Turtle Bunbury

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Interviews - SPORTING LEGENDS OF IRELAND

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Born: October 20, 1949
Place of Birth:
Granard, Co. Longford
Height:
6 ft 0 in (1.83 m)

TROPHY CHEST

Olympic Games:
1992 (Atlanta), 1996 (Barcelona).


World Championships:
1974 (Silver), 1978 (Silver), 1982, 1990, 1994.

European Championships:
1973, 1977 (Silver), 1979, 1981,
1983, 1995, 1997.

World Cup:
1979, 1984, 1986, 1992, 1994, 1995, 1996.

Hickstead Derby:
1976, 1977, 1978, 1979.

Aga Khan Trophy:
1977, 1978, 1979, 1984, 1987, 1990,
1992, 1995, 1997

Aachen Grand Prix: 1978.

Dublin Grand Prix: 1997.

AWARDS

World Commuter Ratings
No. 1: 1976, 1977 and 1978.

Supreme Irish Sports Star of 1978.

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EDDIE MACKEN
SHOW JUMPER

In 1935, the late folklorist James G. Delaney interviewed an elderly butcher from Granard, Co. Longford, about the Irish Famine. The butcher, whose name was Bernard Macken, recounted a story told about his grandfather who had a farm at Granardkill at this time. The year was 1847 and death from cholera and famine were widespread across Co. Longford. As the funeral bell from the nearby chapel resounded yet again across the fields, Bernard’s grandfather snapped: ‘God bless us, how many times have I heard that bell today!'

A ‘cranky class of a man’ who worked on the farm replied: ‘Now is the time to bury them - when the ground is soft.'‘My grandfather was so angry at the fellow's callous remark that he ran him and would not employ him. The next week the workman was a-burying himself.’[i]

It is not known when Bernard set up his butcher’s shop but it was certainly in operation in 1911, by which time he was married with three sons. Seventy years later, Bernard’s grandson Eddie Macken, unarguably the greatest show jumping superstar that Ireland has produced, would attribute his sense of balance to a childhood spent ‘carrying sides of beef’ in the family shop.

Eddie’s father Jimmy, who rebuilt the business after a fire circa 1949, likewise recalled how his son taught himself to ride using ‘the stools in my butcher shop, the chairs at home, the walls and whatever he could find … and even then he rode them with style’.

‘My only dream was to ride horses’, said Eddie. ‘It’s the closest thing to flying’. From butcher’s stools he graduated to farm ponies and neighbour’s horses. Older people still remember the time he came clattering through Granard’s main street on a pony, dressed in his new Christmas cowboy gear, blasting his toy six-shooter into the sky.

In 1961, Eddie’s focus sharpened when his hero Séamus Hayes won the first ever Hickstead Derby in England. Eddie was a pupil at St Mel’s College in Granard at this time. The instant school was finished he would run down to the local equestrian centre, run by vet Brian Gormley and his wife Ann, to take their ponies out for a spin and hone his technique.[ii]

In 1969, the ‘rough country boy’ caught the eye of legendary trainer Irish Kellett. ‘He had an excellent build, was supple, had the temperament and natural sensitivity’, she recalled. ‘Above everything else he had a feel for the horse’.

Mrs. Kellett took Eddie on as a working student at her stables on the Mespil Road in Dublin. When she retired from international show jumping in 1972, she passed over her horses to him, including the great Morning Light.

Within eight months, Eddie was on Ireland’s Aga Khan Trophy team (alongside, amongst others, Tommy Brennan). Astonishingly he was still on the Irish team 36 years later and during those long decades, no showjumper had ever done more to bring Ireland to its feet.[iii]

Eddie’s most famous partnership was with Boomerang, a Tipperary-bred gelding that stood 16.2 hands high. Their union was straight off the pages of a Jilly Cooper novel. Boomerang had once been in Mrs. Kellett’s yard but Eddie found him difficult to ride and the horse was sold on.

In the spring of 1975 Eddie was riding with the wealthy Schockemöhle brothers at Mühlen, West Germany, when his best horse Easter Parade unexpectedly broke its back. Amongst the horses in Paul Schockemöhle’s yard was an Irish horse owned by the German oil magnate Dr Herbert Schnapka. ‘Take this horse until you get something better', suggested Paul. That horse was Boomerang and, in due course, Dr. Schnapka gifted him to Eddie.

Together with his first wife Susanne, Eddie patiently and intuitively trained Boomerang with such success that whenever he hopped into the saddle, something quite magical happened. Show-jumping horses are not generally household names but by the time Boomerang was retired with a fractured pedal bone in the summer of 1980, there was hardly a soul in Ireland who did not know his name.

Between 1975 and 1979, the pair won, or took second, in a record-breaking 32 major Grand Prix or Derby events across Europe and the USA, from Dublin to Rome to Madison Square Garden. They also won a record-winning £250,000 in prize money.

When the redoubtable stallion was put down three years later, he was buried in a field at Rafeehan, the Mackens’ stud near Kells, Co. Meath. Four evergreens were planted around his grave, symbolizing Macken and Boomerang’s record of four consecutive Hickstead Derby wins (still unparalleled), four Wembley championships, four clear rounds in the 1978 World Championship final, and four years in a row without knocking a fence at the Aga Khan Trophy in Dublin.

The Dublin Horse Show has rarely been as thrilling as it was in those years when he captained James Kernan, Paul Darragh and Con Power to win three Aga Khans in a row and give Ireland its greatest show-jumping revival since the 1930s. Hailed as ‘the supreme stylist’, Eddie was also an extremely consistent, bankable and electrifying performer. In an age when Ireland was in dire need of heroes, he grabbed every title on offer, often scooping second place on a different horse in the same event. He topped the World Commuter Ratings in 1976, 1977 and 1978.

By 1980, both Boomerang and Kerrygold, Eddie’s other reputable steed, had been retired. At that year’s Dublin Horse Show, Eddie piloted the chestnut gelding Carroll’s Royal Lion to win the Puissance on a bucketing wet August afternoon. The roars of delight that emanated from beneath the multi-coloured umbrellas who watched him win sashayed all the away around Ballsbridge, rippling through Miss Bay Jellett’s Orchestra and harmonizing with the drum beats of the Army Band of the Southern Command.

Eddie’s later career was not without controversy. On the opening morning of the 1985 Dublin Horse Show, he joined Paul Darragh and Paul Duffy on a strike in protest against a rule which imposed an army chef d'equipe (team leader) whenever there were two or more army men on the Irish team. Intense negotiations ensued and the three men ultimately rejoined the squad, but the event was evidence that the golden age of Irish show-jumping had come to an end.

By 1996, Eddie had relocated to Germany where he rode for millionaire industrialist Michael Nixdorf. Earlier this century, he moved to Langley, east of Vancouver, where he set up the New Kells Farm with his present wife Kathi Ballentine. He still competed for Ireland and in 1998 he took part in his 27th consecutive Aga Khan.

In 2004, Eddie was appointed Chef to the Irish team for the Athens Olympics. When Eddie was ingloriously dismissed, the riders refused to continue until he was reinstated. He was duly restored, along with Ned Campion, but the team’s subsequent success was overshadowed by the loss of Cian O’Connor’s Olympic Gold after his horse Waterford Crystal tested positive in a doping test.

In July 2008 the 59-year-old returned to Hickstead for the first time in a decade. The following month, the sun-drenched Anglesea Stand at the RDS roared with pride as Eddie once again rode for Ireland. He jumped clear in a flawless second round to help Ireland clinch a creditable second place in the Nations' Cup. Whether the 61-year-old legend will continue to ride for Ireland in the future remains to be seen but there can be no doubt that his extraordinary drive almost single-handedly popularized show-jumping as an Irish sport.

With thanks to Susanne Macken, Jamie Macken and others.

FOOTNOTES

[i] "GRANARD - ITS HISTORY OUR HERITAGE" - Ed. Joy Burns & Bernadette Grier (1987). According to the 1911 Census, Eddie’s grandfather, Bernard Macken, was born in 1874. By the age of 32 he had established a butcher’s shop on Granard’s Main Street, married Mary Ellen (eleven years his junior) and had three very small sons, three-year-old Bernard, one-year-old James William and one month old Conor Patrick. A 29 year old butchers assistant from Armagh called Francis Carbery also lived with them, as did 20 year old domestic servant Bridget Monaghan.
Con would later move to Wexford where he set up a pub and undertaking business in the Bull Ring in 1949 (aged 38). He married Annie Lacey, from Cushinstown, and they had four children; Bernard, Ann, Eddie and the late Conor.

[ii] Brian Gormley went on to become the shortest-serving national chairman of the Show Jumping Association of Ireland, resigning eight days after his appointment in 2000.

[iii] The night before the 1974 World Championship at Hickstead, Ned Campion announced to the press, ‘We have come to beat the world’. And before a crowd of 32,000, his 24-year-old colleague Eddie Macken very nearly did just that, faultlessly piloting 10-year-old Pele over the 13-fence course, clocking 95.6 seconds. In the end he was narrowly defeated in a jump-off by the West German ace Hartwig Steenken. ‘I lived with that defeat for the next four years and vowed it would be different next time’.


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Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.