Clonmel Horse Show: The show goes on, despite recession, war and rain

On Sunday, it will be 150 years since the first Clonmel Horse Show was held in 1865 and since then, it has survived economic turmoil, a civil war, two world wars, says historian Turtle Bunbury.

AUGUST 1865. It was a night to remember. Fireworks lit up the Suir Valley with exploding rockets, multi-coloured rays, blazes of magnesium and floating stars. A witness recalled the thousands in attendance roaring “a tremendous Tipperary cheer, which reverberated for several minutes through the recesses of the low hills.”

The Irish Royal Show in Clonmel was a success, but hopes had not been high. A similar event in Sligo, the previous year, had been lacklustre and there were complaints that Clonmel, in Tipperary, was too remote, its railway timetable ill-suited. Moreover, there was alarmist news from England about a major outbreak of rinderpest, a viral disease that would kill a quarter of a million cattle.

But the organisers had done their homework and located the show on a site where, despite the incessant rains, a man could still walk “without soiling his shoes”. One agricultural show veteran declared it “the very best in situation and arrangement I have ever seen”.

The Suirside town had never been busier, and possibly never wetter, but the rain did not deter the Viceroy, Baron Wodehouse, who attended all three days, ‘twixt quaffing champagne with notables such as the Duke of Wellington, Sir Robert Peel, and Charles Bianconi, the Italian-born ex-mayor of Clonmel.

1865 was a success, but it would be eight years before Clonmel hosted its next show. Indicative of the changing balance of power among Irish landowners, eight of the 15 organisers of the 1873 show were tenant farmers. Remarkably, eight members of the present Clonmel Horse Show committee are descended from the organisers of the ‘second coming’ of the Clonmel Show, which was a two-day event.

At the 1880 show, exhibits included a bee tent, forty foot in diameter, dispatched by the British Bee Association, and a mechanical milk-cream separator invented by Swedish engineer, Dr. Gustaf De Laval, which revolutionised the manufacture of dairy products, such as condensed milk, butter, cheese and confectionery.

The success of the 1880 show flew in the face of the Land League’s campaign against landlordism, but the pressures of the Land War came to bear in 1884 and 1885, when the show was reduced to a single day, and then cancelled in 1886.

By 1895, Britain’s influential Baily’s Magazine had declared Clonmel host to ‘the best show jumping I ever saw.’ Many influential people came, including buyers for the German and Austro-Hungarian cavalry. A foxhound show was now also included, and was one of the most popular events until it ended in 1986.

By the eve of the Great War, the Clonmel Show was on a social par with the Dublin Horse Show and the Punchestown Races. But in August, 1914, disaster struck three days before the show, when Britain declared war on Germany. With all railways commandeered for the army, the committee had to call off the show. The show struggled on during the war years, albeit as a one-day event.

After the war, it sought to regain its pre-war position as Ireland’s premier provincial show. 1920 was a success, despite the War of Independence, but the 1921 show was a washout. The Civil War roared into Clonmel in July, 1922, when anti-Treaty forces occupied the town and the show was again cancelled.

The Clonmel Horse Show and Agricultural Society Ltd was created in 1923 and its guiding light was the brilliant Wilfred Watson, whose extensive farm at Ballingarrane was one of the most scientifically run in Ireland.

Tragedy struck in 1929, and again in 1931, when Watson and General Kellett, the society’s formidable chairman, were both killed in horse falls. Watson’s widow, Irene, was elected the first lady member of the committee in 1930. She honoured her late husband with the Wilfred F.H. Watson Memorial Cup, which is still awarded to the Champion Hunter of the Clonmel Show.

The global recession and the ‘economic war’ with London were blamed for the show’s financial loss in 1932, and the following year it was reduced to one day for the first time since the end of the war. More trying times followed with the Second World War. The 1940 show was cancelled, as was 1941, because of the ‘petrol famine’ and an outbreak of foot-and-mouth.

It did not resume until 1943, when, in a nod to petrol rationing, there were classes for ‘decorated horse-drawn farm carts’ and ‘best turned-out ponies and traps.’ The show enjoyed a golden age in the 1950s and 1960s, under the chairmanship of the Earl of Donoughmore, whose family had been involved with the show since 1865, alongside Irene Bagwell (formerly Mrs. Watson), who became the society’s first lady president in 1948.

Together, they raised the jumping competitions to the standards of international events, recruiting Dutch expert, Captain Anthony Paalman, who was one of the finest course-builders in the world.

By the close of the 1970s, the show remained second only to the Dublin Horse Show, especially as host of the National Half-Bred Brood Mare Championship of Ireland. One of its triumphs was the centenary show in 1975, which was attended by both the President, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, and the Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave.

The show has survived the Land Wars, global wars, the Civil War and the incalculable whims of the ever-changing Irish weather. In the decades since 1975, there has been a changing of the guard amongst the organisers, but the event remains as determined and ambitious as it was when the Viceroy wheeled through Clonmel’s muddy streets back in the summer of 1865.


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