Flying into the Far North - Including Bann King 1963

A look back at the 1950's & 60's through the Archives
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willie reynolds
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Flying into the Far North - Including Bann King 1963

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Flying into the Far North by Milne Mairs -

Extreme distance into Ireland is something that goes back many years, and the further north you live I suppose the more extreme it becomes. So to record a pigeon into the most northerly club in Ireland from a racepoint over 1,013 miles away is some achievement. In 1968 Anthony McDonnell did just that when he went into his loft to find a 7 year old Blue Cock on the perch that had been liberated 25 days earlier in Palamos, a Spanish coastal town a few miles north of Barcelona. I'm sure Anthony has fond memories of that day, when he recorded a pigeon to fly further than any other before or since into Ireland. He named the Cock Bann Pride after the River Bann that flows through his home town of Coleraine and into the Atlantic Ocean, just up the road at Portstewart. Now if most of us had a pigeon in our loft that had flown over 1000 miles the last thing we would think of doing would be to send it back again the following year. Not so Anthony, and off went Bann Pride again to Catalonia in 1969, returning this time in 26 days, much to the astonishment of Irish pigeon fanciers and probably some further afield. The following year at 9 years old he was sent again in an attempt to complete the hat trick of 1013 mile flights, which would have made him one of the greatest marathon pigeons in history, but sadly he never returned. His record from Palamos reads, 162nd Open from 452 birds in 1968 and 119th Open from 565 birds in 1969, as well as those two amazing flights he flew the channel 20 times, including 3 times Penzance 347 miles, St Malo 490 miles and twice Nantes 590 miles.

Over the years Anthony has appeared on quite a few panels around the clubs during the winter time, and a frequently asked question is how did he get the pigeon to the marking station of The British Barcelona Club that promoted the Palamos race. The answer was that the bird was flown from Belfast International Airport by Williams Air Freight for the sum of £5, then collected by officials of the BBC at Heathrow and taken to be race marked with the rest of the entries. This was the case on his first two trips to Palamos but in 1970 the service wasn't running and he had to be sent by the Belfast to Liverpool ferry, with the onward journey by rail. This change of routine entailing an extra night of confinement in a small space may just have played a big part in this wonderful pigeon failing to return.

Prior to Bann Pride's first flight from Palamos only two other pigeons had flown upwards of 1000 miles into Ireland, these being Sandy Mairs's Barcelona Bluebelle which was recorded in 21 days for the 1001 mile flight to Ballyclare in 1965 and a 6 year old Blue Hen to Arthur Walkingshaw & Son of Killyleagh also from Barcelona 972 miles in 1966. Anthony visited the Walkingshaw loft and a mating was arranged between their two birds, with each taking one youngster. I can't speak for the Killyleagh pigeon but the Mairs hen and Bann Pride , as Anthony readily admits, were experienced birds that basically just homed rather than raced from the French race points and were perfect for the extreme distance from Spain. All three were survivors that knew how to live rough with the ability to take on solo sea crossings and having an inbuilt spirit to return home. Had any of these pigeons been winning prizes from France it's unlikely that their owners would have sent them to Barcelona or Palamos, but always turning up out of race time proved that they didn't race home, so a new challenge was found for them. Perhaps the few fanciers who have their mind set on flying extreme distance these days are trying to do so with pigeons that lack that bit of age and experience of a few races from France.

A man who shouldn't be forgotten in the story of these events was Sandy Mairs's good friend Leslie Barr who also sent a bird to Barcelona in 1965. The plan to join the newly formed British Barcelona Club was hatched during one of their regular Sunday afternoon get-togethers at Leslie's home near Templepatrick. Leslie was a member of the famous Barr family of Ballymena that included Barr Brothers Albert and Archie and their nephew George, all of them top flyers right through to France. Barr Bros raced to a loft in a barn behind the family butchers shop in Ballymena and actually topped the Open from France in the 1930s well before the INFC was formed in 1948. When they retired they went to live in a small wooden bungalow set in the beautiful 3 acre garden of Leslie and his wife Charlotte in what can only be described as a pigeon fancier's paradise. At the top of the sloping garden sat Leslie's red brick double decker loft , built by my father, with various smaller wooden lofts placed between Charlotte's flower beds and shrubs. Albert and Archie also had a loft behind their bungalow, the interior spotless thanks to Archie who had the walls all painted a nice pale green colour. Visitors were always well treated and it's many years since Albert called me over to do some small job. On arrival he insisted I join him for breakfast of boiled eggs and toast before any work was done. These days all that remains is the brick loft with both bungalows leveled to the ground and the garden overgrown, a sad sight. George's birds in the late 1960s contained the blood of both Anthony McDonnell and Arthur Walkingshaw's best birds that saw him put up a lot of top class results right through to France. Walkingshaw pigeons have left their mark in many lofts throughout Ireland and further afield, and even today many of our top distance men can trace the breeding of their pigeons back to his famous Killyleagh loft, where he made winning prizes from the French race points look easy. It has been said that he only bred from birds that had flown France, most of us would have quite a few empty perches in our young bird lofts if we followed that breeding policy. Anthony's long distance record still stands and given the location almost on the north coast, is unlikely to be ever beaten. Possibly only a pigeon flying into north Antrim or Derry could challenge it. I think there can only be two categories in Irish distance records, the longest distance ever flown and the longest distance ever flown in race time. To claim any other would be disingenuous as we would end up with the first cock, first hen, first white flight etc to fly such and such a distance, which makes a mockery of the whole thing. Verification with the organisers of the race is a must for any pigeon recorded out of race time in these races, otherwise they quite rightly don't count.

The record for the longest flying pigeon in race time into Ireland is for one timed from Les Sables in the INFC King's Cup race in 1963, flying 634 miles and making a velocity of 821 ypm. This bird won the race for none other than the aforementioned Anthony McDonnell of Coleraine, a man who will go down in the annals of Irish long distance pigeon racing history for his achievements. Bann King as the bird was named was a four year old cheq. cock that finished just ahead of Watts Bros of Ballyclare on 817.8 ypm with E Maternaghan of Ballymena doing 817.7 in 3rd position. Bann King was having his first race from France having previously flown Penzance three times, being in the clock on each occasion to take minor prizes in the Coleraine Premier Club. Back in those days INFC race marking was carried out in the docks area of Belfast with the hampers then lowered into the hold of the Liverpool boat and shipped to Merseyside . Transferred to train they made their way to Southampton for another sea crossing to France, then back on to another train for the final leg of the journey to Les Sables on the west coast overlooking the Bay of Biscay. With none of the convoy home on the day of liberation Sunday 7th July, Anthony let his birds out the following morning for a fly and proceeded to scrape the floor of his 12 x 6 loft. Before he had finished they landed back on the roof and started to come in through the drop hole, looking up from his crouched position with scraper in hand he noticed the third bird in was wearing a rubber ring and was not one of the birds he had just let out. Realising it was a Kings Cup pigeon the scraper was abandoned and he quickly caught the bird and raced to the clock which he had left at the kitchen door, puncturing the dial at 10.08am. The old adage of removing the rubber rings of any pigeon not competing in the race maybe paid off here as this pigeon could have been missed long enough to have lost the race. As it happened a couple of Ballymena fanciers had arranged to call with Anthony on the day in question, and when they arrived unaware he had clocked a pigeon brought the news that it looked like the Kings Cup had been won in their home town earlier that morning. This was thrown into doubt when he took them into his loft and pointed to a pigeon that might just come into the equation when it came to ascertaining the winner of the race. With measurements still to be calculated for some birds timed in the race the winner remained unknown for some considerable time, although Anthony remained hopeful especially as two of the Flying Club's top officials had been to verify his pigeon. Timed on Monday the 8th ,ten days later there was still no word on who had won, at which point Anthony's father phoned a friend who worked at the local newspaper office who was able to tell him that the headlines on the sports page of the forthcoming edition read, Coleraine man wins the King's Cup.

Bann Pride and Bann KIng were half-brothers having the same dam, with the two sires being obtained from local Coleraine fanciers. The sire of Bann King cost only ten shillings, 50 pence in today's money, that was ten bob well spent. I daresay the dam of these two pigeons would have been worth a fair bit of money if she was on the market today. Anthony sent three pigeons to the race and he clocked the mate of Bann King, a Grooter hen, on the third day to win 78th Open on her third trip to France. At 25 he was one of the youngest men to win the Kings Cup, and a couple of weeks later he and his fiance were married, a period of his life he will look back on with immense pride.

Les Sables was the most distant race point ever used by the INFC for the Kings Cup and even if they go back to it in the future there can be very few fanciers actually flying further than 634 miles who could beat the record. So any new record will probably have to come from a pigeon competing with the British International Championship Club or the British Barcelona Club, both of whom promote races where Irish fanciers would be flying in excess of 634 miles. So for the men with their sights set on long distance records into Ireland, Anthony McDonnell is the man to beat for distance flown and also distance in race time. After winning the Kings Cup Anthony wrote an article for the 1964 British Homing World Stud Book titled Flying into the Far North. I hope he doesn't mind me using that heading again in this tribute to one of Irish pigeon racing's top fanciers.

Milne Mairs

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Celebrating 50th Anniversary of winning Kings Cup with "Bann King".
Mrs Ronnie Johnston presents a framed print of the Racing Pigeon front page.

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Left Leslie Barr, right Sandy Mairs at Louella Pigeon World in mid 1960's.

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Sandy Mairs with Barcelona Bluebelle

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Champion "Bann King"

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Champion "Bann Pride"
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