A hard end in the Ardennes

An Irishman’s Diary about a tragicomic centenary

‘The milestone is also unusual in uniting the normally separate worlds of international motor racing and Irish literature: one of the lesser, and probably unwitting, achievements of the protagonist, Camille Jenatzy.’ Above,  Jenatzy (in driver’s seat), the first driver to exceed 100km/h.  Photograph:  Hulton Archive/Getty Images

‘The milestone is also unusual in uniting the normally separate worlds of international motor racing and Irish literature: one of the lesser, and probably unwitting, achievements of the protagonist, Camille Jenatzy.’ Above, Jenatzy (in driver’s seat), the first driver to exceed 100km/h. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Thu, Dec 5, 2013, 01:00

Among this week’s anniversaries is that of a Belgian man who, 100 years ago, came to a rather tragicomic end. The milestone is also unusual in uniting the normally separate worlds of international motor racing and Irish literature: one of the lesser, and probably unwitting, achievements of the protagonist, Camille Jenatzy.

Also known as “Le Diable Rouge”, for his red beard and fierce temperament, Jenatzy was a pioneer of motorised speed. He became the first driver to break 100km/h, a feat executed – aptly – on the eve of a new century, in 1899. During the decade that followed, he also earned fame in the embryonic sport of car-racing: usually behind the wheel of a Mercedes.

It’s said that he expected to die in a Mercedes. And he was right, apparently, although not quite in the way predicted. In any case, the odds against such a happening would not have been long. Low as the driving speeds of that era seem now, they were achieved at a time when safety standards were even lower.

Jenatzy was part of the line-up for one of the most infamous races of all time: the 1903 Paris-Madrid event. It was supposed to be held over three legs. That was until, in the first leg alone, about half the cars crashed or were retired, killing five participants and three spectators, and injuring up to 100. Having reached only Bordeaux, the event was abandoned.

Such was the context for the historic Gordon Bennett Cup race held in Ireland two months later. It should have been in England, an English driver having earned the honour by winning the previous year. But road conditions and legal complications ruled Britain out as a option, whereas Ireland proved amenable on both counts.

The organisers found a network of relatively straight, flat, and empty roads here, in the counties Kildare, Laois, and Carlow. Legislation was rushed through parliament exempting the race from local speed limits. And with support for it uniting nationalists and unionists, the spectacle was turned into a carnival, although not everybody was so welcoming.

In his 2003 book, marking the centenary, Brendan Lynch quotes one nationalist journal fulminating against the “vulgar, irreligious and soul-less” event, and complaining that it was only coming to Ireland because no English local authority would consent to host such a field of “potential suicidals and murderers”.

With magnificent sarcasm, the writer continued: “Happily the landlords of past generations have seen to it that the country selected has been almost depopulated, so that if the people who remain are wise enough to keep a civil distance . . . casualties may be restricted to the visitors.”

In the event, there were no major mishaps. On the contrary, the race was a triumph for the organisers, for Ireland, and above all for Jenatzy. In his finest hour (six and a half hours, actually), the Red Devil coaxed his Mercedes to victory over cars ostensibly superior, and left skid marks the length of the route to show to how he did it.

His victory merits passing mention in After the Race, one of James Joyce’s Dubliners stories, where the author notes only that “a Belgian”, driving for the Germans, has won.

But a year later, on June 17th, 1904, Jenatzy would defend his title in Germany. And ironically, it was for that event Joyce immortalised him, via Ulysses, in a mention predicting both the Belgian’s imminent win and the long-term demise of the “live axle” in motor engineering. The forecast proved wrong on both counts.

In fact, although the Irish race made his name, Jenatzy never again reached such heights in the sport. On the plus side, he also avoided the fatal car crash he had reason to fear. So his demise, on December 7th, 1913, was by an unexpected route.

There are contradictory versions of the story, although they all agree it was a shooting accident in the Ardennes, and that the man who pulled the trigger was a Belgian publisher called Madoux.

Newspapers reported that Monsieur Madoux had fired in fading light at what he thought was a “roebuck”. But in the competing account, it was Jenatzy’s fondness for practical jokes that undid him. According to this, he was hiding in a bush, doing wild boar impressions – all too convincingly – when his friend fired.

Either way, he was hit in the thigh with an explosive bullet. They rushed him to hospital, but it was too late. He succumbed from blood loss en route. And it can hardly have been much consolation that the insufficiently fast ambulance carrying him is said, indeed, to have been a Mercedes.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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