THE recent re-run of that enjoyable documentary on the Irish Grand National alluded to the fact that only twice in its 150 years had it not taken place. Those breaks occurred in 1919 and 1941. Well, that has now become three times, sadly. Coronavirus has done what two World Wars could not.
The more recent break, in 1941, was due to an outbreak of the dreaded foot-and-mouth in March. It resulted in the loss of both Fairyhouse and Punchestown. Coming on top of mounting shortages of both food and fuel, the loss of the national herd could have led to starvation. In the circumstances, the government issued an order prohibiting all horse-racing, horse-jumping competitions, polo, point-to-pointing, greyhound racing and coursing, with effect from 26 March. The outbreak turned out to be less serious than had been feared, with the result that the ban was relaxed, though not lifted, from 1 May. The minister reserved the right to approve certain fixtures, subject to stringent conditions.
The 1919 interruption had more complex causes, as outlined in the History of the Irish Grand National, published over 20 years ago. Armistice Day 1918 – the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – had scant effect on the internal tumult that was Ireland in the throes of her struggle for freedom. The threadbare fabric of Irish society was turned upside down and inside out, even to the point where race-meetings were cancelled, as happened to Fairyhouse in 1919.
The situation is perhaps best described by the man who took much of the credit for restoring a sense of proportion in those troubled times. He went by the name of General Sir Neville Macready, commander of the British forces in Ireland at that time. In his memoirs he wrote: “It is curious to note that all through the worst troubles in Ireland racing went on as though the crack of a revolver had never been heard in the land, but at one time the rebels began to interfere with officers who did not see why they should not have their share of enjoyment. After consulting several of the principal racing men I let it be known that on the next occasion on which any soldier was interfered with, either at or going to, or coming from, a race meeting, I would shut down racing throughout the country. The word went round and no further incidents occurred.”
The actions of Sinn Fein in the War of Independence forced the stewards to abandon the Fairyhouse and Punchestown meetings. The official statement issued on 7 March read as follows. “In the course of a full and lengthy discussion on the general situation regarding racing under the INHS rules, the stewards informed the committee that the stewards of five race-meetings advertised to be held under the INHS rules in different parts of the country had been forced to abandon their meetings owing to the action of the Sinn Fein executive, and that the stewards of the INHS committee had given their official sanction to the course pursued by the local stewards. The committee unanimously accorded their unqualified endorsement of the decision of the stewards, and expressed the strongest condemnation of the misguided and destructive policy that had left the stewards no alternative but to act in the manner aforementioned.”
Curiosity prompted comparison between the schedule advertised for the months in question and the records of meetings subsequently staged, besides Fairyhouse and Punchestown. This revealed that the casualties comprised Croom on 20 March, Cashel on 8 April, Meath Hunt (Navan) on 9 April, Charleville on 6 May and Athlone on 12 May.
While Fairyhouse and Punchestown proved well able to weather that 1919 reverse, the other courses paid the price. Croom raced for the final time in 1922. Cashel never raced again. Meath Hunt, otherwise Boyerstown, carried on until 1933, when it merged with the present day Navan course. It proved the death knell for Charleville, while Athlone closed its turnstiles for the final time in 1923.
In the light of the cause of the present cessation of racing it is strange that there should have been no allusion anywhere to the Spanish Flu, then raging worldwide. Comparisons currently being drawn between then and now attribute a death toll in Britain alone to Spanish Flu of 228,000. One should have thought that such a staggering death toll might have been reflected in a wholesale loss of racing fixtures. This time around, let’s all just play safe.