Rewind - The RDS Dublin International horse show

By Sean Heffernan

For this week’s piece we are walking from the John Barry statue in Wexford Town and up to the train station.

From here we will take the train to Enniscorthy, for it is here one of Ireland’s top sportsmen who was very much in focus was born and reared.

Rewind 1

Crowds gather at the RDS during the Horse Show in the early part of the 20th century

Bertam Allen blazed quite a trail in the world of showjumping and was an integral part of Irish squads that participated in the RDS Dublin Horse Show.

The first-ever instalment of this world-class event took place in 1864 and was held at the Royal Agricultural Society’s show.

 Two years afterwards it was held on the lawn of the original headquarters of the Royal Dublin Society at Leinster House, which is now where the Dáil and Seanad Éireann sit.

At this time there was a total prize fund of £520 (which equates to just over €67,000 on today’s money). Contrast that with the fact the 2019 Longines Grand Prix on its own has a kitty of €350,000.

A total of 355 participants took part in this first-ever event and I wonder if they foresaw just how incredibly successful the event would become in the future?

To win a competition was a big deal financially, as your horse would become a highly sought-after animal in the British Isles.

A good example was the horse Hunter Shane Rue who, along with his rider Richard Flynn, won the first prize in the wall-jumping competition after he cleanly leapt a height of six feet to take top spot.

The winning animal was soon after sold for £1,000 (just over €120,000 in today’s money), which was nearly twice the prize money to be won in total by the competitors.

In 1870 the event earned the name of “The National Horse Show” and was run in conjunction with the “National Sheep Show”.

One competitor hoping to shear their sheep clear, while another at the same time was hoping his horse would earn him a clear round.

In 1881 the Royal Dublin Society moved the event to lands it owned in Ballsbridge, and the great and the good were now able to marvel at the spectacle before them whilst sitting in the new fancy viewing stand that was constructed especially for the event.

The esteemed Equestrian competition was chosen as the start point for one of the most infamous events in Irish history orchestrated by James Connolly and Jim Larkin no less.

One morning in August 1913 the wealthier parts of Dublin were buzzing with excitement and keen anticipation – the RDS Horse Show was to occur in a few hours and the Viceroy to Ireland, Lord Aberdeen, and his most glamorous wife, had confirmed they would be attending.

However the joyful expectations of Dublin hoi-polloi sharply gave way to horror.

A tram was violently forced to stop in Ballsbridge by members of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union who surrounded it and thus began what was to be known as the 1913 Lockout, an event that was to see hundreds of people blockade a myriad of premises north and south of the Liffey with many families brought to their knees over the protracted months-long struggle for better pay and conditions at work.

Six years later the Royal Society took a decision that was far-sighted and ground-breaking for the times – ladies were permitted to jump the fences for the first time ever.

The highlight of the Dublin Horse Show is now undoubtedly the Agha Khan Trophy where teams compete against each other representing their respective countries.

In 1926 a Colonel Siegler of the Swiss Army was very impressed by what was being staged in Dublin and remarked that it should be turned into an international event with the cream of foreign talent invited to compete too.

The leader of the branch of Shia Islam whose followers are known as ‘Ismaillis’ came to hear of these plans and promised that he would donate a prestigious trophy if things came to pass.

To this day the Aga Khan trophy is one of the most sought after prizes in World equestrianism.

To a certain age bracket in this country if the word Boomerang is uttered in their presence it most likely will evoke memories of the great Irish Showjumper Eddie Macken and his trail-blazing horse Boomerang.

The dynamic riding duo were part of the famous three-in-a-row winning Irish team which also featured Paul Darragh on Heather Honey, James Kernan on Condy, alongside Captain Con Power who rode horses Rockbarton, Coolronan and Castle Park.

Kernan and Macken would also have the prestigious honour of representing Ireland at the Olympic Games.

The year 1938 was the first show that a time element was brought into competitions, with speed alongside jumping accuracy now the key factors in deciding the champs from the chumps.

Today the RDS Dublin Horse Show takes place from Wednesday to Sunday with a myriad of shopping tents, stalls, and displays of equine acrobatics amongst other horse-related entertainment almost as keenly anticipated as the main arena events themselves.

One of the more surprising winners came off the course as the hotly contested Ladies Day prize was won by someone who did NOT (shock horror!) wear a hat – a large bow adorning the winner’s head instead.

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