The Kingstown Races
Old rivals of the saddle, lethal jumps, and horses who were household names were all features of a brilliant 1830s racing venue near present-day Dún Laoghaire, that ended almost as soon as it had begun.
The recent development of the Cualanor housing scheme on the old Dun Laoghaire Golf Club lands marks the irreversible end of one of the last extensive green spaces in the townland of Monkstown. It is a timely reminder of some of the exciting sporting activities that occurred there in bygone times.
There had been a tradition of holding horse races on this relatively flat open plane since at least the 18th century. So much so that Racefield was a well-established place name to the west of Monkstown for centuries. The name of the famous nearby water source, Juggy’s Well, was reputed (though not proven) to be derived from Jockey’s Well because it was a favourite source for the riders’ horses. By the early 19th century the building of local houses called Racefield Lodge and Racefield Cottage set this historic association in stone.
In the 1830s the idea of holding a modern horse racing event in the area was raised. Hotel keeper, Thomas Gresham (1786-1871) was the main driving force behind the idea. He had opened the Gresham Hotel seventeen years before and had come to live in the local area, developing several sites at nearby up and coming Kingstown. This included the now defunct Gresham Terrace. (Adjacent to the present-day Marine Hotel). Gresham, who was possibly the most successful foundling in 19th century Irish society, had plans for the racing event to be a regular fixture and had ambitions to build a permanent grand stand on the grounds.
And so the Kingstown Steeple Chase was born.
The Morning Register, of 21/3/1834, vividly set the scene for the inaugural “Kingstown Steeple-chase”. Crowds arrived in droves by foot and by horse car. The weather was clear and had turned milder that day as the biting east wind of the previous few days lessened its grip. But the ground was bone dry. As the spectators converged, clouds of thick dust stuck to their clothes and all became unrecognizable,even to each other.
The race course was in the shape of a horseshoe, roughly a mile long, and was also described as both hilly and uneven. Low fences were interspersed with what the papers described as “ugly leaps”. The fourth fence was particularly challenging. It was the scene of several falls during the day.
A temporary stand with a good vantage point and with room for about 300 people was built by Thomas Gresham for the occasion. There were apparently long tedious gaps between races, which were filled by entertainment from the Band of the 60th Rifles throughout the day.
The first race got off just after 1pm in the afternoon. The horses involved were household names to race-goers in the 1830s. There were Dandy, Diamond, Daniel O’Connell, Harbinger, Percy and Sloe. Daniel O’Connell, a chestnut stallion, was son of Sunbeam, and grandson of Eclipse. His name gave rise to endless sly newspaper puns at the Liberator’s expense. His regular rider and owner was Michael Yourell (1793-1871), who was based at Clonee, Co. Meath. Thoroughbred horses competed with hunters but they were handicapped by an extra 7 pounds weight. Heats were run as was the custom of that time and any dog found wandering on the course was destroyed. There was on-course betting available too. The in form Dandy won the first two heats.
The event was considered a great success and the Kingstown Steeplechase returned the following year in 1835. This time it was bigger and better than ever, boosted by the arrival of the railway at nearby Salthill the previous December. In his article “The Kingstown Races”, Fergus D’Arcy points out that this was a significant first for the country.
It was now also a two-day meet and was run in the first week of April instead of March because the weather promised to be better and warmer. It was better organized too with printed race cards, and there was extra caché thanks to royal sponsorship of the Victoria Stakes Race of the second day, which had been secured by Thomas Gresham. Estimates put the crowd attending at between 30-40,000 people a day.
On the last heat of the Victoria Stakes on the second day, Mr Gordon’s horse, Partner, ridden by Mr Devine, fell in the ditch fence, sustained a broken back and died on the course.Then a bitter dispute broke out over the result of one race, the Kingstown Plate. A steward’s enquiry was held with the decision going in favour of Daniel O’Connell and his rider, Michael Yourell. After the enquiry, changes were suggested. A committee was also formed with the intention of promoting better fair play.
Where exactly did the race course extend to and from in today's landscape? A clue is provided by the newspapers which described how one of the riders ended up in a stream when he failed to make one of the track's tight corners. This stream can only have been part of Mickey Brien’s or the Monkstown Stream (now culverted.) If so it suggests that at least part of the course lay on the far side of the present Upper Glenageary Road.
Tom Ferguson, (1794-1848) the hero of "a thousand hard fought battles" of the steeplechase fields and the punter's favourite.
Tom Ferguson, whom Fergus D’Arcy describes as an “infamous hard rider in his article, was based at Rossmore Lodge, the Curragh. He was famous for his near super-human ability to reduce his weight before an important race and for riding with shorter stirrups than was usual for the time. As a result he fell off more often than other jockeys. Tom Ferguson rode for Lord Clanmorris. He died in 1848 aged 54 of a stroke. Best known horse, Harkaway.
No race in 1836. Notice of the race’s cancellation was posted on 2/3/1836. The ads the previous month had not specified that it would take place at Kingstown however and just mentioned that it would be within 12 miles of Dublin, so there may have been some difficulty over the course at Kingstown. Why?
Was it to do with the organizer Thomas Gresham’s objection to the railway line extending out to Kingstown? Change of ownership of the Monkstown course land? Development of the sought-after site had been mooted. Had there been some objection about the use of the land for this purpose? The skulduggery between Michael Yourell and Tom Ferguson? Something to do with the sale of Corrig Castle along with 7 acres of its lands due to the bankruptcy of one of its owners, James Henry.
When the event resumed in 1837 it had moved to a field near Bullock Harbour which actually belonged to Thomas Gresham. The course was again roughly a mile long, and was now called the “Gresham Course” after its sponsor. Again Fergus D’Arcy raises the question about why the races were moved to this far less suitable venue in his article, “The Kingstown Races”. For instance the Gresham Course was over even rockier and more uneven terrain than Monkstown. The new course also featured two stone walls over four feet high, a thorn fence and a drain with a span of over thirteen feet . Nevertheless an estimated twenty thousand spectators turned up to the event in 1837, with attendance again very much boosted by the convenience of the railway.
The two long-time rivals, Michael Yourell and Tom Ferguson, came to grief early on in the Gresham Course. Yourell’s horse, Patrick, fell at the first fence and managed to take down Ferguson’s mount, Sloven, which was following close on his heels. Tom Ferguson walked away from the collision but Yourell was knocked unconscious. The papers described how he was given on-course first aid which consisted then of being bled from the jugular vein by an attending doctor ! Because of or perhaps in spite of his treatment, he managed to walk from the course on his own two legs after some time.
Subsequent races were held even further away at Sallynoggin and Foxrock, paving the way for the Leopardstown Races known and loved by racegoers to this day. The papers predicted that the Kingstown Steeple Chase was sure to become one of the most popular racing venues in Dublin. But in fact this short-lived spectacle of only two years in the 1830s was already history. Today the Kingstown Races lives on in the names of a few local places only.