The Curragh – rooted in history
Few sights encapsulate the essence of County Kildare more than that of horses pounding across the springy open plains of the Curragh, crisp clouds of breath puffing out into the early morning air. The horse – ‘capall’ in Irish – has been an intrinsic part of life in the county for thousands of years and today this landscape of deep-green pastures comprises the heart of Ireland’s world famous bloodstock and racing industries.
Legends recall how the irrepressible warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill, or Finn MacCool, was headquartered on the Hill of Allen from where he served as huntsman to King Cormac; 300 of his hounds are identified by name in the Ossianic Cycle. A Royal pack of hounds would certainly not have looked out of place when the Celts gathered to race their chariots on the Curragh plains during the annual Aenach Lifé fair in ancient times. (i)
The Annals tell of Connairé Môr attending the fair with four chariots before he was killed in 60 AD. Indeed, racing constituted such an integral part of the fair that many chroniclers called it “Curragh of the Races.” (ii)
It was perhaps small wonder that St Bridget thus made sure her cloak enveloped the entirety of the Curragh plains when the King of Leinster promised to entrust her with any land that fell within its shadow.
The kings of old all rode horses. Cormac mac Cuilennáin, the saintly king of Munster, broke his neck falling from a horse at the battle of Bellaghmoon near Castledermot in 908 AD. The victor of that clash was Cerball mac Muirecáin, the last King of Leinster to reside at Naas. Cerball was regarded as “a skilful horseman” but he was fated to die a slow, lingering death when, riding by a noisy blacksmith’s forge in Kildare town, his horse reared and flung the monarch upon his own lance.
Anglo-Norman families such as FitzGerald, de Bermingham and de Riddlesford also brought their love of the horse to Kildare, having achieved much of their conquest by the grace of their superior steeds. In 1260, a Franciscan scholar lamented that the people of Ireland were ‘more addicted to games and hunting than to labour’
The huntsman’s horn echoed across the county during the 16th century when the powerful Gearóid Óg FitzGerald, 9th Earl of Kildare, set off with his staghounds in pursuit of hare, marten and deer. The ghost of his son, the ‘Wizard Earl’, is said to roam the land between Kilkea Castle and the ringfort at Mullaghmast every seven years, clad on a silver-shod white charger.Horses often dictated the fate of war. Richard Marshall, Strongbow’s grandson, was fatally wounded while riding a horse in battle at the Curragh in 1234. Over three hundred years later, John Hewson, Governor of Dublin under Oliver Cromwell, led an army of 2000 foot-soldiers and 1,000 horses to seize all the Royalist strongholds in County Kildare. Jacobite cavalry likewise convened on the Curragh in the lead up to their inglorious defeat at the battle of the Boyne.
However, horses as a sport also continued to be of paramount importance. In 1682, the Curragh was considered the place to go for ‘all the nobility and gentry of the kingdom that either pretend to love, or delight in, hawking, hunting, or racing.’ That same year, another Lord Kildare established a new horse race upon the ‘excellent course’ and offered up ‘a plate of about 40 pounds a year’ to the winner.
The Curragh soon became Ireland’s answer to Newmarket with both public and private race meetings.
There are stories told that from the very first race that took place on the Curragh around the 1700’s, which was recorded by Cherney’s racing calendar in 1727.
From Celtic Warrior to Celtic Tiger
From Celtic Warrior to Celtic Tiger – a look back at the Curragh over the centuries
In 1865 a commission was set up by the house of parliament to examine the Curragh, and the resultant 1868 Curragh of Kildare act settled the right of common pasture, and preserved the use of the Curragh for the purpose of horse racing and training. The total area of the Curragh was defined as 4870 acres, and the management of the Curragh was vested in the office of a ranger. The 1870 Curragh of Kildare act dealt with grazing rights and specified that only sheep could be grazed on the Curragh.
Following the treaty of 1921 the lands passed from the British crown to the minister for finance, and later to the minister of defence and his department, under the Curragh of Kildare acts, now administers them.
The Curragh of Kildare act of 1961 repealed the 1868 act and parts of the 1870 act, and allowed for the enclosure of parts of the Curragh, and the attendant extinguishment of sheep grazing rights.
In 1964 the minister for Defence introduced a set of bye laws which were statuary instruments providing for further regulation in the use and management of the Curragh. Basically these were a practical list of “do’s and don’ts” relating to the Curragh. The Curragh of Kildare act of 1969 extended the 1961 act and incorporated many of the 1964 byelaws, thereby putting them on the statute book.
The Curragh Plains
The area of the Curragh Plains is recognised as one of the oldest natural grasslands in Europe. It is a recorded monument under the National Monuments Act, being designated a Special Environment.
It now comprises 4,870 acres. It is divided into three areas and identified as follows –
- Brownlands, an area of 771 acres and includes all built up areas and is designated for the exclusive use of the Irish Military.
- Bluelands, an area of 815 acres is allocated as Ranges and Danger Areas.
- Greenlands, the largest area, comprises of 3284 acres, 817 acres of which is controlled by the Turf Club. The Irish Military retain manoeuvring and exercise rights in this area. It is an historical military assembly and training area. Its ancient name of ‘Cuirreach Life’ would suggest that at one time it extended to the banks of the River Liffey. In pre- Christian times it was the site of Aonach Life, a gathering of all the people of the Kingdom of Leinster.
The Danes passed along the plains on more than one occasion, as they raided and plundered the monasteries of Kildare. The Curragh was the place chosen by Richard Talbot, Earl of Tyreconnell to prepare his Army for the cause of James II.
The end of the 18th Century saw the 1798 Rebellion. During this rebellion at the Gibbet Rath, 350 rebels were massacred by the forces of General Duff.
Wellington passed through the Curragh on his way to the peninsular wars. It was the Crimean War (1855-1856) which led to the construction of the first permanent camp at the Curragh while in the early 1900’s the present structure of the camp began to appear. Queen Victoria visited the Curragh in 1861 to visit her son the Prince of Wales (Edward VII), who was serving in the Curragh and to inspect troops..
For more info about the Curragh, visit Kildare heritage website.
The Irish Bloodstock Industry
The Curragh is at the heart of the Irish bloodstock industry, and due to an enlightened and supportive approach by the department of defence, the management of the Turf Club , and the expertise of our trainers, the Curragh training grounds have developed into a world-renowned training centre, and a major source of employment, using indigenous skills and talents.
In addition to the training stables mentioned earlier, numerous large stud farms, including the National stud, have developed on the fringes of the Curragh with the consequent spin off effect into the local economy. Approximately 26% of the horses trained in Ireland are trained on the Curragh, and it is not unreasonable to apply the same percentage to employment levels.
Horses trained on the Curragh have won major races world wide in countries as diverse as England, France, Germany, Hong Kong, America, Canada, and Australia with both 1993 Melbourne Cup winner Vintage Crop and Media Puzzle, winner of the same race in 2002, both trained by Dermot Weld on the Curragh. Other recent notable Curragh successes include world champion Sea The Stars, Champion Hurdle winner Hardy Eustace, Epsom Derby winners Sinndar and Harzand, Alamshar and Grey Swallow, both winners of the Irish Derby, Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Davy Lady together with Breeders Cup winner Ridgewood Pearl
Click here to go to Curragh Training Grounds.