Kildare Voice June 30 2007
The Curragh in June
It appears there was never any viable alternative to the Curragh as a venue for Ireland’s premier horse race,
The Curragh’s place as the home of Irish horse racing goes back 350 years. It probably predates those first post-Cromwellian records of gallops across the plain, and the declaration in 1686, by William Bridgeman clerk to the Lord Lieutenant in Dublin, who reported that the “Curroe of Kildare” was “much better in my opinion both for the playne and the ayre than our Newmarket in England.’’
By the mid nineteenth century, Celtic revivalists were claiming Aonach Colmáin, the great fair of the Curragh, as the origins of the plain’s horse racing tradition, but the evidence is not abundant enough to convince.
Instead we are left with those scraps of evidence from the 1660s, a decade or so after the three sided civil war that had ravaged the entire county, when the King’s gentlemen were returning to Ireland to re-establish traditions that had undoubtedly been carried on before without leaving any records.
As the first royal mares were imported into England by Charles II, the Curragh was being pitched as a match to its English rival by the colonial administration in Dublin.
Although public horse races were held in Chester in 1512 it was in Newmarket in 1605 that racing developed its familiar structures in Newmarket. Charles I instituted the first cup race there in 1634. The Curragh may have had racing in the 1630s, in 1640 a race took place on the Curragh for a plate of £40 donated by trustees of the Fitzgeralds.
Colonel Edward Cooke recorded the first horse-racing result in history there when he wrote in restoration year 1660 of “many horse races on the Curragh, one four miles for £200 which my Lord Castlehaven lost to one Mr Butler.’’
A stand house was built at Newmarket in 1667 and the Curragh may have had one soon afterwards. In 1673 William Temple established a three day festival of racing at the Curragh, including two King’s Plates of £30 and £20, followed by a horse fair.
The infamous act of 1695 which prohibited Catholics from possessing a horse worth more than £5 may have relevance only in the sporting context, as working horses were rarely worth that amount.
Concepts such as stud books and throughbreds soon followed. The original thoroughbred stallion Byerly Turk was used at the battle of the Boyne. By 1717 the duties of the Ranger of the Curragh extended to “supervising the proper conduct of the King’s Plate.’’
Most of the race-courses we know today sprang up within a few years of each other in the middle decade of the 18th century. In 1731 the Dublin Intelligentser noted that “horse-racing has become a great diversion in the country.”
Meetings lasted generally for a week and were interspersed with other entertainment like fox and hare-hunting during the day and balls and plays every night. Prizes of silver ornaments or money were raced for, sometimes a damask or silver saddle.
Ten years later the King’s Plate was being run at the Curragh. In 1751, Ralph Gore the son in law of Tom Conolly of Castletown, won a 1,000 guinea race at the Curragh in 1751 against William Douglas, the Earl of March.
The Turf Club came into being in a coffee house in Kildare in 1790 to regulate wagers and ensure fair play on the racecourse. It quickly assumed a role as a court of final appeal for wager disputes of all types. When the Dan Donnelly-Tom Hall prize-fight was disputed in 1814 the Turf Club was asked to adjudicate on the matter.
The first attempt at an Irish derby was carried out by somebody with a sense of humour, calling it the O’Darby Oaks Stakes. It started in 1817 and after Britain’s visiting King George IV visited the venue in 1821, the Curragh races became the social highlight of the year in a county with plenty of aristocracy and few places to go.
Catholic clergy pleaded with their bishops for permission to attend. Even reforming Bishop James Warren Doyle, who normally opposed the gathering of the lower classes as scenes of drunkenness and sin, granted Naas Parish Priest Gerard Doyle permission to attend a race meeting in June 1825: “I wish you with all my heart peace and good running during this week and I wish you will be present on the turf to preserve the one as I am confident you will enjoy the other.”
The Comet of June 24 1832 gives us an example of the social aspect of race-day in pre-Famine Ireland is that from, which combined racing, social commentary, the names of the principals and the political issues of the day. Here is a brief extract:
“The June meeting of the Curragh came off last week with some tolerable good running.”
“It is our pleasing task to treat of the self-styled higher order of beings and their fellow mortals, and those days of the week likely to afford the best sport.”
“We noticed, on the course, the Earls of Howth, Arlington, Mayo and Miltown, Lords Downes, Dunsany, Messrs Blake, Battersby, Hynes, Armstrong, Maher, Vandeleur with several of the military swells from Naas and Newbridge.”
“The fifth dragoon guards band occasionally enlivened the scene in the several vehicles which graced the course.”
“ In the standhouse female loveliness shone out with a brilliancy too intense for us to attempt describing. Suffice to say that if the red-coated moths we saw fluttering about such soul-kindling eyes as those of the Misses – and – escaped with their wings unscathed they must have hearts less susceptible than ours. That’s all we shall say.”
It was 1866 before the Irish Derby as we know it got underway for an often substandard and impoverished history. Only in recent years has it been established as one of the major events on the international calendar.
Bridgeman the 1686 civil servant finally got his wish.