Peerless Punchestown …
Liam Kenny rambles through the environs of the celebrated venue where the National Hunt Festival will go on this year without punters because of the Covid lockdown
It is hard to imagine that there will be no public Punchestown this year with the racing going ahead behind closed doors. Last year, in the initial shock of the pandemic, neither man nor animal graced the Punchestown turf. This year marks only the second time since 1900 that there have been no crowds in Punchestown for two years running. Such a chasm in the festival calendar last happened in 1919 and 1920 when a combination of republican militancy and railway workers’ strikes prompted the Kildare Hunt Committee to cancel the meetings.
The cancellation of Punchestown just over a century ago took place against the background of the “Troubles” which ravaged Ireland.
There was resentment among the ordinary people at the sense of entitlement of the hunting set which was comprised mainly of the ruling class who had run the country during British times. This was true of hunts in many parts of Ireland but there was no entity which reflected the British establishment more closely than the Kildare Hunt which was the social club on hooves for Dublin Castle with colonial administrators forsaking their desks at will to go hunting with the Killing Kildares.
In some parts of the country Sinn Fein activists had interrupted hunts and there were skirmishes where blackthorns and whips rent the air as demonstrators attempted to block the hunt from forcing its way through their barricades. The prospect of something similar happening at Punchestown was enough to force the Kildare Hunt committee to call the meeting off at the eleventh hour in 1919. With the unrest continuing, and the trains stopped through railway strikes, a similar fate befell the 1920 fixture.
However, as pandemic walkers will have discovered this past year there is plenty to be seen in the environs of Punchestown even without the circus of a thronged race meeting.
Let’s start our look at the Punchestown environs on the main road between Naas and Ballymore Eustace at the junction known as Watch House Cross. The cross takes its name from a guard house located on the Woolpack Road — an old route used by merchants taking their wares from the Curragh to Dublin as an alternative to the main road from Naas to the capital. From there, walk up the hill on a short section of the Woolpack road to the gates of Punchestown emblazoned with the celebrated fox motif of the Kildare Hunt whose leading lights established the venue as a race course back in 1850.
Our ramble continues through the townland of Punchestown Great which accommodates most of the racecourse estate. In ancient times this was the demesne of the powerful Eustace family whose status in east Kildare is reflected in the name of Ballymore Eustace to the present day. The Eustace’s had a stronghold in Naas too. Indeed, well into the twentieth century there were the remains of a Eustace castle located in Naas beside where Lawlor’s hotel stands today.
A backward glance focuses on the standing stone – Kildare’s answer to the leaning tower of Pisa – seven tons of granite leaning at an angle from the perpendicular. It is one of three in the east Kildare area which tell how ancient people were drawn to these elevated fertile plains. Only a highly organised society could have engineered the transportation of blocks of granite from Wicklow and erected them on the pastures of east Kildare. In the old days, people used to explain their presence by saying that Fionn MacCumhaill had thrown them there from the Hill of Allen in a fit of rage with a rival warrior. Modern geology would disprove such an otherwise endearing tale – the Punchestown stones are of granite, the Hill of Allen is volcanic basalt.
Turning back towards the racecourse we head up to the grassy slopes with, distinctive among the racecourse buildings, the “big yellow shed” which in the past six months has become familiar to many Kildare people as the location of a Covid testing and vaccination centre
Passing the racecourse enclosure, we head for the highest point on the track where the steeplechase course turns towards Eadestown and there are views across the countryside to the hills of east Kildare. This is the starting point of the circuit of Punchestown which has become so well known to walkers from Naas and environs for whom it is a traffic-free circuit within five kilometres of the county town.
A small hill beyond the eastern perimeter of the course used to be known as the “Priest’s Hill”. The story goes that back in the days of severe church-rules, priests were banned from race meetings but that did not stop them from gathering on a hill at the far side of the course where they viewed the races, a mile away from the main crowd. The rules changed in the twentieth century so much so that one priest – Fr Sean Breen, former Parish Priest of Eadestown, is immortalised in a sculpture near the parade ring at Punchestown testifying to the regard in which he was held by the racing community.
The views from the upper reaches of the course extend to the hills of Tipper Kevin where pilgrims once stopped at the holy well on their way to St Kevin’s monastery at Glendalough. Beyond the Kildare hills are the blue outlines of the Wicklow mountains where Lugnaquillia in Co Wicklow, Leinster’s highest mountain, is distinctive on the horizon. It is not surprising that the Kildare Hunt grandees chose Punchestown back in 1850 as the venue for the country’s premier steeplechasing course, so spectacular is its airy vistas.
Our itinerary takes us sweeping in the path of galloping hooves down the hill towards the brook fence where the Morrell stream used to form one of the obstacles on the course. It was here too that Punchestown had a brush with modern royalty.
While there has been much emphasis on the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland in 2011, it is worth noting that two decades previously Punchestown had hosted royalty in the person of Princess Anne who visited the international Horse Trials in the early 1990s. Her visit was kept secret from the media until the morning of the event and the few who were in the know recall seeing her near the brook fence, expertly inspecting the obstacles on the horse-trials course, with detectives from Naas Garda station in attendance.
From this brook at the bottom of the hill we traverse the short-grass to the formidable obstacle known as the “Big Double”. This is a ditch-bank-ditch combination on the banks’ course where horse-and-rider have to launch themselves on to the bank, change stride and then push off the bank clearing the ditch on the landing side.
Back in the day, true-blue hunting people used to gather here watching the progress of the races out of the country. This writer recalls being there on a Punchestown race-day and looking one side to see standing there Mr Liam Cosgrove, Taoiseach of Ireland in the 1970s, attired in bowler hat with field-glasses pressed to his eyes. Mr Cosgrove was such a dedicated follower of Punchestown that he attended the course until he was in his nineties.
Continuing onwards the racetrack follows its clockwise circuit across more bush fences, passing the stone wall, another legacy of the traditional racing obstacles, before eventually climbing the long hill and entering the sweeping turn towards the finishing straight where many a race has been won and lost. As we walk by the Ballymore end of the track one thinks of the great steeplechaser Millhouse who was bred by the Lawlor family of Naas at their farm at Bawnogues immediately bordering the racecourse. Millhouse was one part of the great racing rivalry of the early 1960s which saw him vanquished by the legendary Arkle in repeated running of the Cheltenham Gold Cup. It was a sporting rivalry which galvanised Ireland.
Arkle, ridden by Pat Taaffe who was based near Straffan, was carrying Irish hopes while Millhouse, then trained and owned in England, was labelled as his English rival. When the two horses came to the last fence in Cheltenham it was literally a case of Ireland versus England. And yet the irony of it was that Millhouse was as Irish as could be, having been bred in a paddock within a short trot of Punchestown.
Although he was one of the best chasers of his era, it is strange to relate that Millhouse took a fall in one of his rare outings at Punchestown races. The explanation among the local bar-stool pundits that evening was that Millhouse thought he was back in his old paddock beside the track and had bent his neck down to take a munch of the grass, unshipping his jockey in the process!
And, truth to tell, Millhouse is not the only horse bred neighbouring to Punchestown who has his name inscribed in the victory roll of National Hunt racing. Immediately adjacent to the racecourse is the townland of Blackhall where an experienced horsewoman Ms Sheila Burke, bred a horse she named “ESB”. The horse was bought by an English owner and, in time, was entered into the Aintree Grand National of 1956 where he started as an outsider at 100/8. ESB managed to stay in the field over the formidable Aintree fences as the race entered the long finishing straight. But as the field came to “the elbow” he was in second place by a distance to a horse named Devon Loch which was owned by the Queen Mother.
All of England was on its feet cheering on the horse with the royal connection to win the blue riband of the steeplechasing world.
And then, although looking a certain winner, and with only yards to go, the unthinkable happened – Devon Loch seemed to take fright and came to a dramatic halt digging his hooves into the turf.
And while the Aintree crowd was stunned into silence at their favourite’s freezing up, the unfancied ESB came storming through to claim an unlikely but famous victory in the Grand National. A horse bred in Eadestown parish had written his name into sporting history. Such is yet another story from racing history to add to the rich folklore of Punchestown and its adjoining townlands.
With that tale from steeplechasing lore, we will leave the pen down on our reminiscences of Punchestown in bygone years and wish all the owners, trainers and jockeys, together with the resilient Punchestown staff, well for this year’s event, the strangest running of the national hunt festival in modern times.