The Kingstown Races
Old rivals of the saddle, lethal jumps, and horses who were household names were all features of a brilliant 1830s racing event near present-day Dún Laoghaire, that ended almost as soon as it began.
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. So much so that Racefield was a well-established place name there for centuries. The name of the famous nearby water source, Juggy’s Well, was even reputed 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 association in stone.
In the 1830s, local businessmen floated the idea of holding a modern horse racing event on the plane. Two of the main driving forces were hotel keeper, Thomas Gresham (1786-1871) and Edward Hayes. Thomas Gresham had opened his famous Dublin hotel seventeen years before and had subsequently come to live in the area, buying and developing several sites in the adjacent and increasingly fashionable Kingstown. One such development 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, was hopeful that the racing event would be a regular fixture, and his ambition to build a permanent grandstand on the course reflected this wish.
And so the Kingstown Steeple Chase was off ! The Morning Register, of the 21st of March 1834 vividly set the scene for the inaugural 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 considered particularly challenging. And indeed it would be the scene of several falls during the day.
The first race got off just after 1pm. The horses involved were household names to race-goers of the 1830s. There was Dandy, Diamond, Daniel O’Connell, Harbinger, Percy and Sloe. The in-form Dandy won the first two heats. Daniel O’Connell, a chestnut stallion, was the son of Sunbeam, and grandson of Eclipse. His name gave rise to endless sly newspaper puns at "The Liberator’s" expense. Michael Yourell (1793-1871), who was based at Clonee, Co. Meath, was his regular rider and owner.
"Hero of a Thousand Hard Fought Battles"
Among the riders competing with Yourell that day was his arch rival Tom Ferguson, (1794-1848), often called the hero of "a thousand hard fought battles" of the steeplechase. Ferguson had a fearsome reputation. Professor Fergus D’Arcy, one of the few researchers to have made a study of the Kingstown Races in his 1992 article of the same name, described him as an “infamous hard rider". Although originally from Ulster, Ferguson was based at Rossmore Lodge at the Curragh, and was famous for his near super-human ability to reduce his weight before an important race. He also rode with shorter stirrups than was usual for the time. As a result he fell off much more often than other jockeys. But he was the punter's favourite. Ferguson rode Peacemaker for the event.
Rules and Peculiarities
Thoroughbred horses can compete with hunters but they will be handicapped by an extra 7 pounds in weight.
Horses will be ridden by gentlemen.
Heats will be run. It will be the best of three.
Any dog found wandering on the course will be immediately destroyed.
On-course betting will be freely available.
The inaugural Kingstown Steeplechase was considered a great success and it returned the following year, 1835. This time it was bigger and better than ever, boosted by the arrival of the railway at nearby Salthill the previous December. This was a significant first for racing in Ireland. (D'Arcy, 1992. )
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. To add to the glamour of the occasion, royal sponsorship had been secured by Gresham for a race called the Victoria Stakes set on the second day. Estimates put the crowd attending at between 30-40,000 people per day.
Gaps between races, (described as long and tedious) were relieved by music from the Band of the 60th Rifles throughout the day.
A temporary viewing stand with a good vantage point and room for about 300 people had been erected for the occasion.
On the last heat of the Victoria Stakes, Mr Gordon’s horse, Partner, ridden by Mr Devine, fell into the ditch fence, where it sustained a broken neck and died.Then a bitter dispute broke out over the result of the Kingstown Plate. Tom Ferguson claimed that Michael Yourell had pulled him off his horse, whereupon a group of men waved their hats in the air to spook his horse when he tried to remount. Yourell contradicted this and insisted that Ferguson had deliberately swerved into his path. A steward’s enquiry was held with the judgment going in favour of Michael Yourell and Daniel O’Connell. After the enquiry, changes were suggested and a committee was formed with the intention of promoting better fair play.
Where exactly did the race course lie in today's landscape? A clue to its breadth and extent is provided by the newspapers which described how it was located at the back of Corrig Castle (where Corrig Park stands now.) One of the riders also ended up in a stream when he failed to make one of the track's many tight turns. This stream can only have been Mickey Brien’s or the Monkstown Stream (now culverted.) It suggests that at least part of the course extended to the far side of the present Upper Glenageary Road.
Mysteriously there was no race held in 1836. Notice of the event's cancellation was posted at very short notice in the beginning of March. The ads for the race the previous month had not specified that it would take place at Kingstown and just mentioned that it would be within 12 miles of Dublin, so there may already have been some difficulty over the course at Kingstown/Monkstown. Why?
Was it to do with the organizer Thomas Gresham’s objection to the railway line extending out to Kingstown as Fergus D'arcy speculates? Development of the sought-after site for residential use ? (This didn't happen.) Fear of the "barbarian hordes"descending on the area by train ? Or was it perhaps something to do with the sale of Corrig Castle along with 7 acres of its lands due to the bankruptcy that year of one of its owners, James Henry.
The Thomas Gresham Course
Whatever the reason,when the event was held in 1837 it had moved some distance out of the area to a field near Bullock Harbour 3 kilometres away. The course was again roughly a mile long, and was now called the “Thomas Gresham Course” after its main sponsor, who also owned the land. The new course featured such challenges as two stone walls over four feet high, a thorn fence and a drain with a span of over thirteen feet. The Gresham Course was even rockier and more uneven than at Monkstown. In spite of these shortcomings, an estimated 20,000 spectators turned up for the spectacle in 1837, with attendance again very much boosted by the railway.
"Bled from the Jugular"
The two long-time rivals, Michael Yourell and Tom Ferguson, came to grief early on at 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 shortly afterwards.
Anywhere but Kingstown
Attempts were made to revive the Kingstown Races under the same name and banner, notably at Sallynoggin, but with limited success. The newspapers predicted that the Kingstown Steeple Chase was sure to become one of the most popular racing venues in Dublin. But this short-lived spectacle of two Springs in the Kingstown of the 1830s never returned to its home turf and Thomas Gresham never did build his permanent grandstand there. Today the Kingstown Races lives on in the names of a few local places and buildings only.