Horses and Irish Chat
Our countryside lover ponders the Irish obsession with all things equine and the social font of this enthusiasm – the Dublin Horse Show
Article by Marianne Van Pelt
In the Irish countryside where I spend the month of August, many people’s lives are still shaped by great houses and crumbling castles, as they are in Molly Keane’s novels. These ancient seats, sprawling in forgotten valleys, stretching across emerald hillsides, wrapped in blousy, dripping, overgrown gardens, inspire driving passion like a ravishing woman or a splendid horse. They wouldn’t be standing if they didn’t. Since the Irish Land Acts stripped millions of acres from the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, their houses have become hopelessly impractical, monuments to a fading way of life.
Fading – but not entirely vanished. The Irish ‘big house’ traditionally required a structured, ritualised life spent mostly outside, in the company of dogs and horses, and this much hasn’t changed.
“In the winter months he was shooting or hunting”, writes Molly Keane in Good Behaviour, “and in spring there was salmon fishing – all undertaken and excelled in more as a career and a duty than as the pleasures of a leisured life. In the summer months, there was a horse, sometimes horses, to be got ready for the Dublin Show…”
I’m not wealthy, but Ireland is generous to the hard-up, and this exhilarating, wild, quixotic way of life suits me perfectly. In winter, I shoot at Ballynatray Estate in Cork and hunt with the Scarteen Hounds in Limerick. Come spring, I fish at Fortwlliam Estate on the Blackwater River. And in August, I go to Dublin Horse Show.
A showcase of Irish horses and horsemanship, the Show draws equestrian people from all over the world to the leafy Dublin enclave of Ballsbridge to compete for more than one million euros in prize money. The show is a mad whirl of a social occasion, a hat-wearing week of champagne-drinking stamina – and in this way the Show has been consistent since it was founded by the Royal Dublin Society in 1863, when attendees included the world’s finest horse breeders alongside the Lords and Ladies of Ireland’s great estates.
“When we were boys my brother and I used to scramble over the back fence and steal into the show”, explains John Spearman, founder of Classic FM and son of a fine old Cork family. “It was rather more fun than going through the Royal Dublin Society Member’s entrance with our parents.”
It’s hard for me to imagine John’s brother, Dr David Spearman, a slender ramrod-straight mathematician who discovered a particle and is Pro-Chancellor of Trinity College Dublin, scrambling over anything. But just about every Irish male of a certain age has similar reminiscences from the Show. They also remember what they wore – panama hats and linen suits for gentlemen – and what they ate – wild Irish salmon and creamy potatoes with fresh butter. They remember whom they met – whom they flirted with – and whom they kissed. Dublin Horse Show is an historic event, evoking pleasurable and sometimes rascal-y memories, full of hidden nooks and crannies, riddled with customs and traditions evolved over a hundred-and-fifty years. It requires careful study if you want the week to be a triumph:
- Only ever enter by one of the showground’s side gates; floods of spectators coming through the main entrance into the shopping halls make movement exasperating and sticky.
- Join the Royal Dublin Society, an oasis of civilisation. Book a year in advance to lunch in their mahogany-panelled dining room; the food inside the show grounds is hopeless.
- Park yourself at the neighbouring Intercontinental Hotel Resident’s Bar from 6 pm to flirt with some of the greatest horsemen alive, but as one Irishman told me, “never believe anything an Irishman tells you”.
Sir Clement Freud once said of horse racing: “Take a shooting stick or chair to Bangor, for there is nowhere to sit. Avoid Salisbury, unless you are a close relative of the gatemen. If you want a really good, honest dining-room luncheon, Kelso may be the place for you. It cost me a lot of money to acquire all this knowledge.”