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A job half-done

When she died on her thirteenth birthday on St Patrick’s Day in 1887, Hungary mourned its loss. The nation’s flags flew at half-mast and Hungarians knew they would never see the like of her again. All around the world, those who knew her and knew of her, realised how truly amazing she had been.

Kincsem was probably the most successful thoroughbred racehorse ever, winning all 54 races she started in. While she later became the toast of Europe, there was a time when she was passed over because she was too common looking. Legend has it that she went missing from home one night. She’d been running with 49 other horses on her owner’s estate and was by far the most ungainly. She turned up later  with a band of gypsies.  When her owner asked why they’d chosen Kincsem above the others, he was told that although the other horses might be better looking, she was the one who would be the champion. And she was. She won fifty-four races in five countries and was never defeated.

Kincsem was sired in Kisbér – a small town in northwestern Hungary that was once home to the Hungarian National Riding School. She was bred by Ernest de Blascovich, a young man in his 20s whose horses went on to achieve great things. The town’s horsebreeding history kicked off in 1830, when the Battyány family  started  breeding imported English thoroughbreds and  later established a military studfarm that was to become state property. The old Battyány home was used till recently as a hospital and now stands empty.

The buildings are now historic monuments, the largest of which is the  recently renovated Royal riding hall, originally built in 1859 and in its day one of the largest covered riding schools in Europe. Sadly, it sits empty at the centre of what is called Ménesbirtok (studfarm) but is really a group of buildings that are crying out for a developer to continue developing.

Millions 0f EU funding has already been spent and yet there’s an air of desertedness about the place. Yes, it was a Sunday afternoon in November, but what better time to visit a museum? A search of the Net yielded little so while the converted stalls are labelled Kincsem souvenirs, Huszar museum, etc., I found myself wondering what exactly lay behind those closed doors. White elephants perhaps?

I’m a great fan of racing and like few things better than to while away an afternoon at the races. I grew up in Co. Kildare, home of the Irish National Stud, a county where racing is very much a part of life.  I still have hopes of one day owning at least a leg of  horse and feeling the pride that goes with entrance to the winners’ enclosure.

I’d also like to go back to Kisbér to see the museum so if anyone has any details about opening times / events, please let me know.

Horses for courses

It’s been years and years and years since I’ve been to the National Stud in Co. Kildare. It hasn’t lost its magic. Six stallions are currently in residence, each with their own private quarters which include a skylight. The stud was started by Scotsman Hall Walker who employed a rather eccentric breeding style. He wanted the horses to be able to look up at the moon and stars and when deciding which foals to keep and which to sell, he consulted the stars. Now there’s a man I’d like to have to dinner.

With fees for cover ranging from €4,500 to €60,000, many of the stallions will be put to work at least 200 times a year. The better their offspring do, the more expensive their seed becomes. Generally, breeders wait to see how their offspring do as two-year-olds. Wouldn’t that be an interesting way of measuring people’s worth – if they were judged by the behaviour of their kids.

The stud is beautifully laid out and exquisitely kept. When she visited last year, the Queen stopped by to pay her respects and, given the sucess her family has had in racing horses sired in the National Stud. Ambling the grounds is a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon – the guided tour takes all of 35 minutes and there are plenty of interesting nooks and crannies to wander into. St Fiachra’s garden is a tribute to the patron saint of gardeners the world over. Rocks and water are heavily featured and the garden itself is just what I’d like to have, if I win the lotto and can afford a place in the country with room for a pony.

Perhaps the oddest feature of all though, is the skeleton of the famous Arkle, who won the Gold Cup at Cheltenham in 1964Anthony Byles has this to say: Arkle was incomparable. Not only was he a great athlete, but he had an inexplicable presence that captivated all who were touched by him. The adulation with which he was regarded extended beyond the racing public. There was no doubt he was arrogant, as could be testified by the way he would appear to swagger round the parade ring or savour the applause after one of his victories. And the heights he would sometimes clear his fences – was he not just taking the rise out of the opposition? Yes, arrogant he may have been. But he had plenty to be arrogant about.

Not far from Kildare Village – the outlet stores, it’s also next door to the Japanese Gardens. Is it any wonder really that I’ve met so few Kildare people in my travels? Why would you leave a county that’s Ireland’s answer to Kentucky and home to the country’s oldest golf course and a race-course dating to the seventeenth century and has some of the most fertile land in Ireland?

How’s she cuttin’?

IMG_3967For as long as I can remember my dad has been going to the bog and cutting turf. Once a year, we get a delivery at home that has to be neatly stacked in an outside shed. The main bulk of it can be thrown into a heap inside but the walls have to be carefully constructed. I used hate to see the turf coming. It meant hours of back-breaking work after school when I’d rather have been reading. And never, in all these years, never once did I ever bother to go the bog with him – not once.

I was at home in September and he was heading over one evening to check the turf…to see if it was drying and to fix any stacks that had fallen. As we drove through the bog, he explained how various families were given plots during World War Two as coal supplies from Britain had stopped almost entirely. They would cut turf manually with a special spade called a sleán. Imagine, at that time, over six million tonnes of it was hand-cut. Once cut, the turf is stacked to dry. Neat rows lined up like sentinels, watching over each other as the air dries them out. And once dry, the turf is drawn. Cut, dry, and draw. That’s the order. A tradition that is centuries old and fast dying out.

IMG_3971IMG_3985The purple heathers and bog pools simmer, emitting a soft glow in the shadow of the setting sun. The place is deathly quiet. Surreal. For thousands of years, this turf has been growing. For hundreds of years, we have been cutting it and using it as fuel. And now, experts predict that in five years’ time, we’ll see the beginning of the end. Four bogs in Kildare alone are stopping turf-cutting. What then? What will happen to the tradition?

IMG_4004My dad works away, restacking fallen walls, checking that each sod is drying out. These strong hands  have built and made and sown and harvested. These hands have held mine to cross the road; they’ve shaken hands with mine in congratulations; they’ve worked to give me that innate sense of security that allows me to be who I am. As I listen to the silence, I am moved by the rhythm of his singlemindedness. As I watch him at work, I am ashamed that it has taken me so long to take the time to travel those five miles with him. And as I write this, I say a quiet prayer that he will be around to draw turf for many years to come. I promise myself that I will spend more time listening to what he has to say, lest the traditions disappear entirely.