In September 1907 a small group of Ballyclare-based runners who were members of Belfast Trinity Harriers decided to form their own club in the town. They met in a barn at the back of Baird’s public house on Main Street and chose the name East Antrim Harriers. Little did they know that from these humble beginnings they were forming one of the most successful running clubs in Northern Ireland history.
In the early days, members would travel to races on a brake (a horse and carriage) but it wasn’t long before the club made its spectacular entrance on the athletics stage, when Bob Kerr won the Ulster Senior Cross Country Championships in 1909. At the end of the Great War the club continued to expand and in 1920 purchased an old army hut which became its base for almost half a century.
Five years later, the Harriers came first in the Northern Ireland Junior Cross Country Championships and a repeat performance the following year started a sequence of successes that is unlikely to be surpassed by any other club. From 1926 to 1958 they won the Northern Ireland Cross Country Championships a remarkable 24 times, including 13 successive victories. They were also runners-up on the other nine occasions. During the 1943-44 season the Harriers performed another extraordinary feat which is unlikely ever to be repeated. In every race held in the province, East Antrim Harriers supplied the team and the individual winners to every race run! This team included the legendary McCooke brothers, Steve and Charlie.
Steve McCooke was later selected to represent Great Britain in the 10,000m at the 1948 Olympic Games at Wembley in London. He was an agricultural worker at Greenmount College at the time, married with six children and had to take unpaid leave. He later recalled, “When I set off for London I had just 30 shillings (£1.50) in my pocket to last me a fortnight. I was there 15 days and when I got back my wife asked me for two shillings (10p) and I had to tell her I had only tuppence left.”
The Harriers have always been innovative and pro-active in promoting their sport. In 1959/60 club chairman John Wilson held a series of keep fit classes. Several ladies were sufficiently inspired and decided to form East Antrim Ladies within the club. Competition and sporting opportunities for women at this time were very limited, however. Undaunted, East Antrim Ladies arranged their own events, including two races against Dublin’s Clonliffe Harriers in 1963 - one at Santry and a return in Ballyclare.
Eventually the athletics authorities realised the need for women’s competition and in 1965 the first Northern Ireland Women’s Cross Country Championships were held in Ballyclare, with East Antrim Ladies winning the senior title. The first race to be held in Northern Ireland solely for veteran runners is said to be an event held in Ballyclare in 1971 under the auspices of club members Jimmy Todd and Johnston Scott. Shortly after this the Northern Ireland Veterans Athletic Association was born. Both Jimmy Todd and Johnston Scott were later to receive MBEs for services to athletics. A recent article posted on the official NI Veterans Athlete Association website suggested that Jimmy Todd was Northern Ireland’s ‘greatest ever veteran athlete’, citing his numerous world records and recalling, amongst other feats, his 1993 Belfast 10K run in 41.01 minutes, at the age of 71.
In today’s running culture and the black and white hoops are regularly seen competing in marathons around the globe, from Amsterdam to Stockholm, from Boston to New York and of course at home in Belfast. The club now trains from its own clubhouse in Ballyclare, on Harrier Way, the road being named in honour and recognition of the part played by East Antrim Harriers to sport in Ballyclare, Newtownabbey and throughout Ireland. Ballyclare, indeed the world, has changed a lot since those distant days in 1907 when a group of runners decided to form a club on the banks of the Six Mile Water. The famous black and white hoops are still very much in evidence in 2017, but the part played by former members, in the distant and more recent past, will long be remembered.