by ehistoryadmin on April 18, 2023

Beasley the hero as Ireland emerges from war … Punchestown 1923

By Liam Kenny

Armed troops patrolling the streets of Naas … Civic Guards stationed at twenty-yard intervals … aircraft observing from above … not the normal picture in Kildare’s county town on the eve of a Punchestown racing festival but then, 100 years ago, things were anything but normal.

The years from 1919-23 had seen Ireland convulsed by the “troubles” as the birth pangs of the new Irish State played out against a background of violence and terror. Firstly, the War of Independence against the British had seen an unprecedented cancellation of Punchestown in successive years, 1919 and 1920.  Racing resumed in 1921 while the 1922 fixture managed to go-ahead against the background of an ever-deepening split among Irish nationalists as to whether the Treaty with Britain should be accepted.

The subsequent months of winter of 1922 into 1923 had seen a conflict termed the “civil war” impact County Kildare with a spate of train hi-jacking, road trenching, arson and robbery. The new Irish Government, in place tentatively since the previous year responded strongly with internments and executions including the largest such execution of anti-treaty combatants at the Curragh camp prison in the preceding December.

By the time the Punchestown of April 1923 came the civil war was coming to a bloody conclusion with the anti-treaty faction realising the futility of persistence among a war-weary public who wanted to resume their normal lives. However, the new national government might well have feared a dying spasm from the anti-treaty faction targeting Punchestown which despite its wide popularity had a particular association with the establishment, thence the patrolling soldiers and 200 Civic Guard deployed to Naas to protect racegoers.

There was both change and continuity evident at the 1923 meeting.  The Dublin Castle elite who had fuelled the social whirl at Punchestown was no longer dominant – its place taken by a new native Government with its police force, the Civic Guard – and a new army, the National Army.  The status of Punchestown as a pre-eminent social and sporting occasion in the country had been recognised by the old guard down through the years by the attendance of royalty or its representative, the Lord Lieutenant. The leaders of the new Irish State were determined to continue the tradition and the 1923 meeting was attended by the President of the new Irish Free State, Mr W. T. Cosgrave and by the first Governor-General, Mr Tim Healy – the latter’s fortune in placing a winning bet was proclaimed as a good omen for the newly independent Ireland.

The Punchestown correspondent for the “Kildare Observer” newspaper reported on the changes to be seen in Naas on the eve of the racing festival.  “We are having Punchestown this week under altered conditions”, he wrote, “For the first time it is being held in a purely Irish atmosphere – with not even a Lord Lieutenant to pay a visit, official or unofficial.” This was not the only first to be remarked by the astonished correspondent: “… for the first time in the history of the meeting we have armed soldiers in the streets of Naas, a number on each side of the street, carrying rifles and full equipment. “

Naturally, this show of security had the effect of subduing the atmosphere on the eve of the famed festival which hitherto had seen the town in carnival mode with visitors including entertainers, minstrels and three-card trick purveyors. For our correspondent in April 1923, it was the silence of the county town on race-day eve which struck him. The itinerant musicians who in previous years had Naas of the Kings resounding to the strains of melodeons and dulcimers were silent. “On Monday evening not, a single musical instrument did I hear and except for the (new) Civic Guard there were few about,” he observed.

But if the build-up to the festival was low-key in Naas, things changed once racing got under way through Punchestown’s hills-and-dales. The hero of the meeting was the veteran jockey, Mr Harry Beasley, who on the opening day rode his mare, Pride of Arras, to victory in the Maiden Plate, 45 years after he had ridden his first winner at Punchestown (for the record his mount in 1878 was “Shadow”, owned by Mr Keely, a sporting farmer of Bawnogues townland adjacent to the course).

Beasley’s win at Punchestown 1923 prompted a delirious reception by the punters who chaired him shoulder-high to the Hunt Stand and presented him to Mr Cosgrave, President of the Free State and to Mr Healy, the Governor-General.  Each year for the previous fifty or more the admiring dignitary would have been a Lord Lieutenant or cognate titled representative of the imperial state. But from 1923 the triumphs of Punchestown would take place with the benign approval of the new Irish State and its shiny new Civic Guard.

Leinster Leader 18 April 2023

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