It’s clear that people have always had an inherent pride in the magnificent prowess of horses and a competitive desire to be the best. The sport of racing one horse against another is possibly as ancient as the art of riding horses itself. This competitive horse racing, in particular, has had a long and illustrious tradition in Ireland.
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This small island is home to 26 different racecourses of varying prestige and grandeur; from the Curragh’s ancient racing sites to the splendid uniqueness of Laytowns’ seaside venue, there is no shortage of opportunity to experience the thrills and spills of racing. After all, Irelands 26 racecourses represent more tracks per head of the population than anywhere else in the world.
Ireland’s relationship with horse racing isn’t a modern one; many Irish myths tell of great warriors of legend such as Fionn MacCumhaill and the Fianna racing their horses across the Curragh plains, with ancient manuscripts giving proof that Celtic chariot races did take place on the Curragh plains as early as the 1st century AD. The earliest primary source evidence dates from a royal warrant issued in 1603 authorising the governor of Derry to hold fairs and markets where horse races could be held.
Horse racing continued to be an essential part of Irish culture and society throughout the early Celtic period and beyond. Wild horses captured in the Irish highlands were bred and domesticated over time. These early breeds became some of Europe’s fastest and strongest horses, setting the roots for the thriving thoroughbred breeding industry found in modern Ireland.
As these indigenous breeds’ popularity grew, Ireland became recognised as a true horse nation, with a growing sporting component. As a result, horse racing became profoundly ingrained in Irish culture, with horses being precious assets and status symbols for wealthy families.
The 17th century would see the ground roots for the modern Irish horseracing industry begin to take shape with the reign of King Charles II, as his love for competition, sports, and general merriment allowed racing to become more organised and competitive in Ireland, especially with the introduction of the “King’s Plate Races”. King Charles II took on the moniker ‘The Merry Monarch’ for his reconstitution of laws, his puritan predecessor Oliver Cromwell deemed hedonistic and illegal.
The King’s Plate Races, which is comparable to today’s Grand National, were intensely contested by Ireland’s lords, both Protestant and Catholic alike. The horses that won these races were highly sought after for breeding, and the Curragh rose to prominence as a horse-breeding centre, with expert breeders producing quick, solid horses. There is ample evidence that the Royal Plate Races had developed themselves as well-known ‘features’ by 1690 before the Irish Penal Laws attempted to stifle growth in the budding sport by preventing Catholics from owning horse’s worth more than £5.
The Penal Laws left a painful scar across the island and were a set of draconian laws enacted in an effort to compel Irish Catholics and Protestant dissenters to embrace the governing Church of Ireland. These laws penalised Catholics for practising their faith and placed civil disabilities on them. Throughout the country, much of the Protestant Ascendancy benefited from the suppression of Catholics, but remarkably this rarely occurred in the Irish horseracing industry.
The prohibition on Catholics owning horses worth more than £5 seemed to have little effect on Irish horse owners’ sportsmanlike nature, resulting in many races being restricted only to horses worth below the Penal law limit, to allow any contestant to enter, regardless of religious affiliation. In a period when religious apartheid had a malignant grip on the heart of Irish society, race meetings allowed all members of the community to participate in fair competition, which was an unfortunate rarity in these years.
This open embrace of solidarity and fairness fuelled exponential growth in the spectator sport across the island, with various communities of breeders, jockeys, and fans forming societies to facilitate like-minded discussions and to promote their beloved sport. As a result, horseracing became more widely publicised in the newspapers of the time, allowing horses and jockeys to become household names, as the often excessively dramatic recounts of the previous days’ races were circulated across Ireland.
With a retrospective eye, we now know that the Society of Sportsmen was the most important sporting society established in these early days. In contrast, this group would grow through several name changes and structural iterations (eventually settling with The Turf Club). The organisation would finally find itself able to become a regulatory body for all official races held in Ireland. It would firmly hold this status from 1784 until 31 December 2017, although holding far less power than it once did, choosing to become just one regulatory board, making up the governing body of Horse Racing Ireland.
There is a reason that horse racing has played such an essential role in this small nation’s history. Ireland has had an unfortunately long and tragic past. Still, our love for seeing these magnificent animals prove themselves, often above their training and pedigree, in fair and open competition has become a gift of respite to so many in times of great adversity.
Irish horse racing has seen not only times of war and famine but of peace and prosperity too; in this ever-changing world, there are few constants, but the future of Irish horse racing is unquestionably one of them, with the sport’s historical popularity continuing to this day, with Irish-trained and bred thoroughbreds regularly winning big races around the world, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight for the history of Irish horse racing.