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Punchestown colour and music in our pages 100 years ago

Leinster Leader 26 April 2007

Punchestown colour and music in our pages 100 years ago

by

LIAM KENNY

 

The end of April can only mean one thing in these parts …. Punchestown.  Since the middle of the 19th century the steeplechase festival in the hills and dips of the east Kildare track has attracted  multitudes. This cosmopolitan assembly in the natural amphitheatre of the Punchestown landscape has long inspired acres of purple prose in the press with columnists vying to out do each other with portrayals of extraordinary elaboration regarding the goings on at the festival, on and off the track.

The Leinster Leader Punchestown columnist of April 1907 was a past master in the art of purple prose. He begins his account with a portryal of ‘Walking Sunday’ – that peculiar tradition where people go to a racecourse with not a horse in sight: ‘ Walking Sunday – as the Sunday immediately preceding the great event is called, was observed in its customary manner. Those who had any inclination to visit the famous racecourse before the soil was defaced by hoofs of horses and myriad feet of the crowd on pleasure bent, turned out on foot, some per cycle, last Sunday and paid a visit to Punchestown.’

Even for locals who never went near the track Punchestown was a landmark on the calendar and an annual prompt for the merchants of Naas to impress the visiting custom . As our columnist observed: ‘ Up to Monday evening Naas had maintained its wonted tranquillity. The only indication afforded up to that of the great fete of Kildare was that shown by active preparations being made by various shopkeepers in renovating by the application of a coat of paint … of which it may be remarked some premises were in sore need.’!

Then, as now, there was a particular demand for fashion with the society ladies of Kildare keen to impress among the racegoing throngs. As the Leader correspondent remarked in more elaborate terms: ‘ those in the shops having to do with the provision of multifarious etceteras required by the members of the fair sex for the occasion were not idle as was evidenced by the displays in the different windows.’

Apart from the paying customers Punchestown week attracted a diversity of wandering minstrels or ‘buskers’ in modern parlance. Our columnist was not entirely impressed with the musical attempts of such minstrels as they clamoured for custom, often in clashing competition, along the Main Street: ‘ Here mixed in one homogenous mass were the representatives of the music which hath charms and the pseudo-music to which all and sundry were treated by raucous-toned vocalists which certainly has not charms for the ordinary mortal.’

Our columnist was clearly fascinated by the musical output of very diverse quality provided by the Punchestown week buskers in the Main Street of the county town, he continued: ‘ On one side of the street “My Irish Molly Oh” was roared (a preferable expression to sung) by a male vocalist of undoubted stentorian lungs: on the opposite side a shrill feminine voice sought, in vain, to captivate the adamantine hearts of passers-by with her unmusical interpretation of ‘Bluebell’. Some distance away a cornet player added to the din, while a dexterously manipulated melodeon and unpretentious fideog completed the discord’

Whatever about musical discord on Punchestown eve there was certainly harmony of colour when the meeting formally got under way on the Tuesday.  The Leader columnist, having left the busking cacophony of Naas behind, made it out to the gentle hills beyond Broadfield and recorded the opening formalities:

‘Among the distinguished visitors to Punchestown was the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Aberdeen, who arrived with a small party from the Viceregal Lodge. He drove in semi-state with escorts and outriders from Naas railway station to the course. Here he was met by Mr. Arthur Pollock, Master of Fox Hounds; Baron de Robeck; the Earl of Mayo, and Col. St. Leger Moore in hunting costume.’  

Compiled by Liam Kenny from the rich resource of the Leinster Leader files, Local History Dept., Kildare Co. Library. Series No. 13

Liam Kenny's article from the Leinster Leader 26 April 2007 regarding the sights and sounds of the Punchestown from the Leinster Leader of 1907 - from his regular column, 'Nothing New Under the Sun.' Our thanks to Liam.


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