Sinéad Canny, no stranger to the West Cork Rally, shares some special memories of her trip to Clonakilty over the years and talks about her current role with Motorsport Ireland.
My love affair for the West Cork Rally began in the 70’s - 1979 to be exact. My Dad, Pat Canny, came to what is undeniably one of the most beautiful places in the world to compete in his first West Cork Rally in a Hillman Hunter. His first year sadly saw him retiring on SS3, Church Cross and it wasn’t until 1982 that he returned again in his Talbot Sunbeam Avenger, this time finishing just outside the Top 10. My brothers and I had caught the rallying bug by then and I still wonder how my poor Mum, whose love of Rallying wasn’t quite up there with her love for crème brûlée, survived all those weekends away. But she was Dad’s greatest supporter which meant packing up the car with 4 very small children was something she did for many weekends for many years without complaining. I recall staying in many West Cork farmhouse B&Bs over the years - my parents said we couldn’t be trusted in a hotel - as well as one weekend in the original Inchydoney Ocean Hotel - my Mum always tells the story of that particular year the hotel heating broke and we all nearly froze with her gathering every item of clothing and blankets she could find to keep us warm!
The trip to Clonakilty with Dad competing was made for many more years but little did I know on my first trip in 1979, that 32 years later, Dad and I would partner for my first ever West Cork Rally in 2011. We had an amazing weekend finishing midway through the field without a mark on the car. Dad writes his own pacenotes. So 2 days of writing notes from scratch made it even more sweet to get to the finish. Each stage did not disappoint and as we handed in our time cards on Sunday, all I thought about was doing it all over again. The buzz of being a spectator had gripped me over the years, but competing simply took things to another level. I know every competitor reading this feels the same. I get goosebumps simply at the thought of sitting on that start line of Ring with all the spectators on the sea wall looking in at you like you are famous, watching the clock count down. Once you compete, it really is hard to go back to sitting on the ditch!
It was 2014 before I returned to West Cork to sit in with Wexford man Tom White in a Citroen C2. By then my husband and I had welcomed 2 little girls, Annie and Elsie into the world and my Mum remarked how history was repeating itself with me taking them along to Clonakilty. I wanted them to see and feel what I had experienced as a child.
We had a mixed weekend with some technical difficulties and at one stage I thought we were going to have to throw in the towel when we broke down between stages. But West Cork luck was on my side, with the next stage getting cancelled we managed to get the car going, arriving at the following stage just before car accountability was about to drive through the stage. I was taught early in my co-driving career that you should NEVER give up your time card unless you are upside down in a ditch and wedged so hard that a crane needs to get you out. That day I was glad I hung onto my time card and never let go. It could have been a different outcome altogether. We finished and the famous WCR mug was placed firmly into our hands at final control. Job done!
In 2015 I sat with local man Gavin Walsh in his Honda Civic. A brave man to take me on! We had great fun despite retiring on the second day. No WCR mug that year, but more great memories, more friends made and a desire to keep coming back.
Having been commuting to Rallies back and forth from London where I lived for many years, I added a small complication to my trips to West Cork by moving to Singapore in 2016 - 11,422kms of a complication to be precise.
I also didn’t have a regular driver, despite the fact that my brother Michael had also caught the West Cork Rally bug and was now making annual trips to the event from Boston - granted for him only 4,673 kms away. He had actually bagged a really good navigator - a guy by the name of Andy Hayes. How could I compete against THIS guy? But he was soon to dump Michael to hang out with the Top 10 brigade. My dream of a regular seat became a reality; albeit we had to do a bit of work convincing our parents that this was the perfect partnership - they had their doubts!
So in 2017 Michael and I headed to Clonakilty from Singapore and Boston respectively as the new dreamteam. The excitement was unreal. We were driving our trusted Ford Fiesta ST and had the super talented, rally crazy and amazing Clare neighbours from McDonagh Motors as our Service crew for the weekend. We were set up for success.
The whole weekend went like clockwork, and we finished mid way through the field. And we got another WCR mug. Michael and I got on like a house on fire (ask my Mum; childhood relationships between Michael and I weren’t exactly smooth) and we felt like a real team. We were super proud of our achievements and my Dad and Mum had smiles from ear to ear as we met them at the end of the last stage (Mum’s was more of a smile of “thank god that’s over, they are in one piece and hopefully that will be their last rally….”)
But to my Mum’s dismay back we came again in 2018 in search of another WCR mug. Sadly our driveshaft went on Stage 4 - I can still remember the feeling of complete and utter devastation. Dad and Mum picked us up from a road section, took us back to Mick Finns and I remember not being able to get out of the car as I was so upset - yes there were tears. It wasn’t because of the distance we had come from abroad - but the idea of not spending a full weekend rallying was just too much. Mum finally got me out of the car and 15 wines later in the pub I had almost forgotten about it. I think I slept in my rally suit that night.
In 2019 we decided to switch it up a dial or 10. We hired the most beautiful Fiesta R5 from Philip Case at PCRS and got to experience life competing with the Big Boys. Sitting into that car for the first time was incredible - I was given one button to look after - one was enough - the anti lag (I still don’t know what this does). As my brother remarked in our first live interview with Andy Walsh that weekend, he felt like a monkey that had just been sent into space in a shuttle! I’ll never forget the experience, the G force on take off, the buzz, the speed and hanging out in service with the super talented Top 10 drivers. Gone was my hand out the window waves on junctions with the speed at which this car took off - next pacenote NOW shouted my brother! And yes, we earned another WCR mug, plus 1st in class! That year will also be up there as the highlight of my rallying career - the year that both Craig Breen AND Mikko Hirvonen competed in the same field. I mean what else do I need to say here? Sunday night in the Quality was something I will never forget.
I think we all have our 2020 stories. We came to Clonakilty as usual and enjoyed our first day of reccy. I can vividly remember the call we received from Tommy McDonagh at lunchtime on Friday while we were out on the stages doing reccy to say the rally had been cancelled…
Micheal and I headed back to the Quality as all I could think about was the West Cork Rally Team and Steve Davis - never mind our disappointment, I cannot for a moment imagine how broken Steve and his Team must have been to have to deliver the bad news to everyone and to accept it themselves - especially in Steve’s first year as COC. I managed to find Steve at the hotel and was met with his famous smile - one of the nicest guys I know. And what did he give me? A big hug AND out of the back of his van, the famous WCR mug! It was not a wasted visit and we would be back.
Fast forward to 2022. OMG how good did it feel to be back? Having caught the bug of hiring an incredible rally car in 2019, we partnered with Ryan Loughran and his Team to hire another Fiesta R5. We had the most amazing experience with the car and Ryan, and despite a smallish kiss of a ditch on Day two, we came home with another class win and an epic 33rd overall. And another WCR mug, that was dated 2020….. It will be cherished. As all our memories of West Cork have been. In the words of Michael’s daughter Maya, 6, who shouted “that was awesome” as we flew past her sitting on a ditch spectating with Grandad Pat, she was absolutely right, the West Cork Rally is awesome!
Very sadly Michael and I can’t make the 2023 WCR rally due to work commitments, but I was super fortunate to be elected to be part of the Motorsport Ireland Women’s Commission at the start of 2022 so I get my motorsport fix from the other side of the world by being part of this wonderful group of females led by the hugely talented Rosemary Walsh. The role of the Commission is the promotion and encouragement of Women in the Sport and we have been making steady strides with increased visibility for females in the sport over the last 15 months - not an easy task and at times very challenging.
I feel so incredibly privileged to have been asked to write this piece about my career which in comparison to other females I have met over the years is relatively brief and is without too much sacrifice of personal time, early mornings, late nights, little sleep, tons of paperwork and many headaches. My story is about the more glamorous side of motorsport. I wanted to write this piece as I want to use my voice to thank all the unsung female heroes that make all our motorsport events happen. More often than not, these are names that you will rarely come across or worse, people you may rarely see at events and if you do, it’s not for long and can often involve admin or a behind the scenes thankless role.
I ask you to think of every single touchpoint that you meet over the weekend whether you are a driver, co-driver, spectator or mechanic and remember that there is a monumental number of women that have been involved to dot every i and cross every t to make sure you get to compete, spectate and service seamlessly AND safely. These female leaders have paved the way for so many of us to get involved in this sport and have helped others realise the critical roles they play and how without them, Ireland wouldn’t be on the map as one of the world’s top countries for motorsport.
I would strongly encourage any girl or woman reading my story who has a love of this sport to reach out to anyone in any motor club to get involved. You will be welcomed with open arms! Being part of a motor club is more than simply being involved in a sport. This is about being part of an incredibly special community and for many a second family with friendships made that will last a lifetime.
I also ask everyone who has the ability to make changes in our sport to give women the opportunity to be seen and to take on more responsibility, so we can have more female COCs, more female scruitineers, drivers, competitors and more amazing female leaders at the helm of our events. Our sport needs diversity to ensure its future success.
To close, I want to say how lucky I am to have such amazing male role models in my Dad, my three brothers, all the drivers that have given me seats over the years and my incredibly supportive husband and kids who have never once viewed my gender as something that should hold me back in my motorsport career. Don’t ever let it stop you.