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Kildare – The Thoroughbred County

‘Gallop through the heartland of equestrian Ireland’

Few sights encapsulate the essence of County Kildare more than that of horses pounding across the springy open plains of the Curragh, crisp clouds of breath puffing out into the early morning air. The horse – ‘capall’ in Irish – has been an intrinsic part of life in the county for thousands of years and today this landscape of deep-green pastures comprises the heart of Ireland’s world famous bloodstock and racing industries.

It is not for nothing that Kildare is known from Australia to Kentucky to the Arabian deserts as the ‘Thoroughbred County’.

Legends recall how the irrepressible warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill, or Finn MacCool, was headquartered on the Hill of Allen from where he served as huntsman to King Cormac; 300 of his hounds are identified by name in the Ossianic Cycle. A Royal pack of hounds would certainly not have looked out of place when the Celts gathered to race their chariots on the Curragh plains during the annual Aenach Lifé fair in ancient times. (i)

The Annals tell of Connairé Môr attending the fair with four chariots before he was killed in 60 AD. Indeed, racing constituted such an integral part of the fair that many chroniclers called it “Curragh of the Races.” (ii)

It was perhaps small wonder that St Bridget thus made sure her cloak enveloped the entirety of the Curragh plains when the King of Leinster promised to entrust her with any land that fell within its shadow. The kings of old all rode horses. Cormac mac Cuilennáin, the saintly king of Munster, broke his neck falling from a horse at the battle of Bellaghmoon near Castledermot in 908 AD. The victor of that clash was Cerball mac Muirecáin, the last King of Leinster to reside at Naas. Cerball was regarded as “a skilful horseman” but he was fated to die a slow, lingering death when, riding by a noisy blacksmith’s forge in Kildare town, his horse reared and flung the monarch upon his own lance.

Anglo-Norman families such as FitzGerald, de Bermingham and de Riddlesford also brought their love of the horse to Kildare, having achieved much of their conquest by the grace of their superior steeds. In 1260, a Franciscan scholar lamented that the people of Ireland were ‘more addicted to games and hunting than to labour’.

The huntsman’s horn echoed across the county during the 16th century when the powerful Gearóid Óg FitzGerald, 9th Earl of Kildare, set off with his staghounds in pursuit of hare, marten and deer. The ghost of his son, the ‘Wizard Earl’, is said to roam the land between Kilkea Castle and the ringfort at Mullaghmast every seven years, clad on a silver-shod white charger.Horses often dictated the fate of war. Richard Marshall, Strongbow’s grandson, was fatally wounded while riding a horse in battle at the Curragh in 1234. Over three hundred years later, John Hewson, Governor of Dublin under Oliver Cromwell, led an army of 2000 foot-soldiers and 1,000 horses to seize all the Royalist strongholds in County Kildare. Jacobite cavalry likewise convened on the Curragh in the lead up to their inglorious defeat at the battle of the Boyne. However, horses as a sport also continued to be of paramount importance. In 1682, the Curragh was considered the place to go for ‘all the nobility and gentry of the kingdom that either pretend to love, or delight in, hawking, hunting, or racing.’ That same year, another Lord Kildare established a new horse race upon the ‘excellent course’ and offered up ‘a plate of about 40 pounds a year’ to the winner.

Credit ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

The Curragh soon became Ireland’s answer to Newmarket with both public and private race meetings. The Honourable Society of Sportsmen held their first meeting at the Curragh in 1750; the society changed its name to the Turf Club in 1784. Tom ‘Squire’ Conolly of Castletown House was such a prominent patron of the sport that his name was immortalized in Conolly’s Mile, the straight mile run to the winning post, which is still part of the extant Curragh course. By 1809, there were twelve races run annually at the Curragh; the first Irish Derby was held there in 1866. Horsemanship was in the blood of many of Kildare’s leading families. The Eustace family traced their ancestry to Placidus, a General of Horse in the Roman army who served at the siege of Jerusalem under the Emperors Titus and Vespasian. The de Robeck’s of Gowran Grange, Punchestown, were the offspring of an Estonian aristocrat who rode out with the finest cavalry regiment in Europe. Jack Ponsonby, who built the fine neo-Classical house of Bishopscourt, Straffan, raised four companies of horse to fight against Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745. His descendant William Ponsonby led the ill-fated charge of the Scots Greys at the battle of Waterloo in 1815.

The Kildare Hunt Club was formally born in 1804, with Sir Fenton Aylmer of Donadea as its first master. Hunting had flourished in the 17th century but became a more formal entity by 1726 when the Ponsonbys of Bishopscourt established what might well constitute the original ‘Kildare Hunt’. The Conollys of Castletown House and the Kennedy’s of Johnstown both had a private pack of foxhounds by the 1760s.

There were also packs at Castlemartin, Ballynure, Castlewarden, Donadea and Straffan. The Leinster Harriers were established at Kilmorony House near Athy in 1812 while the Naas Harriers were kennelled at Jigginstown from 1920 until 2000. Another keen hunting family were the Burghs of Oldtown, Naas; TJ and Ulick Burgh both took part in the cavalry charge at the battle of Tel el Kebir in Egypt in 1882. In the early 19th century, hunt members simply ‘improvised some modest little meeting at which gentlemen and farmers alike could indulge their taste for riding over a typical bit of Kildare country’. And yet the sport transcended religion and class to such an extent that, in the diocese of Kildare and Leighlin, it was said that hunting amongst the Catholic clergy was widespread.

By the mid-nineteenth century there were upwards of 35 horse fairs held across the county in towns such as Castledermot, Naas and Athy; Monasterevin’s annual fair in July is now the only one still operational. (iii)

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There are records of horse races held at Rathgorragh, just south of Kill Hill, as well as at Rathcoole, Naas, Kilcock, Corbally Harbour and Burnt Furze under Furness Wood. In 1860, Punchestown was made the main meeting ground of the National Hunt, as well as the Kildare Hunt. It quickly became the most fashionable racecourse in Ireland, with huge fields turning out for each meet; the lively parties held at all the surrounding big houses likewise became the talk of the hunting set all over the British Empire.

Punchestown continues to be hugely popular while Naas also boasts an acclaimed racecourse that, along with the Curragh, completes a hat-trick for the county. County Kildare became the principal stronghold for the British cavalry in Ireland during the 19th century. It began in 1814, with the construction of a cavalry barracks for 1,000 men on the banks of the River Liffey in what subsequently became Newbridge. Forty years later the British Army established its first permanent camp in Ireland at the Curragh, ostensibly as a training ground for officers and soldiers bound for the Crimean War. The Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) was one of the Curragh’s first students although he appears to have learned about manoeuvres of a rather different nature during his dalliance with an actress, living locally, known as Nellie Clifden.

On the eve of the First World War, the army camp was the setting for the ‘Curragh Mutiny’, when British officers threatened to resign rather than oppose the Ulster Volunteer Force, an event that showed just how strong the Ulster Unionists’ influence was upon British military policy in Ireland. During the 1870s and 1880s the Curragh-based trainer Henry Linde of Eyrefield Lodge utterly dominated the chase on both sides of the Irish Sea. Propelled by such success stories, horse-breeding became a matter of great significance in Kildare. The National Stud was established in 1902 and successfully improved the quality of Irish bloodstock by offering high-class stallions at very competitive fees.

As its founder believed the success of each racehorse was dictated by the moon and stars, each stable had skylights fitted to maximise all such astronomical influences. The Tetrarch, one of the fastest two-year-olds of all time, was foaled at the Straffan Station Stud at Baronrath in 1911.

Ireland is now Europe’s largest – and the world’s fourth largest – producer of thoroughbreds, with over half of all Irish sales taking place in Goff’s Kildare Paddocks outside Naas, celebrating 150 years in 2016. Most of these champions are also bred in County Kildare, which is now home to over one hundred stud farms, including those operated by the Aga Khan, Prince Khalid Abdulla and the Al Maktoum family of Dubai. As of August 2016, the county is home to 801 registered breeders and 84 licensed trainers, as well as countless grooms, farriers, saddlers and vets. Among the most successful Kildare trainers of the 21st century are Jessie Harrington, Sandra Hughes, John Oxx and Dermot Weld, as well as the late Dessie Hughes, while the county’s elite of jockeys includes the remarkable Ruby Walsh, his sister Katie Walsh, Willie Robinson and the late Pat Eddery.

As well as racehorses and hunters, Kildare was a bastion of the draught horses that were once used to carry the people along the country roads, to plough the fields and to draw barges of stout and other goods along the waterways. A gentleman was even filmed water-skiing up the Grand Canal in the 1960s – while attached by a rope to a galloping horse. The tracks of the ropes of the horse drawn barges can still be seen by the canal bridge at Ardclough.

Untold numbers of the county’s horses were offered up for service when the First World War broke out in 1914. One such warhorse was Lisnavagh, an eventer belonging to the Mansfield family of Morristown Lattin who went to the Western Front and then returned to compete once again on Kildare soil.

One cannot neglect the paranormal presence of horses in the county. Aside from the Wizard Earl riding around Mullaghmast, the ghosts of James McRoberts, his mount and hounds have been heard thundering around the mist-shrouded rath near Maganey where McRoberts was buried. A herd of tiny white horses have also been espied at the Forenaghts rath while Grangemellon residents are constantly on the lookout for a coach and four, driven by a headless horseman, and believed to carry the ghost of Handsome Jack St. Leger, a renowned bon viveur and comrade of the decadent Prince Regent.

Probably the most astonishing story in the history of the Kildare Hunt concerns Major Beaumont, the hunt’s charismatic master, who passed away unexpectedly in 1958. At the first meeting after his funeral, the hounds brought the hunt all the way from Jigginstown to Major Beaumont’s graveside at Carnalway Church where they abruptly halted and ceased
‘the great cry that they had kept up unremittingly for the previous half hour.’

Kildare – The Thoroughbred County is by Historian and Author Turtle Bunbury.

[i] A 12th-century vellum manuscript in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin contains a poem said to have been composed by Ossian, son of Finn Mac Cool, in the third century, transcribed from a manuscript of a much earlier date. In this poem Ossian tells how the then King of Leinster opened the ‘Aonach Life’, ‘The Fair of the Liffey’. The event, which ran for several days, had many functions – a gathering of parliament, a memorial to the dead, a livestock market, an exhibition to showcase the latest weapons, embroidery, jewellery and fashion, a conference at which history and the laws were explained, an occasion for merry-making and contests in jugglery, strength, music, recitations, storytelling, and finally athletic competitions involving both horse and foot races, as well as athletic sports and other games.

[ii] The physical evidence may be hard to find but wooden-block wheels found at Timahoe East are thought to date from the late Bronze Age and may at least be evidence of horse-drawn carts.

[iii] Fair Towns of Ireland, Wilson’s Directory of Ireland, 1834 ( – KILDARE: Athy Ballimaney Ballyonan Ballytore Calvertstown Castledermot Castle Carberry Celbridge Clane French-furs Hortland Johnston’s bridge Killballinerin Kilcock Kilcullen Kilcullenbridge Kildangan Kildare town Kilgowan Kildroughill Kilmeague Kilteel Leixlip Maynooth Monasterevan Moone Naas Narraghmore Newbridge Rathangan Rathbride Redlion inn Russelwood Timolin Tully.