The Khaki Derby and other stories
History confers no particular title on the Irish Derby of June 1916. But this column will add a distinction to this war-time instalment of Ireland’s premier thoroughbred race by deeming it to have been the “Khaki Derby”. The Curragh correspondent of the local press declared: “… rarely, if ever, have the military mustered in stronger numbers. Inside and outside the enclosure was dotted with khaki.” How there was such an abundance of soldierly at the meeting is an enigma given that there was a devastating war on in Europe and that the security situation in Ireland, two months after the Rising, remained tense. But it would take more than conflict, global or local, to keep the uniformed followers of the turf confined to barracks.
Much more inconvenient for some punters was the haphazard rail service provided for Derby week. One disgruntled commentator lashed out: “The train arrangements from Sallins to the Curragh races for Naas and Tullow branch were of the most crude description. On Tuesday visitors arrived just in time to see the first race and on the Thursday the train arrived when the horses were on their way to the starting post.” The complaining correspondent offered a solution: “The special trains from Dublin are often sparsely filled. Why not start them ten minutes earlier and stop at Sallins – as in years gone by?”
For those who did make it to the course on time on the Tuesday there was drama on the track. A jockey named Fred Hunter “had his foot badly bruised by coming in contact with the rails in the Ballymany Stakes.” Afterwards he was in much pain and had to relinquish some rides but he rallied for the Derby the following day and steered the three year old “Brendan” into third place behind “King Robert” and the winner “Furore”. The winner had been tipped by the racing correspondent who reasoned that his English form could not be ignored and that he carried a lot of money of “the right sort”.
And now for something completely different. Mid-summer sends the mind wandering thus what follows are miscellaneous notes about things happening around and about.
Firstly, a word for Staplestown’s scribe John Freeman who has just published his fifth book in eight years. His new volume with the intriguing title of “The 51 Acres and Jennifer O’Neill” represents a change in direction for the prolific Mr Freeman who has written four histories to date covering an often neglected part of Kildare – the communities on the fringes of the Bog of Allen embracing the Timahoe, Donadea, and Staplestown districts. “51 acres” brings him into the creative genre of historical fiction, a blend of facts woven into an extra-ordinary story line.
The author has the reader guessing from the get-go. In his opening line he states that “Most of the contents in this book are fictitious” which straight away hooks one into trying to interpret what is fact and what is fiction. The plot is so intricate, and the action moves at such a breathless pace, that within the slim volume there is more adventure and incident than one could find in blockbusters many times its size. The writer’s engaging writing style transfers well into creative prose and marks a move into new literary terrain for this most enthusiastic of north Kildare authors. “51 acres” is on sale in newsagents in Clane, Prosperous, and Naas.
Readers who walk the popular Lakelands amenity area near Naas hospital will have been mystified by a small boat at anchor on the waters of the middle lake. What is this vision in white with what appears to be three hooded figures on board a ghost-like vessel? The installation is a representation – not a replica – of the boat on which Kildare-man Ernest Shackleton made his extraordinary voyage through the terrifying seas of the Antarctic ocean to seek help for the his men stranded on the freezing continent when their expedition ship had become trapped in the relentless ice floes. Shackleton’s voyage has been hailed as one of the great narratives of leadership and survival. Across 800 miles of thunderous seas with nothing other than a sextant for navigation and little or no shelter on board Shackleton led his crew to landfall on the barren South Georgia island. In recent years Shackleton’s achievements have been recognised in the county of his birth with the Athy Heritage Centre leading the charge.
To extend awareness of Shackleton’s heritage across the county, researcher Kevin Kenny and graphic artist Craig Blackwell conceived of a recreation of the James Caird, the small boat in which Shackleton made his celebrated rescue voyage. The boat is fitted out with three figures representing the fact that the crew of six kept watch in teams of three. The James Caird representation had its maiden voyage appropriately on the River Barrow within sight of the Heritage Centre which each year hosts the Shackleton Autumn school which attracts a global audience to Athy. From there the boat has been relocated to the lake close to Naas hospital. Its exhibition in the county town is relevant given that members of the well-known Spring family in Naas are connected to the Shackletons. The project has had intellectual and practical support from the Arts, Heritage and Local History Services of Kildare County Council.
Mentioning the aforesaid County Council this column recently lamented the paucity of public transport connections between mid-Kildare and north Kildare or, in practical terms, say between Newbridge and Celbridge, or Naas and Maynooth. It was mentioned that even the cross-country roads linking the north and mid-county were not given the attention that their traffic loads would demand. So it is gratifying to notice earlier this month the professional job of strengthening and resurfacing that was being rolled out on the Kill to Straffan Road. Contractors working for the Council with a fleet of specialised machinery applied particular attention to stretches of the road between the Blue Door and the turn for Ardclough. This is the sort of good work which goes on without acknowledgement but is key to improving the quality of life for those who need to get from one side of Kildare to the other. And maybe such improvements might make it that little more likely that folk from Kilcullen will take a trip over to Kilcock or denizens of Leixlip might journey south-west to Lullymore – if for no other reason than to see how the other half lives. Leinster Leader 21 June 2016, Looking Back, Series no: 491.