by ehistoryadmin on April 24, 2014

Punchestown 1914 – “The sun shone down with mid-summer power”

Liam Kenny

Asked to write a piece for the Punchestown supplement the travails of a columnist of a century ago come to mind: “So much has been written about Punchestown … that one cannot say anything new about the place”. 

Such was the affectionate introduction to a column written by “Turfrite” in an issue of the Kildare Observer in April 1914 a week after the Punchestown meeting of that year. The writer was no doubt reflecting on the miles of purple prose written each year about the east Kildare racing festival. Because Punchestown was not just a race meeting – it was also a festival, a fashion show, a society fixture, an attraction for prince and pauper, a place full of tricksters and jesters, and a melting pot for locals and strangers. As the columnist of a century ago put it with disarming modesty: “everybody who is anybody – and a lot of us who are mere nobodies – comes to Punchestown.”

He went on to paint a vivid pen picture of the contrasting layers of society whose manners and fashion formed the mosaic of colour characteristic of the Punchestown festival. Firstly there were the knights of the road, pedlars and tramps, hawkers and traders for whom April meant only one thing … a trek to the racecourse nestled in the hills of east Kildare described as: “that resting place of the roving population who are content with the canopy of Heaven for their covering during the few days that precede the meeting, until the day after the races when they pack up and we see them again at some country meeting many miles away.”

At the other end of the social scale were “The leaders of Society and ladies of fashion” – the latter wearing the most wonderful creations and the men in immaculate morning dress.  Our observer of a century ago was not blind to the pretensions which made Punchestown a Mecca for social climbers noting that some of the men wore top-hats so that they could look like “real aristocrats”. Not that there was any shortage of authentic aristocrats  with just about every titled dignitary in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland considering it de rigueur to see and be seen at Punchestown.

However for Punchestown to truly have the columnists reaching for the superlatives in the newsroom dictionary the weather gods had to play their part. Notoriously exposed when the east wind slices down from the Wicklow hills, Punchestown’s amphitheatre could just as easily become a suntrap if balmier conditions prevailed. And so it was for the festival of April 1914 when weather, racing and crowds combined to make the meeting something akin to heaven on earth for its patrons. As the reporter gushed: “The sun shone from a cloudless sky with mid-summer power and the heat was almost oppressive … the attendance was of record dimensions, while never had the entries been so large for all the well-known races.”  The weather was so uncharacteristically good that the observer of the 1914 festival returned to the subject again and again through his reportage: “One has to go back a decade to remember anything approaching the glorious weather.” 

The kindness of the weather had many advantages and our reporter was clearly besotted by the display of feminine fashions facilitated by the radiant weather. He wrote of how the glorious conditions afforded ample opportunity for the ladies to come attired in “magnificent toilettes” and the scene on the stands was a brilliant one. Not for many years has fashion – the salient feature of the famous meeting – had the same opportunity of strutting hither and thither in the public gaze to such advantage.

The men were not behind in the wardrobe stakes with those in the reserved stands wearing “morning dress” in courtesy to the representative of the King being present. This was a reference to the Lord Lieutenant – as the monarch’s representative in Ireland – being the ranking dignitary at the meeting.  The arrival of the Lord Lieutenant and his retinue was one of the highlights of the pomp and ceremony which enveloped the meeting. Their Excellencies, the Lord Lieutenant and Countess Aberdeen made the journey to Naas by rail from Kingsbridge. They were received at Naas station by fifty men of the Royal Irish Constabulary and half a dozen mounted constables. Their travelling party occupied two more carriages and the entire procession made its way to Punchestown where they were received at the Kildare Hunt stand by Mr Percy La Touche and the Earl of Enniskillen, the Boy Scouts of the county forming a guard of honour. 

The royal representatives attended each of the two days of Punchestown arriving from the capital by train on each day. However the fact that they returned to the city by motor car on the second day was novel enough to be mentioned in the paper.  The evolving impact of the motor car on Irish life could, like so many trends, be traced in the reporting of Punchestown as the years went by.  The bye-laws made as regards the motor traffic were more honoured in the breach than the observance according to the Kildare Observer. Never was seen in Ireland such a collection of motor cars, of all ages, makes and sizes. They packed the special enclosure reserved for them and overflowed “in serried rows” over all the surrounding plain. More than 700 cars paid in through the Punchestown gates on the first day of the 1914 meeting and another 1,000 were estimated and day two. The kind of local enterprise which has always capitalised on Punchestown was in evidence with local landowners running what were described as “private garages” or parking fields which netted them “a considerable amount.”

The new char-a-bancs (open topped buses) were extensively patronised and crowded with race goers. The novel mode of transport provided passing entertainment for the youngsters in the town of Naas who voiced a cheer when a Punchestown bound vehicle sped through the streets. There was a sense that horsepower in the mechanical sense was taking over from horsepower in its original animal sense as far as the business of getting to the racecourse was concerned.

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