It is a question that is sure to get all trivia lovers animated; ‘When did Good Friday fall on Easter Monday?’ The answer, or one of the many answers, is of course that ‘Good Friday’ was a horse and his fall was at one of the many daunting ditches at the Irish Grand National. The famous race which celebrates its 156th anniversary this year is ran annually on Easter Monday at the Fairyhouse Racecourse in County Meath.
The proximity of the racecourse to the City of Dublin and its fall on the public holiday meant it has always been a popular race with the citizens of the Capital. This was of course no different a century ago when thousands of people abandoned the City for the lush rolling green fields of Meath and the highlight of the Irish racing calendar. The meeting was a break for the working classes and the higher echelons of Anglo-Irish society alike. In attendance would have been many British Army Officers and Tommies either form the Dublin or the Curragh garrisons or on furlough from the War. In fact for those on such leave the pageantry and gaiety of Fairyhouse must have been a welcome relief and escape from the horrors of modern trench warfare. The Racecourse was also a mere twenty miles from the some of the finest Georgian squares and also the worst tenements in Europe. Fairyhouse was the ‘Dubs day out’ and the roads leading to the course would have been clogged with every mode of transport available motor car, omnibus, tram, bicycle, trap, carriage and sidecar not discounting those who would have made it there on foot.
No one present that day could have predicted that events unfolding back in the City would change the course of history for their country and define the relationship between these neighbouring Islands for the next century and beyond. One man with more pressing things on his mind was a young jockey from Edgeworthstown, Co. Longford called Jackie Lynn. That day Jackie would be riding ‘All Sorts’ a horse owned by James Kiernan of Dysart Co. Westmeath and trained by Richard ‘Dick’ Cleary of Bishopstown House, Mullingar, Co. Westmeath. The betting had the midland horse at 5/1.
The Irish Field in its 22nd April edition carried a preview of the Grand National;
“The Irish Grand National should provide a most interesting race, for, even in the absence ‘Templedowney’ the competitors will be up the usual standard. The field may include two previous winners in ‘Civil War’ and ‘Punch’ but in the interval, the latter of these, who generally runs well on this course, has maintained his form the better”
The favourites for the race were ‘Ballyneety’ and ‘Ruddygore’ but the preview did mention that “the better of the pair trained by Mr. R G Cleary, ‘All Sorts’ and ‘Turkish Maiden’, both of whom appear nicely handicapped, must have a big chance”. Because of the Rebellion the ‘Irish Field’ did not publish for several weeks but in its May 13th edition it does give an account of the race saying that the favourites floundered and the race was “reduced to a duel between ‘Punch’ and ‘All Sorts’ as they entered the straight. Over the last fence the favourite flattered, but when called upon ‘All Sorts’ quickly shook him off and in the end scored easily enough”.
The winner was described as follows:
“’All Sorts’ is not very much the matter in make or shape, but Mr. R G Cleary had him very workmanlike and well, and it is evident the improvement son of ‘Avidity’ was making last back end has been maintained (*he had won in Limerick in November 1915)
Whatever about his appearance ‘All Sorts’ had clearly ran the race of his life an cantered home winning by several lengths. Incidentally the 1914 winner with the apocryphal name ‘Civil War’ came in third.
By the time the meeting was coming to a close, word was spreading from the City that there were something serious afoot, graduating to confirmation that ‘Sinn Feiners’ had commandeered a number of prominent buildings and gunshots were heard. The atmosphere must have been tense and rife with rumour. The military personnel present commandeered all available modes of transport and hurried back to their posts unsure of what was going on. The rest of the race goers, equally confused, had to make their way home on foot. Soon the railways were closed, a military measure to prevent more ‘rebels’ making their way to the city. The majority of racegoers were stranded in the Meath countryside and began to slowly drift away on foot. The winner ‘All Sorts’ and his stable mate ‘Turkish Maiden’ who also ran in the main race, had to be walked home over 100km to the Bishopstown Stud.
Cleary was an interesting character. He had been a well-known jockey in his younger days and became a famous trainer and breeder in his own right. Shaun Spada and Serent Murphy who both won the Aintree Grand National came from the Bishopstown Stud. In 1895 he had bought Bishopstown House and developed into a successful stud. His granddaughter Connie Cleary who will be attending at Fairyhouse tomorrow said her grandfather would later incur the wrath of the IRA, who attempted to assassinate him on two occasions. A story is also told that two armed men also made an attempt to shoot the national winning horse also. When asked where the horse was a quick thinking groom pointed the men to an old stallion and the men shot him instead.
Cleary would run for the National Party in the General Election in 1927 for the National League, a short lived party founded by Willie Redmond in 1926. The party supported Anglo-Irish Treaty, and advocated a close relationship with the UK and a conservative fiscal policy. There was a bit of the old Irish Party about the short lived group who nevertheless won 8 seats in the June 1927 election. Richard Cleary was not successful however in Longford-Westmeath but it does illustrate his Anglophile leanings and explain why he might clash with the local IRA members. Richard Cleary died on the 1st February 1937 and is buried in Walshetown Cemetery. He was 67 and left 10 children surviving.
We shouldn’t forget the jockey, Jackie Lynn. He was born in Edgeworthstown in 1876 and sadly died of cancer in 1938 at the age of 52. The family had its share of tragedy over the years and sets out starkly the dangers in horse racing particularly National Hunt. Jackie Lynn’s son Mickey was killed in a fall at Sandown Park on the 5th April 1955. He was a great horseman and predicted to be a champion jockey. Micky Lynn worked at Weyhill for Gerald Balding’s stable.
“He had the perfect build for a jump jockey, he was intelligent and brave, and a brilliant all-round horseman who especially enjoyed riding all the difficult horses that no one else wanted to ride” (jockepedia)
It appears that in order to make the weight some jockeys forego the standard skull cap as their weight was included in the overall weight. Instead jockeys used headgear that looked like a skull-cap but might only have been made of cardboard or similar and offered no protection.
“In such headgear, Micky, then 23, took a dreadful fall at Sandown on April 5, 1955 in The Spring Handicap Chase. He landed headfirst, fracturing his skull. He never regained consciousness and died from his injuries two days later. A brilliant young talent and the life of a wonderful Christian young man had been snuffed out in an instant. The boy who would undoubtedly have become champion jockey was gone forever”
Incidentally the Gerald Balding referred to above was the Grandfather of the Sport Presenter Clare Balding. Young Lynn was in good company at the Balding stables as he roomed with one Dick Francis, later to be the famous novelist.
Sadly another member of the family, Willy Lynn was also killed at Gowran Park in Kilkenny. Willys son also John Lynn was killed in a fall at Southwell on the 8th December, 1945.John Lynn junior emigrated to the UK and promised his mother he would never become a jockey. He went on to captain the London Gaelic Football team when they won a Junior All-Ireland title in 1956
Tomorrow the Ward Union Hunt will re-enact that famous 1916 Irish Grand National after this year’s race. John Lynn and Connie Cleary will both be present at the famous old racecourse where there Grandparents proudest day occurred 100 years ago, on the same day a certain Padraig Pearse cleared his throat and began to read the Proclamation from the steps of the GPO. Let us hope they won’t have to walk home this time.