Chasing Steeples!

I can’t resist a good Irish story . . . I look out for them wherever we go. Our latest adventure was over in the northern part of County Cork, searching out a number of holy wells and anything related to them: we were led by Amanda Clarke: look at her website here. Regular readers will know that we often get together with Amanda and Peter to share our mutual interests in the Irish landscape. On this most recent expedition our path took us through Buttevant, and specifically to St John’s C of I church there, where Finola was keen to inspect the stained glass windows. The present church was built in 1826, and replaced an older one, established in the late 1600s.

As you can see, it has a tower with a fine, elegant spire. I was fascinated to read that the predecassor of this church is credited with the historical significance of having ‘given birth’ to the Steeplechase horse race.

. . . The term ‘steeplechase’ actually originated in a horse race first held in Ireland in the 18th century. As the name might suggest, that very first race took place in 1752 between two steeples in rural county Cork in the south of Ireland. At that time, church steeples were among the tallest buildings in the landscape. On that night, Cornelius O’Callaghan and Edmund Blake were at dinner at Buttevant Castle, having a good time. They made a bet between themselves to race from the steeple of Saint John’s Church in Buttevant to that of Saint Mary’s Church in the town of Doneraile . . .

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Sadly, the Castle at Buttevant is no longer habitable. It was built around 1200 by Philip and William de Barry, on land seized from the Gaelic O’Donegan’s. The poet Edmund Spenser (1553 – 1599) lived in the nearby castle of Kilcolman for many years, and wrote his poem The Faerie Queene there. He also mentions Buttevant Castle in his writings:

“Old father Mole, (Mole hight that mountain grey
That walls the Northside of Armulla dale)
He had a daughter fresh as floure of May,

VVhich gaue that name vnto that pleasant vale;
Mulla the daughter of old Mole, so hight
The Nimph, which of that water course has charge,
That springing out of Mole, doth run downe right
to Butteuant where spreading forth at large,
It giueth name vnto that auncient Cittie,
VVhich Kilnemullah cleped is of old:
VVhose ragged ruines breed great ruth and pittie,
To travallers, which it from far behold”

Spenser is supposed to have derived the names ‘Mole’ and ‘Armulla’ from Kilnemulla or, more correctly Cell na mullach, an early name for Buttevant. It is possible that the castle here fell victim to the 20th century Irish Civil War, although I cannot find any detailed information on this. Accounts generally suggest that the building was in use until the 1920s and another reference states that there was a significant fire which destroyed the interior in 1936. Today, it is a windowless ruin which is not accessible to the public.

I’m sure you are all anxious to get back to the story of that first Steeplechase – and you want to know who won? When taking in any Irish tale you have to be patient . . . We simple don’t know who won! It’s not recorded anywhere . . . The account continues:

. . .The distance was around 4 miles, crossing countryside and rivers. The winner would be the first to touch the base of the steeple in Doneraile. The prize? More than 600 gallons of port. Sadly, history has not recorded who actually won the race. But that race has gone down in history, with steeplechase races becoming a tradition . . .

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Obviously, we had to continue our expedition with a visit to Doneraile, to view the finishing post. That’s St Mary’s Church, above. The present building does not have a spire: I would have thought that such a feature would be essential if you were looking out for it from a distance of four miles, even with fairly flat countryside in between. However, I have now learned that the term ‘steeple’ correctly refers either to a simple church tower, or a church tower with a spire on it. Have a look at the terrain from a birds’ eye view:

Here I have copied extracts from the first edition 6″ Ordnance Survey map, showing the terrain in more detail around the start and finish points as it was noted in the early nineteenth century:

On this occasion we didn’t have time to explore the route itself: I wonder if anyone else has? Is it significant that the townland which surrounds Doneraile Church is known as Horseclose?

In the present day, of course, Steeplechasing has an equine life of its own. Supposedly, the very first recognised English National Steeplechase took place in March 1830. In 1839, the British Grand National Race at Aintree was established, a race that is still run today over roughly the same distance of around 4 miles. Here’s a poster for the Irish equivalent – at Fairyhouse – on Easter Monday 1916, a very significant date in the Irish calendar . . .

While on the subject of the Aintree event, we must mention the most famous racehorse of all time (probably) who holds the record for winning the Grand National Steeplechase thrice – in 1973, 1974, and 1977 and coming second in 1975 and 1976: Red Rum.

. . . Red Rum was bred at Rossenarra stud in Kells, County Kilkenny, Ireland, by Martyn McEnery. Following a canter at Aintree Racecourse the day before the 1978 Grand National he was retired. The news of Red Rum’s retirement was the lead story on that night’s 9 O’Clock News on the BBC and was also front page news of the following morning’s newspapers. Red Rum had become a national celebrity, opening supermarkets and annually leading the Grand National parade for many further years. His likeness graced playing cards, mugs, posters, models, paintings, plates and jigsaw puzzles. Several books have been written about Red Rum, The horse helped launch the Steeplechase rollercoaster at Blackpool Pleasure Beach in 1977 . . .

Wikipedia

Yes, this is it: the Steeplechase Rollercoaster! You can join in the full experience here. Hopefully my account has enlivened your day: I’m sure there are many of you out there who are familiar with this tale and can, perhaps, add to it? I’ll finish with a view over Buttevant taken on our journey – an atmospheric winter morning.

With thanks to The Guardian for the header pic of the Aintree Grand National

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