Everyone in Ireland wants to mark your card. And point you in the direction of a dead cert. “You’re looking at an Irish legend.”

I was also looking at a skeleton. And listening to a thick Irish accent. From up Connacht way.

“He’s the most famous thing Ireland has produced. Like Guinness, all the best Irish things are kept behind glass.”

We were looking at the remains of one of Ireland’s great heroes, Arkle. His shrine is seethrough. His last resting place transparent.

You can’t go far in Ireland without someone talking horses. Gaelic is not the national language of Ireland. Equine is. And everyone is fluent in it.

It is also known as Everyday Jockey. Or Punter. And common phrases include Beef and Salmon, L’Escargot, Rock of Gibraltar, Hedgehunter, Taaffe, Carberry and Eddery.

The bright-cheeked, diminutive man in the vintage Trinity tweed patch flat cap gave me a wink. Everyone loved him. Arkle was a superstar. He once ran with a shamrock behind his ear! I came to pay my respects. All horse lovers have to come to Tully one day.

One of the exhibitsOne of the exhibits

Foaled in 1957 at Ballymacoll Stud in County Meath and named after a mountain in Scotland, Arkle was the greatest steeplechaser of all time, winning 22 out of 27 races. Arkle won three successive Cheltenham Gold Cups. He died in 1970.

His skeleton stands in Tully, County Kildare in the front window of the Irish Horse Museum which celebrates Ireland’s love affair with horses and horse racing’s love affair with Ireland.

Other scared relics on display include the Tetrarch’s tail. Winning all seven starts in 1913, the invincible Spotted Wonder was possibly the greatest two-year-old of the 20th century. Related to Arkle, bred at Straffan in County Kildare and buried at Ballylinch Stud, three of his sons won the St Leger Stakes.

He was the fastest horse ever. All you saw was his tail, my self-appointed ginger-haired guide joked as, above us, a screen showed Vintage Crop winning the 1993 Melbourne Cup – the first overseas horse to do so.

Ireland is now the largest producer of thoroughbred foals in europe

The museum is Ireland’s Horse Hall of Fame. It contains tributes to greats like Yeats, who won the Ascot Gold Cup four years in succession. It commemorates Shergar, the winner of the 1961 Epsom Derby who was stolen and tragically never seen again.

The Irish National Stud is also based in Tully which has been associated with horse breeding since 1300, when mounts were bred for the Knights of Malta. Ireland is now the largest producer of thoroughbred foals in Europe. Ireland has 80 stud farms.

View of the Mountains of Mourne.View of the Mountains of Mourne.

Three hundred stallions and 20,000 mares produce 1,200 foals every year. Horse racing in Ireland provides 16,000 jobs. There are 750 registered trainers and 250 professional jockeys.

This year will see over 150 meetings, close to 350 race days and nearly 1,200 races on 26 courses, offering prize money of over €50 million.

Ireland has some wonderful courses, including Tralee, Navan, Tramore near Waterford, Ballinrobe on Loch Carra in County Mayo, Bellewstown with its views of the Mountains of Mourne, Clonmel (from the Gaelic Chian Meala - Pasture of Honey) and Thurles. Dundalk is the country’s only all-weather floodlit horse track.

Outside the museum.Outside the museum.

The world steeplechase was coined in County Cork in 1752. To decide whose horse was faster, two men organised a race from the steeple of the church in Buttevant to that of St Mary’s in Doneraille. Downpatrick is probably the oldest surviving course in Ireland having held meets since 1685. Sandymoor hosted a meet in 1665. Byerley Turk, one of the three founding sires of all thoroughbreds, won The Silver Bell there in 1690 en route to the Battle of the Boyne.

Thirty miles south-west of Dublin The Curragh (The Race Course) is mentioned in early manuscripts as a meeting place of the Celtic Kings who were fond of horse racing. The first Irish Derby was held there in 1866. It now hosts the Guineas Festival in May, the Oaks in July and St Leger and National Stakes in September.

Punchestown (Valley of the Ash Trees) stages some of the best jump racing in the world. The first recorded meeting was in 1824. Fairyhouse, also near Dublin, is the venue for the Irish Grand National, first run in 1870.

Perhaps the best racing craic (fun) is to be found every September in Laytown. Going back to 1868 , it is the only horse race held on a beach. This year’s is on September 13.

“It’s a good craic,” said my latest ginger best friend. “If Neptune is in a good mood.”


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