by jdurney on December 11, 2010

Major J. H. de Burgh –  custodian of a 300 year old family tradition

Liam Kenny

The expression ‘the end of an era’ was the reaction of many in the Naas area on learning of the passing of Major J H de Burgh of Oldtown House on Saturday morning last. Invariably known as ‘the Major’ he was the personification of a de Burgh presence in Naas going back some three centuries when his ancestor Thomas Burgh set out the forest and water gardens at Oldtown in the early 18th century. It was an inheritance cherished by the late Major who was acutely aware of his family’s contribution over many generations to the civic and sporting life of Naas and Co. Kildare. For generations of Naas locals ‘de Burghs’ meant the wonderland of woods, lakes and streams bounded by the Sallins Road, Mill Lane and the banks of the Grand Canal. John de Burgh was rightly protective of the lovely estate yet always ready and proud to welcome groups of local schoolchildren, scouts and historians who were enchanted by the sylvan wonderland. Inevitably it was the Major himself and his rich and extraordinary life story which competed for attention with the arboreal beauty of the Oldtown grounds.

John Hubert de Burgh was born in 1921, son of Hubert Henry de Burgh and Margery (nee Buchan), into on a family tree which numbered some of the leading country families in Co. Kildare and beyond among its connections. His paternal grandparents were Col. T.J. de Burgh, an influential figure in the civic life of early twentieth century Naas, and the spirited Emily de Robeck of Gowran Grange, near Punchestown.
He was educated in England and from an early age showed that he had inherited the anciently formed de Burgh qualities of leadership and horsemanship being selected to lead his school’s equestrian display team. On holidays home to Oldtown he often rode out to Joe Osborne’s stables at Craddockstown to gain experience at schooling horses. As with so many young men of his background he interweaved the business of making a living with a passion for sport on the racecourse and on the hunting field – a sporting balance which he maintained throughout his life. First though another de Burgh characteristic, that of military service was to intervene.  While destined to follow the prescribed path of a spell in the British army this destiny took on a new and more serious aspect with the call up for service at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. At just eighteen years of age he gained a commission in the Ayreshire Yeomanry, a front line artillery unit. He valued the bonds formed with his regimental comrades and in later years he was to affectionately recall the Ayreshires as being ‘a bloody good regiment.’  His own accounts of his battle experience were understated but the record shows that he was an inspirational and unflinching officer always driving forward to meet the enemy head on. His first theatre of action was in the fierce fighting against Germany’s Afrika Corps in the North African desert. In January 1943 his unit came face to face with a squadron of Rommel’s Panzer tanks in a battle for a position known as ‘Hill 286’. It was crucial to the security of the Allied lines and the Germans attacked it with ferocity. In the chaos of a night time battle John de Burgh and his crew were cut off from the rest of their unit. In a dash to break out he was wounded in the head and knocked unconscious. Despite his wounds he ran the gauntlet of gunfire and managed to break through to the Allied lines. His brave stand in an isolated position helped save the Allied lines from collapse in one of the pivotal battles in the north African theatre. For his courage in the field he was awarded the Military Cross, the first in a number of distinctions he gained through his insistence in leading his men from the front. It was a style of leadership which carried him from the sweeping tank battles of north Africa through to the landings in Italy in February 1944, the gruelling fighting around Monte Cassino, and the subsequent slog through the north of Italy to Austria. He remained with his regiment until 1947 when the pull of the racing sport drew him back to the schooling grounds of Sandown in preparation for a return to Ireland and the development of a successful breeding operation at Oldtown. He recalled this pivotal period in his life: ‘I had decided that horses and racing would be my life, but it had to be a business and produce an income that would enable me to live at Oldtown.’ He rode winners at Cheltenham and made connections among owners, trainers and jockeys at the highest level of the racing industry. Racing was to be the background theme to another milestone in his life at the time – he met his wife Clare when she asked him to ride her horse at Cheltenham. The couple returned to Naas after the Cheltenham meeting of 1952, announced their engagement at Punchestown in April of that year, and were married in September. Their partnership was mutually reinforcing, their common interests in local involvement, estate management and country sports providing the core to a long and happy marriage. It required all their combined determination to reinvigorate the Oldtown estate which like many properties of its kind had seen hard times in the years from the early 1920s to the end of the Emergency era in the 1940s. The Naas which John and Clare de Burgh arrived back to had changed little in the previous decades. He recalled: ‘It was still possible to ride through the middle of Naas with my point-to-point horses and Clare’s dogs; we could even ride along the Dublin road.’   A fire in the old house at Oldtown in 1955 added to the estate woes but as with other aspects of the property’s circumstances he used it as a new beginning – rebuilding a more compact house in the style intended by the original de Burgh at Oldtown.  He similarly modernised the remit of the Oldtown estate: he sold off many of the old leases which the de Burgh estate had held in the town of Naas and concentrated the resources of Oldtown on building up a compact but quality stud farm. Under his leadership a loyal staff built Oldtown Stud into a first rate operation which produced a Group One winner in 1964, a triple Oaks winner in 1978, and in 1984 achieved the then record price for a yearling of one million pounds sterling at Newmarket sales. On the administrative side of Irish racing the name ‘Maj. J.H. de Burgh’ appeared regularly in the listing of stewards at National Hunt meetings throughout the country. He was instrumental in bringing the Irish racing industry into a modern commercial era while at the same time respecting the traditions which had underpinned the sporting interest in previous generations. It required persistence and the changes were not always welcomed by the old guard. The modernisation of Punchestown including the transition from a banks course to a more specialised bush fence course was among the challenges he faced. He felt strongly that if Punchestown was to retain its repute as a leading National Hunt fixture it must have a proper bush fence course. However the transition was not easy as he recalled: ‘This produced a head on collision with the Kildare Hunt. Eventually we won and by the time I retired we also had a flat race course.’
His duties in relation to Punchestown were nothing if not varied. It had been customary for the Head of State to be invited to the April festival meeting and in a previous generation this had seen Royal visits, conferring the title ‘Princely Punchestown’ on the east Kildare course. The continuation of this invitation in post Free State Ireland produced some unlikely combinations of tradition as when John de Burgh found himself at the wheel of a Land Rover taking the President of Ireland, Eamon de Valera (not a noted racing fan) on a guided drive around Punchestown’s hills and dales.  Apart from such protocol duties he was influential at the highest levels of the racing sport in Ireland. His appointments included election to the National Hunt Stewards committee in 1959 being Senior Steward when Arkle won his first Gold Cup. He was elected to the Turf Club in 1961 and also served for fifteen years on the Irish Racing Board. His circle of acquaintances was extensive and in a discreet way he managed to interest important figures in the promotion of the racing industry which was of particular value to Co. Kildare. Among frequent guests at Oldtown was the US Ambassador, Raymond Guest, who became a strong patron of the industry.
Retirement was a concept unknown to John de Burgh and when in later years he was to give up active stud farming and committee work he refocused his energies on the management of the home farm and gardens at Oldtown. Conscious of the place which the de Burgh’s had in the civic and community life of Naas he reached out to his urban neighbours and gave quiet but consistent support to an array of local ventures. A signature project was his involvement in the restoration of the Grand Canal branch to Naas in the 1980s – an altogether fitting involvement given that the name ‘Burgh’ had been engraved o
n the stone pier of the third lock gate in Naas by the canal builders in the 1780s. He served on the community council and was a valued supporter of the Tidy Towns committee and continued the family’s long association with St. David’s Church of Ireland.  His sporting interests were reflected in his discreet but practical support to the tennis, boxing and soccer clubs in the town, among others.  As Naas was expanding in its modern suburban configuration it became increasingly difficult to run a working estate and in 1998 the Oldtown farm was sold off. However the house and woodland grounds were retained and he welcomed visitors and groups who were enthralled with its timelessness and tranquillity, a sylvan oasis in the modern town.  As recently as May of this year he was to be seen in the Oldtown gardens, benignly patrolling the grounds laid out by his ancestors three centuries previously.  He is survived by his wife Clare and family, Hubert, Caroline and William. The internationally renowned singer Chris de Burgh (Davison) and his daughter, former Miss World, Rosanna Davison, are among the wider family connections. 

A end of an era passed with the death of Major John Hubert de Burgh on 4 December 2010. An obituary by Liam Kenny. Our thanks to Liam.

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