Glorious Punchestown – 150 years old

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 2 (Summer 2000), Volume 8


Painting of the riders in the Corinthian Cup, 1854, by Michael Angelo Hayes

Painting of the riders in the Corinthian Cup, 1854, by Michael Angelo Hayes

The annual three-day Spring Festival meeting at Punchestown is a major event in the Irish racing calendar, while the venue itself is considered to be one of the world’s finest national hunt racecources. Over the last century and a half it has developed a unique atmosphere, and for the people of Kildare it is celebrated as an annual holiday. On Walking Sunday, just before the racing gets underway, hundreds of fans come to walk and inspect the course, and for the race days the schools and banks close to enable everyone to enjoy the sport. In addition to the Spring Festival and other fixtures during the national hunt season, flat racing has been introduced.

First meeting held ‘amid a perfect hurricane’

The first race meeting of the Kildare Hunt Club took place at Punchestown on 1 April 1850. According to the Leinster Express
The morning broke hazy and threatening and caused an exceedingly thin attendance from Dublin, the assemblage at Punchestown being chiefly composed of persons from the surrounding neighbourhood…while the course was laid out with about a score of leaps in the three miles, and fourteen in the two mile run, several of them teasers, the arrangements lacked perfection.

The fact that there was no stand house, that the view of the running was limited, and that the course was very badly kept, displeased the journalist. Neither did the weather help:

as the day advanced the wind and rain increased in violence, and the sports, which did not commence ‘till a quarter past two o’clock, were carried on amid a perfect hurricane…the weather continuing boisterous and wet; and the journey back to Dublin being as disagreeable as can well be imagined.

The first two-day April meeting at Punchestown was in 1854, by which time a wooden stand had been erected. That meeting was  immortalised in Michael Angelo Hayes’ water colour painting The Corinthian Cup. The success of the meeting of 1863 inspired a bard to compose a fifty-five verse epic, in the course of which he mentioned such County Kildare worthies as Lord Naas, Aylmer of Donadea, the Baron de Robeck, and Tom Conolly MP:

A loud hurrah for Ireland, boys,
And louder for Kildare,
And loudest of all for Punchestown,
For I known you all are there.

The fame of the two-day meeting was reflected in the extensive coverage it was given in the daily press, as in 1864 when the presence of two marquises, an earl, a viscount, a lord, a baron, a baronet and an MP where amongst the stewards:

Every residence in the neighbourhood, from that of the peer down to the peasant, bore evidence of the approaching meeting for days previous, and every train had the brougham, family omnibus, or private car awaiting its arrival with the visitors to partake of Kildare hospitality during the meet…to judge by the state of the highway one could suppose Dublin to be deserted.

It was estimated that the Great Southern Railway carried over 5,000 passengers over the two days ‘without the least inconvenience to Sallins’.

The Hunt Ball

The end of the Kildare hunt season, and of the two days of racing at Punchestown, culminated in the Hunt Ball, the social event of the year, attended by the nobility and gentry of the county and of neighbouring counties. In 1867 the entrance to the Town Hall, Naas, was decorated with evergreens and lattice work, and the police were on duty outside to control the onlookers. Inside the hall the rooms were

brilliantly lighted with gas, and the walls decorated with flowers, evergreens, bannerettes and armorial devices. Caterers from Dublin provided the supper which included every delicacy of the season, including boar’s head, Limerick ham, ox-tongues, galatines of veal and turkey, periford of pies, soup, salmon, roast chicken and duckling, lobster salads, jellies creams etc.

A decade later it was reported that the Town Hall had been redecorated for the Hunt Ball and it

was not unworthy of the groups of fair women and brave men there congregated, carpe noctem their motto, as usual [Col. St Leger Moore of] Killashee panelled the spolia opima and emblems of the chase in a fine trophy.

Glorious Punchestown - 150 years old 2

The wines brought pleasant enjoyment without subsequent remorse to the middle man…His Royal Highness the Duke of Connaught, who seems to have inherited the almost ubiquitous gifts of his family, was no mere spectator of the gay scene, and I have no doubt that several plighted youths and maids found the soft glow of wax tapers and the delicious music just as pleasing as April’s ivory moonlight beneath the chestnut shade of the poet’s conception.

Prince of Wales attends ‘as a duty’

The hunt races of the  following year were even more exciting and glamorous as the twenty-seven-year-old Prince of Wales, who was familiar with County Kildare from the training period he had spent in the Curragh camp some years before, was there. His attendance marked the inaugural steeple chase for the Plate in his name. But his mother was not happy that he should be attending the races: ‘I much regret that the occasion should be the races as it naturally strengthens the belief, already too prevalent, that your chief object is amusement’. The prince replied that he was very anxious ‘dear Mama, that you should fully understand that I do not go there for my amusement, but as a duty’. Lord Mayo, he pleaded, had particularly asked him to come. But the Irish Times disapproved:

Held in a wild and inhospitable district, at some distance from a railway station, and with but the small town of Naas to afford the accommodation so urgently required for a gathering of such a calibre, it would appear the last place to select for a festival so truly national.

The royal visit was also remarkable for the first known photographs of the meeting, and the making of a splendid engraving by T.S. Sanger from a painting by Henry Barraud. It shows the prince, mounted on a white steed, surrounded by the  county worthies and forty-six military gentlemen. The Dublin photographer, Mr Chancellor, took the photographs  which included scenes of the ordinary people on the outside watching the racing.

1868-the Prince of Wales, in a white coat, surrounded by other gentlemen, before the stand, with the animation of the people on the ‘Outside' in the foreground.

1868-the Prince of Wales, in a white coat, surrounded by other gentlemen, before the stand, with the animation of the people on the ‘Outside’ in the foreground.

To exploit the demand for pictures of the royal occasion, Chancellor had autotypes made from his stereo-photographs by Mr J.O’Hea, and printed in permanent colours by Sarony & Co., Scarborough. O’Hea drew his impression of the royal party, their entourage and the crowds of onlookers, on gelatine which was then transferred to soft metallic plates for printing. This combination of photography and drawing produced a splendid souvenir of the day, with all of the animation of the crowd apparent.
Reporting the meeting of 1870, the Illustrated London News said that

there was a larger concourse of people than had assembled for many  years…the Grand Stand was reserved chiefly for ladies. The 6th Carabiniers had a private stand, with a saloon where they entertained their friends. The State Fusilier Guards and the 43rd Regiment were encamped on the tented field in a spirit of free hospitality. The band of the Carabiniers played in front of the Grand Stand and agreeably relieved the monotonous din of the betting ring.

Priest’s Hill

The Conyngham Cup of 1872 was the subject of four fine pictures by J. Sturgess, engraved by E.G. Hester. Visible in the background of one of the pictures is a small gathering of people on the Priest’s Hill, the place from which the clergy watched the races during the years that their attendance at such meetings was forbidden by the church.
According to the Kildare Observer of 28 April 1900:

The drive from Naas to the racecourse was very enjoyable, but extremely dusty. Fortunately the silk hat, which was, as usual, mostly in evidence, does not suffer so much from dust as from rain, although a combination of both is an unspeakable calamity.

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But the ladies’ hats, many of which were, undoubtedly masterpieces, might have suffered severely hadn’t their fair wearers been forewarned and forearmed. Many a delicate creation of the milliner’s art travelled the road to dusty Punchestown enveloped in white silk covers, that looked like turbans, and gave quiet an oriental appearance to the wearers. The enterprising gentlemen who wait in ambush at the end of the drive, and, armed with a clothes brush and an undeniable manner, fall upon the dusty fares, drove a flourishing trade. This brush with the enemy, as it might fairly be called, was in many cases, unnecessary, for ample accommodation was provided by the courteous stewards for those who were under their care.

In fact, despite the absence of many of the military men from the Curragh, Newbridge and Naas due to the Boer War, the meeting was considered to be highly successful.
That year the presence once again of royalty made it another special occasion for many of the patrons of the turf. The Princess Henry of Battenburg, Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein, and the Duke and Duchess of Connaught were there in the party of the lord lieutenant and Countess Cadogan, ‘with their respective suites’. The red carpet was again laid out for the visitors whose arrival was greeted with cheers: ‘it was noticed that the scarlet uniform of the royal servants added a pleasant gleam of colour to  the scene’. The duke, who was commander of the forces in Ireland, and the two princesses, were children of Queen Victoria.

Main Street, Naas, decorated for the visit of King Edward VII to Punchestown in 1904.

Main Street, Naas, decorated for the visit of King Edward VII to Punchestown in 1904.

The status of the Punchestown meeting in the social calendar was reflected in the amount of space devoted to reports on the races themselves in the national and provincial press, and even to the descriptions of the ladies’ dresses, while another column was filled with a list of the house parties arranged for the occasion. The dress regulations were an indication of the importance of military etiquette on such important occasions as Punchestown which stipulated that on the first day ‘silk hats were to be worn, but on the second day the ordinary felt hat would do’.

Stimulation of local economy

The town of Naas benefited from the influx of visitors, some of whom came by the special trains and stayed overnight. Hackney cars did a roaring trade, the public houses were packed, and the numerous itinerant vendors and trick men who were annual visitors, added to the colour of the festival. All of the arrangement for that royal meeting went well, and it was the opinion of the punters that ‘a better day’s sport than Tuesday’s has seldom been witnessed at Punchestown, despite hard going in the plough and clouds of dust!’. And that was despite the fact that two of the military races had to be cancelled, due to the absence of officers away in the war.
In 1901 ‘princely Punchestown was lacking in the usual splash of colour, so much a part of the scene in later years, because of the death of Queen Victoria, but nevertheless it drew the crowds and maintained a certain festive air’, was the opinion of one punter. It had been expected that the Prince of Wales would have again attend, but that was not possible, nor could the lord lieutenant and his entourage. For the ladies who ‘graced the stands and course, black, with a mixture of white, was the prevailing colour, and hence there was an absence of that brilliancy of dress which is ever associated with this gathering’.

1923 - Mr T.M. Healy, Governor General of the Irish Free State, congratulating Harry Beasley (aged 72) on riding his own horse to victory in the Maiden Plate.

1923 – Mr T.M. Healy, Governor General of the Irish Free State, congratulating Harry Beasley (aged 72) on riding his own horse to victory in the Maiden Plate.

The Troubles: races abandoned

But the political scene in County Kildare was changing. In 1919 Sinn Féin disrupted meetings of the hunt, causing it to be temporarily suspended. The reaction of the Kildare Hunt Club was a proposal to abandon the Punchestown races, causing concerned farmers to call a meeting at Naas which was attended by between four and five hundred people. There the signatures of 1,500 farmers were displayed, all requesting that hunting should be continued and the races held. The loss of business to horse breeders, to farming in general, and to the local traders was feared. But the races were abandoned, and the loss of business not alone in the county, but in Dublin, was remarked upon in the newspapers. Hotels and boarding houses were closed, the jarveys idle, and there was none of the traditional decorating of houses in the Naas district. The business people of the county were forcefully made aware that the boom days of the war were gone and a different world was being created.
In the summer of that year the dates for the Punchestown meeting of 1920 were announced, but the new year brought no improvement in the political situation and the April meeting was again abandoned. But it was held in 1921, when it was judged to have been particularly successful. During the meeting of the following year there was an unpleasant incident when two armed men held up the driver and stole the Crossley saloon of the lord lieutenant. However, from then on, the race meetings continued uninterrupted until World War II. The meeting of 1923 was, according to the Leinster Leader, ‘the first held in a truly Irish atmosphere, with not even the lord lieutenant to pay a visit official or unofficial. The governor general, Mr. T.M. Healy, did attend and had his first ever bet on a winner.’
At that time there was some questioning of the merits of the fixture. Three riders had been killed on the course over a number of years, and by 1925 it was said that ‘some veteran patrons of the course were beginning to presume that the greatness of the steeplechase was in the decline’. As one commentator put it:

I have seen some of the best steeplechase horses in the world run on this course. Perhaps we will never see their like again for pluck and stamina. There are few ‘chasers at the present day would show any form or even get around this Punchestown country, and I am afraid getting fewer, as they do not seem to have the bone, muscle or wear and tear about them for such a severe test.

But the steeplechase survived, and in 1933 a ball was held as usual on the night of the second day’s racing at  Mrs Lawlor’s new ballroom in Naas. The list of patrons reflected the new Ireland. There were no titled gentlemen or ladies, and the only military listed were half a dozen young officers from the Curragh camp.

Punchestown in the snow, 29 April 1950, when racing had to be postponed for a day.

Punchestown in the snow, 29 April 1950, when racing had to be postponed for a day.

The majority of the revellers were professional and business people who paid 7/6 for a sit-down supper and music by Peter Keogh’s band, which he ‘personally conducted’. But the Kildare Hunt now held its own ball at Russborough where, The Tatler noted, ‘although since the departure of the military the fields in Kildare are shrunken from their former plethoric state, the Hunt Ball at Russborough House produced no lack of enthusiasts’.

The Emergency

During the Emergency the 1941 and 1943 meetings were cancelled. A report on the 1944 races reflected the austerity of the times. Petrol was scarce but even so ‘there was plenty of pep and altogether it was a thoroughly enjoyable meeting’. One punter recollected that ‘although the crowds were, needless to say, not as big as usual, there was a surprisingly large attendance in the circumstances, especially on the second afternoon’. He described

the fantastic variety of horse-drawn conveyances, not to mention bicycles and their derivation of every character imaginable. In fact, the horse played as much part in providing racegoers as it did races. Into service came brakes, jaunters, wagonettes, four-wheelers, traps and gigs of every conceivable make and shape, farm carts and even the humble ass and cart. Believe it or not, one gallant and obviously determined gentleman arrived in a bath-chair. The farm cart, especially the smooth-running type, fitted with what were called balloon-type wheels, was quite a popular mode of transport, and not a few house parties, ladies in the Punchestown modes, and their smartly groomed escorts, made the journey in such a vehicle seated in comfort in well upholstered chairs. Many true Punchestown devotees who cycled to the course had put at least thirty miles behind them, for it was considered a well worthwhile pedal in those days of austerity. Needless to say, transport problems did not deter the itinerant class either; austerity is something they live with, and the whine of the beggar was heard in the land, a minor accompaniment to the stentorian voices of the gentlemen who lay odds.

So Punchestown held its own in the war years, despite travel restrictions and other privations. However in 1950, the centenary year of the meeting, the punters were disappointed when snow blanketed the course, and the races had to be postponed.
Today the meeting still merits the eulogy which was expressed in the Kildare Observer just a century ago: ‘princely Punchestown, the people cling with a jealous love and care as if it was actually part and parcel of their nature’. The designation of Punchestown as the National Centre for Equestrian and Field Sports of Ireland, and the opening of a new stand, parade ring, restaurants, bars and betting hall a couple of years ago, has ensured that in the new millennium Punchestown will retain its premier sporting status, and its special place in the hearts of not alone the people of Kildare, but also of its international followers.

Con Costello is a retired army officer and local historian.

Further reading:

C. Costello and R. Smith, Peerless Punchestown: 150 Years of Glorious Tradition (Punchestown 2000).


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