Around the world from Dublin on a bike - in 1912
It was the most dangerous motorcycle journey of its time – an epic adventure in 1912 – and the riders were captivated by Ireland, writes PETER MURTAGHWHEN A motorcycle rider and his machine get together, it’s usually only a matter of time before the question emerges: when to set off on the round-the-world trip?
The dream was made reality for many an armchair biker by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s 2004 TV odyssey and book, Long Way Round, and subsequent spin-offs.
Close to a decade later, the sound of yet another BMW GS hurtling across the Mongolian steppe en route to Beijing is unlikely to come as much of a surprise to a yak herder sitting by his yurt.
Motorbike websites today are full of “how to” information about long-distance adventure biking in Asia, Africa, South America and elsewhere. The accompanying blogs feature a swarm of bikers having the time of their lives.
What many of them may not realise is that the craze began 100 years ago in Dublin.
The first man to ride his motorbike around the world was an Irish-American advertising copy writer and film-maker named Carl Stearns Clancy. He set off with his biking partner, Walter Rendell Storey, 100 years ago this month.
“The longest, most difficult, and most perilous journey ever attempted”, on motorcycle, wrote Clancy of a journey that friends and colleagues told him was “insane”. But he went nonetheless and, what’s more, he did it.
On October 23rd this year, motorbike enthusiasts will re-enact the start of Clancy and Storey’s epic trip, assembling at Joe Duffy Motors in Ballymun, before following Clancy and Storey’s route to Belfast via Meath, Cavan, Fermanagh, Donegal, Derry and Antrim. Thereafter, across the world, bikers will retrace other parts of Clancy’s route.
In 1912, there were few surfaced roads, let alone maps by which to find them. Motorcycles were not built for endurance travelling, tyres were basic and repair garages were almost non-existent.
Clancy and Storey rode machines made by the Henderson Motorcycle Company, which was founded in 1911 in Detroit, Michigan. The 1912-built Henderson Four was a long machine with a four-cylinder engine and just one gear. There was no front brake.
But, with a top speed of 55 miles per hour, it was reputedly the fastest motorcycle of its day. It cost $325.
Why did they do it? “The facts are these,” Clancy wrote. “We are ordinary business men who are supersaturated with work and who have decided to invest a year’s time in something else than the everlasting chase for the almighty dollar.”
But how to pay for it? Clancy wasn’t the last motorbike enthusiast to hit on the wheeze of getting an editor to pay for his adventures and so, in multiple dispatches between November 1912 and February 1914, Clancy told the story of his 18,000 mile journey in the pages of Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review, a New York-based weekly magazine. The story was then largely forgotten until it was rescued by another biking enthusiast, Gregory Frazier, who assembled the reports into a book, Motorcycle Adventurer (published by iUniverse in Bloomington, Indiana in 2010).
In early October 1912, the pair sailed from New York to Dublin, via Liverpool, their bikes freighted separately. Crossing the Atlantic, they befriended two Irish girls who made them pennants, embroidered with, “Around the World”.
Why Dublin? “So little is known by motoring America about the attractions of the land of many of its forefathers – Old Erin,” Clancy wrote in Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review, “that we decided to place it first upon our list of globe-girdling explorations.”
In Dublin, they found “nearly everything at least 50 years behind the times”. They visited the Bank of Ireland in College Green and Trinity, and registered their Hendersons at City Hall.
The editor of The Irish Cyclist, Richard McCready (the inventor of bicycle polo) gave them road maps and helped them plot a route from Dublin to the northwest. Extraordinary as it may seem, Storey had never ridden a motorbike and so before setting off, Clancy spent a day in the Phoenix Park showing him how. “By dark, he had mastered his steed,” Clancy wrote, “but we were compelled to leave our machines in a nearby house till morning, having no carbide in our lamps.”
Their first effort to set off was aborted when a policeman – “a beautiful specimen of a gigantic, almost wax ‘Bobby’” – stopped them and insisted they get number plates for their front mudguards.
“Dublin had not finished with us, however,” bemoaned Clancy, “for before we had gone a block, one of those two storey, bob-tail tram-cars . . . ran smash into Mr Storey, demolishing his rear wheel, threw him to the pavement, ripped off the starting-crank casting, bent the handlebars and front fork badly but allowed Storey to escape with a sorely bruised thigh.”
What Clancy described as “an eager crowd of loafers” helped carry the wreck to a repair shop (“and refused to disperse until paid double for their efforts”). Storey’s bike would take some days to repair and so finally, on October 23rd, two up on Clancy’s machine, Storey astride the petrol tank, Clancy squashed by 75lbs of baggage on the back, the single Henderson waddled out of Dublin along what is now the N3. They rode that way for the next 400 miles.
They set off for Donegal, via a night in Newtownbutler, at an average of 20mph, noting how slippery were the roads when it rained: “The Irish roads are not well drained.”
HEARING CIVILwar was imminent (the third Home Rule Bill was given royal assent in September 1912), Clancy and Storey brought pistols with them, a pair of Savage semi-automatic handguns.
“We decided to be prepared for the worst,” wrote Clancy, “so before entering Ulster, we got out our Savage automatics and, to practice, banged away at a tree on the lonely roadside beside the beautiful Lough Erne. This precaution proved unnecessary.”
Clancy thought the mountains of Donegal “wildly beautiful” and “the most Irish part of Ireland”.
“The older people speak Gaelic (the children both Gaelic and English), live in tiny stone huts perched in the barren, heather-covered, wind-swept valleys, and represent the extreme in poverty. Here a donkey is an unheard-of luxury, and even hens are very scarce. Every family raises one pig a year, which is sold to pay the rent – never eaten.”
They made for the north Antrim coast and the Giant’s Causeway. “We had the vast cliffs to ourselves,” Clancy reported, and explored fantastic rock formations even though, at 4.30pm, it was very dark, raining and windy.
They spent a night in Ballycastle’s Antrim Arms Hotel, a welcome break from the constant electric shocks the Henderson was giving their hands through waterlogged leather gloves. They got to Belfast the next afternoon. Clancy left Storey there and took the train back to Dublin to collect Storey’s repaired Henderson and ride it back. The following afternoon, they both got the ferry to Glasgow.
They left Ireland feeling good about the place. “Ireland is so quaint,” Clancy reported, “so different from Scotland, England and America, so blessed with charming, picturesque hillsides of the most entrancing colours, and inhabited by the most fascinating people, that we urge every motorist to visit it – and especially Donegal.”
Clancy and Storey rode through Scotland, England, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. After Paris, Storey returned to the US.
Clancy continued through southeast Asia, to China and Japan. He was an early tourist to such regions and surely the first western motorcyclist there, let alone the first motorbike circumnavigator of the world.
Further information on re-tracing Clancy and Storey’s ride, go to iti.ms/SXHvFKor iti.ms/SHpfUS. Participants – all bikers welcome – should meet at Duffy’s BMW Motorrad at the Ballymun M50 junction at 10am on Tuesday, October 23rd for 10.30 departure.
Motorcycle Adventurer – Carl Stearns Clancy: First Motorcyclist to Ride Around the World 1912-1913 by Dr Gregory W Frazier is available from Amazon.com
Clancy and Storey: Lives in bikes, books and film
Carl Stearns Clancy was born in New Hampshire in 1890, the son of Alice Clancy from Massachusetts, and William Clancy, a 55-year-old Irishman described in US census records as a clergyman.
After returning to New York, Clancy married (twice), wrote books (two, but not about his motorbike adventure) and became an accomplished film producer and script writer. Storey worked for the New York Times.
Clancy made 12 films with the actor and humourist Will Rogers, one of them entitled With Will Rogers in Dublin, and one, The Headless Horseman (or the Legend of Sleepy Hollow), also with Rogers, which can be seen online via iti.ms/SHpaAq.
He died in Virginia in 1971 having lived, as Frazier notes “a full and adventurous life”.
Walter Rendell Storey was born in Philadelphia, of English-born parents, in 1881. At the time of his motorbike ride, he appears to have been a functionary with the Board of Motion Pictures in New York.