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Pat Taaffe, Punchestown and the paste-board ladies …

Leinster Leader 1 May 2008

Pat Taaffe, Punchestown and the paste-board ladies …
 colourful coverage of an enduring event

There are some staples in the calendar of a local newspaper such as the annual general meetings of the local councils or the build-up to the county football championships. But for a Kildare newspaper there is an extra annual fixture and that is the Punchestown retrospective. And this was tradition continued in the first week of May 1958 when the paper took a look back at the Punchestown meeting of that year.
The column was headed ‘Huge Crowds at Punchestown’ and no doubt part of the attraction that year was the benign weather as reported ‘Favoured by warm sunny weather the annual race meeting cum carnival attracted many thousands of visitors on Tuesday and Wednesday; on both days the enclosure and wide-open outside were packed with milling crowds of happy race goers intent only on extracting the maximum enjoyment from the unique gathering …’
The sun did more than just warm the climate at the Punchestown venue which is an exposed location at the best of times. It also provided the setting for a particularly colourful ladies’ day on the Wednesday. As the enthusiastic columnist described it: ‘The sun brought the gentler sex out en masse and their gay dresses and colourful hats heightened the air of carnival and brought to the meeting that holiday spirit which is so peculiarly a part of Punchestown.’
That particular form of purple prose which seemed to be reserved each year for the Punchestown article was in full flight: ‘The course was in fine trim and the galloping horses with the variously coloured silks of their riders made an appealing picture against the green background of the rolling sward and gorse-covered hills.’   Appealing and all as the vista had been the Punchestown management of the 1950s had to be aware of the changing demands of race goers and had made improvements to the amenities. But it was still and era when the relative innocence of wandering minstrels and trick-of-the loop men were still a feature of the racecourse scene as described colourfully in the report: ‘Progress has brought bigger stands and wider enclosures …. but they have not supplanted the strolling musicians, the stall holders, the games of chance, the man with the elusive pasteboard lady, the gypsies and the side-shows.’
For many the real Punchestown was not the throng of the betting ring or the diversion of the carnival but the thud of hooves into the springy sod as the track looped out into the east Kildare hills. A crowd converged  the big double (a bank with a ditch either side) at the north-eastern angle of the course which was jumped in many of the races in that era. Many of those who had traversed Punchestown’s sward to the far end of the course remained there for the remainder of the day’s racing.
While some traditions held others were giving way to progress. The Ireland of the late 1950s was becoming more dependent on the motor car. While fleets of buses brought race goers from Dublin, more and more were travelling to the course by car and indeed the volumes were threatening to overload the country road network converging on Punchestown. The columnist highlighted the increasing traffic volumes: ‘A small army of police were necessary to control and direct the flow to and from the course …. there was of course confusion but never congestion.’
It is a measure of the festival-like nature of Punchestown with its many attractions that the report could lead in with many paragraphs describing everything but the racing action on the track.  But here too there was cause for local celebration with trainer Paddy Sleator (whose stables were at Grangecon, just on the Wicklow side of the county boundary south of Dunlavin) sending out four winners on the first day – three of them were ridden by local amateur jockey Mr. Francis Flood while the fourth was ridden by G. W. Robinson.  And another name emerging on the racing scene in 1958 which was to go on to greater things in the next decade was that of a young Pat Taaffe who rode Vanessa’s Pet to first place in the Sallins Plate. This was a popular local winner being owned by Mr. T. J. Lawlor of the famous catering family which already had long associations with Punchestown through their provision of marquees and catering for the inside and outside crowds at the track.
With this emphasis on the local wins at the Punchestown meeting of the 1958 the Leader columnist brought his report to a close, continuing the annual coverage of one of Kildare’s most established sporting fixtures.
Series No: 65

A retrospective of Punchestown festival of 1958 by Liam Kenny in his regular column, 'Nothing New Under the Sun, from the Leinster Leader 1 May 2008.

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