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BY THOMAS E. HEALY,
N the face of the earth there is no nation in which the
love of clean and wholesome sport is more strongly developed than in the Irish. Against us it cannot be urged that we take our pleasures sadly. We enter into them with entire self-abandon, whole-hearted enthusiasm, and genuine exuberance of spirit. There is nothing counterfeit about the Irishman in his play. His one keen desire is to win, be the contest what it may; and towards the achievement of that end he will strain nerve and muscle even to the point of utter exhaustion. And how the onlookers applaud at the spectacle of a desperately contested race, whether between horses, men, motorcars, bicycles, or boats, or of a match between football, hurling, or cricket teams! It matters not which horse, man, car, cycle, boat, or team is successful: the sport is the thing that counts; the strenuousness of the contest is what stimulates and evokes the rapturous applause. At such a moment it is good to be alive. Scenes similar to those hinted at may be witnessed on any sports-field or racetrack in our dear little Emerald Isle almost any day of the year. All is good fellowship; all is in the cause of sport.
No one can question that in some departments of horseracing Ireland is today supreme. The Irish devotion to the horse is of no recent growth. Everybody knows how, in the dim and distant days when King Conor macNessa ruled at Emain, the war-steeds of the Ultonians neighed loudly in their stalls on the first dramatic appearance of Cuchulainn of Muirthemne at the northern court. Cuchulainn's own two steeds, Liath Macha, "the Roan of Macha", and Dub Sainglenn, “Black Sanglan", are celebrated in story and song:
Never hoofs like them shall ring,
Rapid as the winds of spring. To read of the performances of Cuchulainn and his warhorses and his charioteer and friend, Laeg macRiangabra, at
the famous battle of Rosnaree, and again at the last fight be tween the Red Branch Knights and the forces of Queen Medb of Connacht, does truly, in the words used by Sir Philip Sidney in another connection, stir the heart like the sound of a trumpet.
As time went on, the Irish war-horse became more and more famous, and always carried his rider in gallant style. Stout was the steed that, bestridden by Godfrey O'Donnell at the battle of Credan-Kille, withstood the shock of Lord Maurice Fitzgerald's desperate onslaught, and by his steadiness enabled the Tyrconnell chieftain to strike senseless and unhorse his fierce Norman foe. More celebrated still was the high-spirited animal which Art MacMurrogh rode in 1399 to his ineffectual parley with King Richard the Second's representative, the Earl of Gloucester. The French chronicler who was a witness of that historic scene tells us that a horse more exquisitely beautiful, more marvellously fleet, he had never seen. "In coming down,” he says, “it galloped so hard that, in my opinion, I never saw hare, deer, sheep, or any other animal, I declare to you for a certainty, run with such speed as it did.” Edmund Spenser, the poet of The Faerie Queene, writing in 1596, bears this striking testimony to the Irish horse-soldier and inferentially to the Irish horse: "I have hearde some greate warriours say, that, in all the services which they had scene abroade in forrayne countreys, they never sawe a more comely horseman than the Irish man, nor that cometh on more bravely in his charge.” The feats performed at the Battle of the Boyne, in 1690, by the Irish horse-soldiers under Hamilton and Berwick were really wonderful, and well-nigh turned disaster into victory on that memorable day which decided the fate of nations as well as of dynasties. And surely those were fleet and stout-hearted steeds that, on August 12, 1690, carried Sarsfield and his chosen five hundred on their dare-devil midnight ride from the Keeper Hills to Ballyneety, where in the dim morning twilight they captured and destroyed William of Orange's wonderful siege-train, and thereby heartened the defenders of beleaguered Limerick.
Writing in 1809, Lawrence, in his History and Delineation of the Horse, said: "From Ireland alone we import (into
England) many saddle horses, as many perhaps as 1,500 in a year; upwards in some years. The Irish are the highest and steadiest leapers in the world. Ireland has bred some good racers, and the generality of Irish horses are, it appears, warmer tempered than our own; and, to use the expression, sharper and more frigate-built.”
It is not to be wondered at therefore if in such a country there developed an ardent love of the noble sport of horseracing. The Curragh of Kildare, the long-standing headquarters of the Irish Turf Club, was celebrated far back in the eighteenth century as the venue of some great equine contests; and to this day, with its five important fixtures every year, it still holds pride of place. There are numerous other race-courses all over the country, from Punchestown, Leopardstown, Phoenix Park, and Baldoyle in the east to Galway in the west, and from The Maze in the north to rebel Cork in the south. Horse-racing has not inappropriately been termed the national pastime of Ireland. The number of people now giving their attention to it has called for a notable increase in the number of race-meetings, and stake-money is being put up on a more generous scale than at any previous time in the history of the sport. For example, the Irish Derby, run at the Curragh, was in 1914 worth £2,500; and there are besides several stakes of £1,500 and £1,000. The result of this forward policy is that increasing numbers come to our racemeetings and that the turf has never been more popular than it is today. Men and women of wealth and position find in the national pastime a pleasant method of employing their leisure, and in expending their surplus wealth in its pursuit and in the raising of horses of the highest class they realize that they confer a real benefit on the country.
It is, of course, now universally known that Ireland has an international reputation as a country eminently fitted for horsebreeding. If proof were needed, it would be found in the extensive purchases effected by English, French, Italian, German, Russian, and American buyers at the great Dublin Horse Show held in August every year. Horses bought in Ireland have seldom failed to realize their promise. The English classic races and many of the principal handicaps on the flat
have been often won by Irish-bred horses, such as Galtee More, Ard Patrick, Orby, Kilwarlin, Barcaldine, Umpire, Master Kildare, Kilsallaghan, Bendigo, Philomel, The Rejected, Comedy, Winkfield's Pride, Bellevin, Royal Flush, Victor Wild, Bachelor's Button, Irish Ivy, and Hackler's Pride. If only a few of the star performers are here set down, it is not from lack of means to continue, but merely from a desire to avoid the compilation of a mere string of names. In France, too, the Irish racer has made his mark. It is, however, in the four-and-a-half miles' Liverpool Grand National Steeplechase, the greatest cross-country race in the world, the supreme test of the leaper, galloper, and stayer, that Irish-bred horses have made perhaps the most wonderful record. The list of winners of that great event demonstrates in an unmistakable manner that we are second to none in the art of breeding steeplechase horses. Among many other noted Irish-bred winners of this race there stand boldly forth the names of The Lamb, Empress, Woodbrook, Frigate, Come Away, Cloister, Wild Man from Borneo, and Manifesto. In fact, it is the exception when another than an Irish-bred horse annexes the blue riband of steeplechasing.
Closely allied to horse-racing is fox-hunting, and foxhunting, as well as the hunting of the stag and of the hare, has flourished exceedingly in Ireland for a long time past. A great deal of needed employment is one of the results. Dogs are specially bred and trained for each of these branches of sport. Irish foxhounds, staghounds, harriers, and beagles have a high reputation. More native to the soil, and so interwoven with the history of the country that it is often used as one of its symbols, is the Irish wolfhound. This is probably the animal to which Aurelius Symmachus, a Roman consul in Britain, referred when, writing to his brother in Ireland in A. D. 391, he acknowledged the receipt of seven Irish hounds. The wolfhound played a sinister part in the Irish history of the eighteenth century, for, as Davis says in his poem, “The Penal Days":
Their dogs were taught alike to run
The Irish wolfhound is now very scarce, and a genuine specimen is a valued and highly coveted possession. The greyhound, too, figures prominently in present-day sport, and in many parts of the country are held coursing meetings, which frequently result in several spirited contests. A famous Irish greyhound was Lord Lurgan's black and white dog, Master McGrath. Master McGrath achieved the rare distinction of winning the Waterloo Cup three times, in 1868, 1869, and 1871. When it is remembered that the Waterloo Cup is to coursing what the Liverpool Grand National is to steeplechasing, or the Epsom Derby to flat racing, the merit of this triple performance will at once be apparent.
Compared with the sports in which horse and hound participate, all other outdoor pastimes in Ireland take rather a minor place. Still, the Irishman's love of sport is diversified. Few there are who have not many inclinations, and as a nation our taste in sport is catholic. We take part in nearly every pastime; in many we excel. The prize ring has fallen from its high estate, nor is it the intention here to try to cast any glamour over it. The subject is introduced, in a passing way, for the sole purpose of showing that, in what at least used to be the manly art of self-defense, Ireland in days gone by as well as at the present time has more than held her own. The most conspicuous of the representatives of her race in this department are perhaps Heenan, Ryan, Sullivan, Corbett, Maher, McAuliffe, McFarland, and McGoorty. There is one other prize-fighter, Dan Donnelly by name, who became a sort of national hero, of whom all Irishmen of his day were not a little proud, because he laid the English champion low, and whose performance, now haloed by the antiquity of more than a hundred years, we may with equanimity, as without offense, contemplate, with perhaps a sigh for the good old times. The famous encounter between Donnell yand Cooper took place on the Curragh, and after eleven rounds of scientific boxing Donrelly knocked his opponent over the ropes and won the world's championship for the Emerald Isle. The spot where the battle came off has ever since been known as Donnelly's Hollow, and a neat monument there erected commemorates the Dublin man's pluck and skill. A ballad recounting the incidents of the