The politics of Punchestown
Sport and politics make uneasy bed-fellows yet such is the all pervasive nature of politics that no assembly of people whether for sporting or other purposes is entirely free of political machinations. And this was certainly the case in the volatile years of the ‘Troubles’ also known as the War of Independence from 1919 to 1921. In the first of those disturbed years, the Punchestown April meeting, an annual fixture since 1850, was to find itself overwhelmed by the surging emotions unleashed by the campaign for an independent Ireland.
The April meeting of 1919 was caught between the Sinn Féin movement in Co. Kildare and the interests of the owners of Punchestown, the Kildare Hunt Club, largely populated by the county squires of the day. Why was the Kildare Hunt targeted by the Sinn Feiners? The most obvious reason is that the titled gentry who made up the committee of the Kildare Hunt were associated with the apparatus of British government in Ireland. Most were of a unionist persuasion and made no secret of their desire to keep Ireland within the British empire – others were more sympathetic to the nationalist cause but the majority of Kildare Hunt grandees belonged firmly to a social class that was tightly bound to the machinery of Empire. A core issue of the Sinn Féin campaign was its call to have republican political prisoners released. The magistrates and Dublin Castle officials who hunted with the Kildare hounds were seen as part of the system which had interned the republicans and had kept them in jail.
Another factor that aroused the ire of nationalists was that Gaelic football matches were policed closely by the Royal Irish Constabulary – and indeed the organisers of Gaelic Games had to apply for permits to the Resident Magistrates. No such restrictions applied to the hunting classes. To rub salt into the wound the Resident Magistrates to whom the GAA made its applications were invariably hunt members or supporters. As a correspondent to the Kildare Observer, one Gerard Broe of Tipperstown Straffan remarked: ‘ … the supporters of athletics and football were forced by the Government to apply to a magistrate (a Hunt Club member) for a permit before advertising a fixture. This, I suppose, was not political, although the law was administered by a prominent Hunt Club member. As a keen supporter of all branches of support I would like equal rights also.’
Fears for the Punchestown April meeting had been expressed from early in the spring of 1919 as news of the widespread Sinn Fein campaign of stopping the hunts came in from various parts of the country. An issue of the Irish Times in March 1919 reported on a violent melee in north Cork where the famous Muskerry hunt was stopped by Sinn Féiners. The protesters wielded hurleys, sticks and stones while the huntsmen hit back with whips. There was a similar report from County Waterford where a hunt meeting in Tramore was disrupted by protesters calling on the hunt to sign a petition for the release of Sinn Féin prisoners. The following day the home of the Master of the East Waterford Hounds was attacked and windows broken.
The trouble was not long in spreading to Kildare. An edition of the Kildare Observer of March 1919 reported that a meeting of the Kildare Hunt at Betaghstown near Clane had been obstructed by Sinn Féiners who lined the road three deep. The Hunt Club issued an ultimatum that if its sport of hunting across the Kildare countryside was to be blocked then it would pull the National Hunt meeting scheduled for Punchestown in April. The Hunt made the case that the daily hunt meets were necessary to generate the kind of income needed to stage the race meeting. If these were going to be obstructed then the Punchestown race meeting would suffer too. In the view of the Hunt committee ‘hunting, Hunt race meetings, and Hunt horse shows stand or fall together.’ The omens were not good when word came through that the National Hunt Committee had cancelled the Fairyhouse meeting on Easter Monday as retaliation for the Sinn Féin campaign of stopping the country hunt meetings. The Kildare Hunt followed suit and abandoned the Punchestown meeting of 1919. A headline in the Kildare Observer summed up the local reaction in suitably apolyptic terms ‘ The end of sport?’. It was not the first, nor the last time, in which politics and Punchestown would clash but it was a spectacular example of how the struggle between nationalists and unionists played out to the detriment of a cherished sporting fixture. Series no: 225.
The influence of the Troubles on Punchestown racing from Liam Kenny’s series ‘Looking Back’ Leinster Leader 19 April 2011