hawthorn” circuit, incorporating the St. Mary’s Loop had been in use from 1968 to 1976, until road modifications made that layout impossible to use. In 1977 the “Hawthorn” circuit, minus the Ratra hairpin was used but it was felt that the high speeds being achieved from Mountjoy to Dublin corner were unsafe, so the Ratra hairpin was added back in for 1978.
This was to be Peter and Tommy Byrne’s first outing at the Phoenix Park and Tommy, for his part, was nervous.
“Thinking back on it, Peter should not have been racing at the Park, and I should not have been there either, or Pat for that matter! We just had no experience, but we were racers and we all had new cars that we were excited to be driving at the Park. Peter was still learning his craft and had failed to qualify for the Formula Ford 1600 final. I sought out my friend Martin Boyle to help him with setting up the car on Saturday evening so he might have a chance to make the final on Sunday.”
Martin Boyle, another up and coming Formula Ford 1600 driver, recalls meeting Peter and helping him with his car set up that weekend.
“I had just known Peter to say hello to as he was just starting out in FF1600 really. I think he hadn’t made it through to the Final on the Saturday and Tommy asked me if I could do the gears for him as he had only Mondello ratios which were way too low. We would change the Mondello Park gearing for the Park as the top speeds were so much higher. The first gear from Mondello needed for Shell and Dunlop would be replaced by the 2nd gear, then 3rd for 2nd, 4th for 3rd and then you would put in a high top gear to get the speeds up to as much as 135 mph on the back straight. I changed gears for Peter either on the Saturday evening or Sunday morning, probably the Saturday as the Consolation final was on early on Sunday for the last few places in the Final. I had been on Pole for the heat and was on the front row with Jay Pollock in the works Crosslé for the final on Sunday afternoon and my mind was focused on that.”
The Sunday morning at the Phoenix Park dawned mild and overcast with temperatures in the low teens, and an ever-present threat of showers that did not materialise. Massive crowds were present all weekend, and in fact estimates put the total attendance for the weekend at more than 100,000 people.
Amongst the hordes of fans were future F1 journalist and commentator Declan Quigley who was very excited to be attending his first Phoenix Park event at the tender age of 12, accompanied by his older brother.
After spending the Saturday in the Paddock admiring the machinery, they had set out early on the Sunday morning to secure a prime viewing spot at Ratra, the hairpin at the end of the back straight. Declan recalls being told by a traveling motorbike marshal that he could not sit on the wall at the exit of Ratra and reluctantly he swung his legs over the wall to watch the cars coming out of the slow hairpin corner.
Back in the paddock, fellow Dundalk natives Maurice and Rose Roddy were busy preparing breakfast for the Team MBR crew out of Pat McConnell’s Comer van. The O’Reilly family were also out in force. Peter had stayed at the circuit overnight along with his brothers James and Thomas, sisters Helena and Catherine, along with mechanics Brian Campion and Larry Dempsey. Peter’s parents were in England on holiday. The first session of the Sunday’s programme, an untimed practice for Formula Atlantic began at 9:20 AM, and the Formula Ford 1600 Consolation race was scheduled to be green flagged at 10:00 AM.
Ratra, located close to the Hole-in-the-Wall public house, was the northernmost corner of the 2.12-mile Hawthorn circuit in the Phoenix Park. It was by some margin the slowest of the three major corners after Mountjoy and Dublin corners with a nearly 60-degree angle at the apex.
The drivers would approach the corner taking a wide approach on the left, looking to cut the apex as much as possible, exiting wide on the left close to the depression that ran along side the wall of Ratra House. Adding to the challenge of the corner was a noticeable left kink on the entrance close to the braking point, after a long 25-30 second flat out straight after the exit from Mountjoy. A Formula Atlantic could hit 170 mph on the back straight, while a Formula Ford 1600 would top out close to 135 mph.
For the Phoenix Park Motor Races, The Motor Racing Marshals Club of Ireland (MRMCI) would need to bolster their ranks as the circuit was almost twice as long as Mondello Park at the time. The Park was always very popular with British marshals who would travel across the Irish Sea in numbers from the glamour circuits of Silverstone, Brands Hatch and Donington Park. The visitors all relished the amazing atmosphere of the Phoenix Park, the camaraderie of the Irish marshals, and the chance to experience the only true road course still in existence in either Ireland or Britain. Contingents of volunteers from the other motor clubs in Ireland would also volunteer to assist the Irish Motor Racing Club in the manning of the various posts around the circuit.
In 1978, Ratra was staffed by members of the Motor Enthusiasts Club. Bob Elliot was the Corner/Sector Chief, and was assisted by marshals Dougie Hughes and Pat Naismith, along with flaggers Frank Ramsbottom and Pat O’Connor. Also stationed at Ratra that day was an ambulance and medical team, along with a newly qualified doctor, Donal McSorley, who would go on to be the leading motor sports medical officer in Ireland throughout the next two decades.
Pat O’Connor would be stationed at the flag position drivers’-left at the entrance to Ratra along with Frank Ramsbottom. They would both have a front row vantage point for the upcoming Formula Ford 1600 consolation race. Pat was a founder member of the MRMCI and was himself a competitor and class winner in the Circuit of Ireland Rally. He recounts a day that he still carries fresh in his memory after over 43 years.
“The morning air still had a distinct chill to it by the time racing started and I noticed that the grass was very wet with morning dew either side of the track. Frank and I were “face-to-face” flagging with me on blue flag looking at the oncoming cars and Frank facing me looking back toward the apex of Ratra corner. There was also another yellow flagger right at the apex to cover the exit of the corner. It was the second lap of the race and the leaders had already gone through when I saw Peter O’Reilly approach the corner in about sixth place about to make an overtaking attempt down the inside of the car in front. We were right on the roadside edge with no barrier only three or four bales of straw for protection. You know from experience both watching the lines of the cars and listening to the engine sounds and being so close to the track you get to really sense the cars.
As he tried to pass, Peter misjudged his manoeuvre and his front right got up on the grass. From there on he was a passenger as the car shot off through the infield and he had no chance to stop on the wet grass. I frantically shouted to Frank ‘Flag! Flag! Flag!’ to wave his yellow to warn the following cars because I knew there and then he was going to have a huge accident.”
Peter O’Reilly was estimated to be still traveling at well over 90 mph when he veered onto the grass on the right side cutting right across the corner. Exiting Ratra in third place was Fernon de Monge in a Crosslé 16F, and he was struck with immense force by Peter’s car on the right side, causing Peter’s car to enter a spin. With no run-off area in front of the wall at Ratra House, Peter’s car cleared the ditch in front of the wall and the right side of his car hit the wall side-ways on with tremendous force and landed in the ditch below. de Monge’s wrecked car also came to a halt in the ditch with the driver having suffered terrible leg injuries.
Watching only meters away behind the wall at Ratra, Declan Quigley felt the violence of the impact and would recall the eerie silence that befell the circuit after the race was immediately stopped. A silence only punctuated by the cries from badly injured Fernon de Monge.
Medical and Rescue teams were quickly dispatched to the scene of the accident. The MRMCI Rescue Unit Team began to work on extracting de Monge from the wreckage of his car. Peter’s car while badly damaged, did not prevent him from being quickly released from the car whereupon Dr. McSorley and the ambulance team began to work on him.
In the paddock, word of the accident spread quickly. Peter’s crew and stopwatch man Maurice Roddy realised immediately that Peter had not come back to the start/finish after the black flag and began to fear the worst.
Hearing that the accident was at Ratra, Peter’s sister Helena and younger brother James started to run toward the scene across the Phoenix Park fields from the paddock, a distance of ½ a mile. They arrived in time to join Peter on the ambulance ride to The Mater Hospital with Fernon de Monge being taken to the Mater in a separate ambulance.
Shortly after being admitted, Peter was declared dead. The official cause of death was a ruptured coronary artery caused by blunt force trauma after the massive high-speed impact. Peter’s injuries sustained in the crash were not survivable.
The eerie silence was also what most stunned Colm Doherty, at the time a budding journalist who would go onto write for Autosport and also commentate, who was watching at start/finish.
“One could practically hear a pin drop. I never experienced anything quite like at a racetrack and I’ll never forget it … It was one of the moments when you just knew, in your bones, that it was bad. People near the start/finish line exchanged silent glances … then shook their heads. The silence continued for such a long time that we all feared the worst. Of course. Fernon de Monge got caught up in Peters crash and, after a while when we heard Peter did not make it, everyone’s concerns switched to de Monge.”
After a prolonged delay to clear wreckage and remove the injured, racing resumed, as the crowds grew around the circuit. Today, it is possible that the meeting would have been abandoned, but the late 1970s were very much a different era. Only a week before, Super Swede Ronnie Peterson had been killed in a startline pile up at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, an accident that Ireland’s Derek Daly, himself a Park veteran, had been highly fortunate to walk away from.
In the commentary box, Robin Rhodes, for decades the self-styled “Voice of Irish Motorsport” had resumed his duties and despite word coming through in the early afternoon that Peter O’Reilly had succumbed to his injuries, Robin was unflappable.
Mo Murray, who would have his own brush with mortality at the Phoenix Park Motor Races two short years later courtesy of Tommy Byrne, was serving as Rhodes’ lap charter and recalled the shock on hearing the confirmation of the news that Peter did not survive.
“I remember that day well as it was the first time I had experienced a fatality at a racetrack. The manner in which it was handled, while initially shocking to me a 14-year-old kid, was consummate professionalism on the part of Robin Rhodes. Sad day all around. And just a week earlier, again doing lap charts for Robin at Mondello came news of a big crash involving Derek Daly at Monza. The next day at school I learned Ronnie Peterson had died and it was inconceivable that there would be another death so soon. Robin, himself a veteran of the Dunboyne Leinster Trophy Motor Races which saw four fatalities in three years in the mid-1960s was devastated but his only comment to me was “He knew the risks when he climbed in the car.”
Robin Rhodes would wait until the end of racing before announcing the passing of Peter O’Reilly over the public address. The massive crowd had witnessed some tremendous racing during the afternoon including a titanic battle between Jay Pollock and Martin Boyle in the Formula Ford 1600 final. Martin recalls what it was like having to climb back in the car to race so soon after working on Peter’s car with him.
“We had known there had been an accident in the FF1600 consolation race, and the race stopped, but little news was coming through, just an uneasy silence. Subconsciously we knew it wasn’t good, and later on it filtered through that it was at Ratra and then that it was Peter. I was stunned, to put it mildly, shocked. Shocked that someone I had recently been with was gone. So suddenly, so young – unbelievable. I was very shook up, and did not know what was wrong with me.
Our race did not start until almost 5:00 PM. I had a race-long battle with Jay Pollock, and I recall he overtook me on the back straight. A few laps later I got the same run on him heading into Ratra and he closed the door properly. We would have been doing 125 + mph and I’d had to back out of it with half the car in the grass still flat out! Jay taught me a lesson there I was never to forget – namely if you want to win you really have to mean it sometimes.
I finished second to Jay after leading for a bit, and I think setting a new lap record, but I felt like a zombie, disconnected. The race felt surreal, like a bad dream and I was so glad when it was over. There was no jubilation, no sense of achievement and I couldn’t bear to think about Peter’s family, nor did I want to talk about or hear details of what had happened to him nor Fernon de Monge who I knew reasonably well by that stage.”
In the feature Formula Atlantic race that afternoon, Harold McGarrity, the older brother of perennial All-Ireland Formula Atlantic Champion Patsy, took a surprise win and abruptly announced his retirement on the winners’ podium. At the time he cited the pressures of his thriving Belfast automotive business but the accident that befell Peter O’Reilly had clearly impacted the entire paddock.
Back at the Mater Hospital, Helena, and James O’Reilly, both still deeply shocked, were struggling to come to terms with the loss of their brother. After completing some formalities with the hospital, Helena realised that her two younger siblings were still at the Phoenix Park, so she gathered herself and James and headed back to the circuit.
Ahead lay the difficult task of breaking the news to Thomas and Catherine, packing up, and also breaking the news to Peter’s parents across the Irish sea in England. One of the last things Helena recalls is collecting Peter’s steering wheel which caused the scrutineers some confusion as they examined the wreckage of Peter’s Crosslé 32F to eliminate any obvious mechanical failure as a contributory cause of his accident. None was found.
The following week Peter was laid to rest St. Margaret’s Cemetery in The Ward near Peter’s birthplace. According to his wishes, he was buried with his steering wheel in his hands. Further tragedy was to befall the O’Reilly family scarcely a year later when a house fire destroyed their Glasnevin home and took the life of the family patriarch Jimmy. Also lost was Peter’s racing memorabilia and almost every photo of him in a racing car, along with all the other family’s photos and treasures.
The official inquest into the accident that killed Peter O’Reilly was held on Friday, November 17th, 1978, and several of the key individuals involved were called to give evidence. These included Fernon de Monge, still recovering from the multiple injuries he received less than two months previously, and Pat O’Connor, the flagger at Ratra. The facts of the case being unequivocal, and with no mechanical anomalies found on Peter’s car, the coroner returned a verdict of an accidental death.
As a result of the inquest verdict there were little if any changes made to the Hawthorn circuit in the years following Peter’s accident. Roadworks in the Phoenix Park necessitated a change to the shorter and slower Oldtown circuit in the mid-1980s, although the Hawthorn circuit did make a comeback between 1988 and 1999. Thereafter, all racing was on the Oldtown circuit.
The following years after 1978 continued to see many major accidents at the Phoenix Park Motor Races, including two involving circuit marshals in 1982 and 1985, that left three marshals with serious leg injuries from which they all thankfully recovered. After 1985, all marshals were placed in or behind refuse skips for protection. Many drivers were also involved in spectacular crashes that resulted in injury, but up until the end of racing at the Phoenix Park in 2012 the only fatality was Peter’s.
Fernon de Monge faced a long recovery after his accident. But recover he did and even made a racing comeback. His son Kevin described the challenges that Fernon faced.
“My father’s initial prognosis was so serious the surgeons and casualty doctors considered amputation of his right leg. Dad was heavily sedated but was still with it enough to shout at the doctors to do everything they could to save his leg. Even after multiple surgeries and years of rehab and recovery, he still suffered pain and walked with a noticeable limp. But he was determined to return to racing and was back on the grid racing in Formula Ford 2000 at the Leinster Trophy meeting at Mondello in 1980. His greatest moment on the track was when he raced against the immortal Senna in 1982, and he continued racing up until the early 1990s. Dad spoke of Peter often and never bore him any ill-will for the accident. He would always say ‘I was the lucky one.’
Fernon de Monge passed away in 2014 at the age of 74.
John Morris, who served as Clerk of the Course at the Phoenix Park Motor Races for several years, before going on to be Managing Director of Mondello Park, recalled the intense pressures that race officials and organisers faced to make the circuits as safe as possible.
“The fatality statistics (or lack of them) at the Phoenix Park are truly amazing given the amount of danger associated with the circuit. There were of course many big accidents and indeed when Tony Dowling crashed at the Oldtown Wood in the mid-90s, I was advised to expect the worst as he was heading for the hospital. However, Tony astounded everyone and eventually almost fully recovered which was a great relief. It’s very difficult when you’re an event or venue principal and someone dies at one of your events. 4-wheeled motorsport is incredibly safe given the speeds involved and although 2-wheels carries a risk every time you leave the pitlane, again the statistics are very good.
I had four fatalities during my time at Mondello Park and I always accepted there was this risk and indeed anytime I wasn’t at the circuit and when bikes were on track and my phone would ring, I would take a deep breath before answering. We took the position at Mondello and at the Park, that we had our Risk Assessments done, and once we ensured our preparations were in accordance with the risk assessment controls and the track was properly prepared and staffed, that we had done our best and unfortunately there will still occasionally be bad accidents with bad outcomes”.
Peter O’Reilly packed a full life into a short 23 years. Once he discovered racing, he showed great promise and his natural speed and lack of fear were readily apparent. “Peter was an emerging talent, a little rough around the edges, but he was getting noticed” according to PJ Fallon. Peter had ambitions to join his friend and teammate Tommy Byrne in England for the 1979 season, a year when Tommy began his meteoric rise to stardom.
But Peter, to this day, is as much remembered for the wonderful person, son, brother, and friend he was to so many. He was living his dream when fate overtook him, and he would have wanted it no other way according to those who knew him best.
I would like to thank the many friends and family of Peter, the drivers, officials, and those at the Phoenix Park Motor Races in 1978 all of whom were generous in their time to contribute to this piece. None more so than Helena Cafolla, Peter’s sister, who showed great resilience and grace throughout as she talked at great length about these tragic events that took place over 40 years ago. Thanks also to Keith de Monge who spoke at length about his father Fernon.
During conversations Helena mentioned that there was no memorial to Peter at the Park or anywhere else. Thus, an approach was made to the Office of Public Works who run the Phoenix Park to enquire about a memorial. The Superintendent of Public Works Office kindly responded explaining that there has been a moratorium on all memorials both public and private at the Phoenix Park for several years in an attempt to preserve the character of a National Historic Property of national and international significance for future generations.
However, in a gesture of solidarity with the O’Reilly family, the Office of Public Works will be planting a tree in Peter’s memory in the coming months. Peter’s family and friends will be invited to attend the tree planting ceremony at a location close to Ratra. While the tree will not have a permanent marker, nature willing, the tree will continue to grow in this location and provide a place of remembrance for the family and friends of Peter.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.
-Brian Manning, 2022