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A truly Irish scene, the spirit of the real Punchestown’

‘A truly Irish scene, the spirit of the real Punchestown’
Liam Kenny
Another Punchestown has come and gone and with it many stories of fortunes won and lost. The race-goers who patronised the 2007 festival will, no doubt, have brought home many memories characteristic of the special atmosphere of the east Kildare track. However it is hard, in the modern era, to find quite the same sense of nostalgia and of occasion that permeated the festival in years past.
Fifty years ago the Punchestown review made the lead front page story in the Leinster Leader of 4 May 1957. And it is a tribute to the universal appeal of Punchestown in times past that the entire report could be written with hardly a mention of the main business of the occasion – the actual racing on the track.
The reporter of the day was particularly taken with the reconstruction of the grand stands. ‘ One of the main advantages resulting … is the much better view now available from the main stand giving a wider view of the course.’ There were also improvements in terms of crowd accessibility: ‘ The provision of stairways at the back of the building is also of considerable help, for in former years the top steps were so difficult to reach that often there was plenty of space on them while lower down spectators were packed tightly together.’
As it transpired in 1957 the new amenities were soon put to the test. The crowd on the opening Tuesday of the two-day meeting was modest but a surge in attendance on the Wednesday threatened to compromise the level of comfort: ‘ one had to be prepared to suffer somewhat in Wednesday’s crowds. Not even the freer entrances to the stands etc could prevent the occasional traffic-blocks among the milling crowds and more than one member of the fairer sex decided that discretion was the better-part of valour when it came to making the long climb to the top of the steep stand.’
And not alone were the representatives of the ‘fairer sex’ along in great number but they also ensured that the fashion sense of Punchestown’s time-honoured ladies’ day was maintained to its customary high standard: ‘ Not a few ladies defied the threatening clouds of the forenoon to appear in gaily-coloured frocks and dresses, but in the main it was a “tweedy” Punchestown with the accent on well-cut suits and coats.’   If the style was a little on the low-key side it was compensated for by some adventurous creations from the millinery department: “ The only realm in which the ladies unanimously decided to make a rare fling was in the headgear department. What hats! Some attractive and smart: others – well just lets describe the floral confections as eye-catching and leave it at that.’
The fashionable occupants of the reserved enclosures were not the only patrons of the festival to catch the eye of the 1957 observer. Indeed they seemed positively colourless compared to the account of one of the ‘outside’ patrons (those who went to the free area outside the stands) who had struck lucky at one of many raffle booths: ‘ Can you imagine anything more incongruous than bumping into a far-from-slim housewife, carrying a far-from-slim kitchen bread-bin in the thick of a Punchestown crowd.’ In an effort to provide some context for the startled reader our reporter explained: ‘But Mrs. Citizen apparently cannot resist the temptation to purchase, for a few coppers, a raffle ticket, which, if her Punchestown luck is kind can win her prizes ranging from an ornamental china dog to a collapsible kitchen-table, complete with cloth.’  
No doubt there was serious horse racing as well but these colourful observations were just some of the many impressions of the festival a half a century ago when it presented annually, in the words of our correspondent, ‘ a truly Irish scene, a dazzling kaleidoscope of colour, a bedlam of noise: in short, the spirit of the real Punchestown.’  

Compiled by Liam Kenny from the rich resource of the Leinster Leader files, Local Studies Dept., Kildare County Library. Series No. 14.



  Liam Kenny's article from the Leinster Leader 3 May 2007 regarding the sights and sounds of the Punchestown Festival of 50 years ago, from the Leinster Leader of 1957 - from his regular column, 'Nothing New Under the Sun.' Our thanks to Liam.



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