The Irish Origins of The Steeplechase
Curious about the Irish roots of the world-renowned steeplechase? Journey with us from North County Cork to Liverpool, as we unravel a tale woven with gentlemen's wagers, iconic surnames, and a race that changed horse-racing forever. Dive in and discover the legacy behind the gallop.
Did any of your ancestors leave from (or arrive in) the port of Liverpool? The City of Liverpool was in the news yesterday – the sporting news that is – as Aintree racetrack hosted one of the most famous horse races in the world, The Grand National.
The Grand National is a form of “steeplechase” – the name for a type of horse-race that that is now popular all over the world. But, like all such names – it has an origin story. And that’s the story we’re going to tell it in this week’s Letter from Ireland.
LONG AGO IN NORTH COUNTY CORK
Do you have the surnames of O’Callaghan, Blake, Donegan, Barry or Fox in your Irish family tree? Well, look out for those names spread across the rest of this letter and story.
There is a town in the north of County Cork called “Buttevant”. Now, while you might think that this name came from the original Gaelic, like most Irish place-names – this one is a little different. You see, the area around Buttevant became the seat of a powerful Norman family by the name of Barry from the late 1100s. They built their stronghold on a fort previously held by the Donegan chieftains – and started to build a surrounding town. This town got its name from the French battle cry of the Barrys: “Butez-en-avant” – which sort of means “keep bashing your way forwards”, or as I like to think: “Onwards and upwards”. I previously wrote here about the Norman families of Ireland – maybe you can spot one of your own Irish Norman surnames?
By the 1700s, the power of the Barrys had waned – and the green fields around Buttevant were populated by landlords and tenants. It was an age of “Gentlemen” and “Big Houses”. Two of these gentlemen – Cornelius O’Callaghan and Edmund Blake – often engaged in the pastimes fitting of men of their class – hunting and gambling. One day, in 1752, these two men decided to set up a wager for a horse-race between the steeples (handy for keeping the end in view) of Buttevant church and St. Leger’s church in the nearby town of Doneraile. It was a cross-country distance of four miles from steeple to steeple – traversing plenty of high hedges and ditches along the way, an Irish steeplechase.
We don’t know who won the wager – but the tradition and popularity of this type of horse race slowly worked its way around the world. In 1839, the first “Grand National” handicap “steeplechase” was held in Aintree outside Liverpool. It assumed the original distance of four miles between the spires in the North Cork towns of Buttevant and Doneraile and is now the longest and most popular steeplechase in the world.
Given that this type of race occurred as a pastime between fox-hunting seasons, it’s ironic that yesterday’s winner was “One for Arthur” – a Scottish-trained horse – and ridden by one Derek Fox from County Sligo!
That’s it for this week – as always do feel free to share your stories, comments and Irish surnames in your family.
Slán for now,
Mike & Carina.