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Leinster Leader 20 December 2007
When an equine Santa Claus brought joy to Co. Kildare …
Over the next few nights many pairs of little eyes – and big eyes too – will be looking towards the northern skies anticipating the visit of the great man known as Santa Claus who they know will bring surprise and joy to homes throughout the land on Christmas morning.  More than forty years ago the name of Santa Claus brought celebration to County Kildare too when a horse of that name led the field past the winning post at the 1964 Irish Derby piloted by Willie Burke of Naas.  Earlier that summer the equine Santa Claus had also won the English Derby , this time with Australian jockey Arthur ‘Scobie’ Breasley in the saddle. His trainer on both occasions was the gifted Mick Rogers of the Curragh.
His success in the Derbys on either side of the Irish Sea saw Santa Claus make racing history becoming the first horse in fifty-seven years to win both Derbys in the same year. It was not that Santa Claus was without historic links in any event – his jockeys’ silks bore the distinctive white star emblem of Mr. John Ismay, scion of the family which owned the White Star shipping line, owners of the ill-fated Titanic.
However back in Naas it was a case of local lad made good and for a time Willie Burke, his Irish Derby jockey,  was the toast of his neighbours in St. Corban’s Place on the Dublin road out of the county town.  But then the residents of St. Corban’s were no strangers to connections with the epic historic events of the day. Back in April1938 the Bishop had come from his palace in Carlow to bless the estate on its opening day. On that same date the last British garrison had departed the Spike Island fort in Cork Harbour completing the withdrawal of British forces from the new Irish Free State. The coincidence was noted by the ever present local wits in Naas and passed into the urban folklore of the town. 
Such evocative anecdotes, and many more, are recounted by prolific Naas historian James Durney in his latest book In the Shadow of the Kings which documents the story of social, public and council housing in the county town from 1898 when the local council began to take responsibility for providing housing as a public service. It’s a gripping and a long overdue story telling of how families were progressively transferred from decrepit and damp houses in the back lanes of the county town to new houses built to a high standard on greenfield sites.
The Naas Urban District Council, in parallel with its counterparts in Athy and Newbridge, and Kildare County Council for the rural parts, took on the mammoth task of acquiring sites, coming up with plans and designs, and allocating tenancies. At a time when public funds were at their most scarce the local councils throughout the country delivered hundreds of new homes for the first generation of a new Free State.  It was an achievement on a parallel with rural electrification or the eradication of human TB with Irish governments and councils delivering on a much-needed public service. However a strength of James Durney’s text, as he has demonstrated in his previous books about Kildare people in military and political endeavours, is that he identifies the real pulse of human experience behind the justifiably proud achievements of the public authorities. He points out that while the acquisition of a new house was a great improvement in the lot of a family it did not of itself alleviate the pervasive poverty of the time: Naas in the 1930s/40/s/50s was still a hard place to rear a family.  As with many other estates throughout the country St. Corban’s was to see its sons and daughters take the emigrant boat in large numbers. It was not until the 1960s that Ireland turned a corner and began to educate and employ its people on home turf. And perhaps this change in fortunes was marked by a combination in white starred silk blazing down the last furlong at the Curragh in 1964  – a jockey called Willie Burke from proud St. Corban’s Place and a horse called … Santa Claus.
In the Shadow of the Kings by James Durney, published by Gaul Press, Naas, contact 085-1443998.
Series no. 46

Liam Kenny from his regular feature in the Leinster Leader - Nothing New Under the Sun - for 20 December 2007 - examines the victory of Santa Claus at the Curragh in 1964 and reviews James Durney's book on Naas Social Housing - In the Shadow of Kings. Our thanks to Liam 

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