Turtle Bunbury

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Interviews - SPORTING LEGENDS OF IRELAND

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MAJOR WINS

1966 World Championship – Gold.

1960 Tokyo Olympics – 4th.

AWARDS & ACHIEVMENTS

2000 Three Day Event Team of the Millennium.

Irish Sports Council Hall of Fame
for Services to Equestrian Sport, 1997.

Gold Badge of Honour from
Federation Equestrienne International, 1985.

Winner of 9 RDS National Championships.

Designer of European Eventing
Championships course at Punchestown
1991 and 2003.

TOMMY BRENNAN
EVENTER & SHOWJUMPER

You’ve clearly done something right when, nearly forty years after you won a Gold Medal for Ireland, you walk into a room to find 600 people gathered to celebrate an evening of ‘This is Your Life’, all in honour of you. Such was the predicament that legendary Olympic Showjumper Tommy Brennan found himself plunged into on the first evening of the 2003 Punchestown Three-Day Event. Whether he knew about the event in advance is unclear. He was probably far too busy marching about the cross-country course in his trademark bowler, checking all 23 fences were still in order. But as he entered the City West to hear those 1,200 hands clapping, and listened to the tales from so many he has known, it must have all come flooding back.

Tommy Brennan was born in 1940. He grew up on the family farm at Dunnamaggin, close to the banks of the King’s and Glory Rivers, midway between Kells and Kilmaganny. It was a happy landscape, where flowers, blackberries and mushrooms grew wild and beautiful on the sunny slopes of Cloyninnie. Seventeen huge lime trees rose from the earth alongside the old round tower of Kilree while the purple slopes of beautiful Slievenamon rose to the west.[i] Loughsullis, the name of the farm, means ‘Pond of Brightness’ and it had been in the family for many long generations. ‘The headstone of my forbears goes Mathew, Thomas, Mathew, Thomas, way back to the 1700s. My grandfather was Thomas and my father was Matty.’

Margaret Brennan, Tommy’s mother, was the granddaughter of Richard and Henriette Duggan who ran a drapery in Kilkenny City called. Her father Peter and uncle Richard later converted it into the Monster House, a once iconic department store with five in-house tailors. ‘It was a wonderful’, recalls Tommy. ‘The women would go around serving customers tea from pots on crochet napkins. My grandfather was a horseman and always gave fellow horsemen a ten per cent discount’.[ii]

Undoubtedly the most influential of the ‘Big House’ families in Co. Kilkenny at this time were the McCalmonts of Mount Juliet.[iii] At one stage they hunted three days a week and Tommy, who grew up just four miles away, rode out with them every Saturday.[iv] He recalls how house guests were met by a groom, dressed in cap and livery, who would take their horses away to be prepared and saddled for the day’s hunting. Everyone would then ‘hack hell out of it’ to clear away any cobwebs from the night before and calm their hunters down.[v]

Bunny McCalmont, their hostess, was ‘a larger than life lady with the most fantastic legs’. On her introduction to the Kilkenny Hunt, she fell of her horse three times. It took several gallant men to remount her, for which she rewarded them with lashings of whiskey and brandy, served in Waterford Crystal tumblers, from the back of her car. For the annual Christmas meet, the McCalmonts opened the doors of their mansion so that members could relive the highlights of the season by watching a video. They would then ‘let seventy of us run riot through the house … it was the greatest fun, but style was their thing’.[vi]

At the age of 14, Tommy enrolled at Macra na Feirme in Kells, Co. Kilkenny, through whom he was trained in animal husbandry. He went on to become Chairman of the Young Farmers Association in about 1956.

Tommy decided to further his equestrian and agricultural education by moving to Skiddoo Stud in Dublin, which was owned by Dutch industrialist Omar van Landeghem. ‘Omar Van’ exported in excess of 50,000 head of cattle a year and Tommy was given a key role in orchestrating the operation. His boss was impressed and soon the young man was running the stud.

It was during this time that Tommy struck up his famous partnership with a horse called Kilkenny. In 1964, Tommy and Kilkenny flew to Tokyo to compete at the Olympics in the 3-Day Event. They came an admirable fourth. Two years later, the pair rode out for Ireland again at the World Championships at Burghley. The Irish team performed like a dream and won the Gold.[vii] ‘That was certainly my career highlight’, says Tommy.

Between 1963 and 1968, Tommy won 67 international events, representing Ireland all across the world.[viii] In 1968, he flew out for the Mexican Olympics where he became the first Irishman – and only the third person in the world – to compete in both show-jumping and eventing. Unfortunately, just one month before the games, Tubber Mac, his trusty steed, broke his leg at the Waterjump in the Dublin Horse Show. ‘That was a sad day’, he says. ‘Over twenty thousand people were watching. It is a long and lonely walk from the RDS arena to the pocket with just your saddle and bridle’.

In 1969, Tommy’s father died and he inherited the family’s 180-acre farm.[ix] He duly returned to the Brennan’s old two-storey farmhouse which was, he believes, the second biggest thatched house in the county. One of his first decisions was to fell the house. ‘We couldn’t afford to keep it up’, he says. ‘The walls were very dodgy and we’d have had to rebuild the whole thing. Also, combine harvesters had just come in and they were smashing up all the straw so that suddenly reeds weren’t heard tell of and it became very hard to get either thatchers or straw.’

Tommy’s work on Loughsullis impressed the wider farming world and in 1970 he won the Farmer of the Year Award. He was singled out for the presentation of his 500-strong herd of cattle, sport and thoroughbred horses, as well as the intelligent layout of buildings and facilities, and the management of grasslands and hedges.

His achievements caught the eye of an upcoming politician called Charlie Haughey. In 1969, Mr Haughey invited Tommy to manage his 250-acre stud at Abbeyville.[x] Tommy stayed there for eight 'great years', looking after jumpers, racehorses and hunter trials, as well as creating a cross-country course and an indoor school. They later went into thoroughbreds which they sold in Ireland, Newmarket and Kentucky.’ They were ‘great years’, he says. ‘I should have bought the Grand Hotel in Malahide - I spent a fortune down there – but the land and tradition in Loughsullis got first call.’

Following the death of his younger brother Larry in 1979, Tommy sold Loughsullis. He moved to Co. Meath where he ran the Loughmore Stud and rode out with the Meath Hunt, the Ward Union and the Fingal Harriers. Amongst the horses he bred was San Scilla, who won the France Guineas. He was also closely associated with nine horses, both jumpers and eventers, who competed at the Olympics.

And then there was Ambassador, owned by Frank Kernan, another of the mighty steeds he will be forever associated with. ‘We won everything together from Hickstead to Dortmund to Holland’, Tommy recalls. ‘He wasn’t all that consistent but he liked the big jumps’. In 1972, Tommy was again selected for the Irish team for the Munich Olympics. However, the Equestrian Federation of Ireland rejected his qualification. Their decision, which still aggravates Tommy 50 years later, was based on the fact that as he had set up ‘Dublin Bloodstock Ltd’, an agency, he was deemed to have turned professional. Tommy took it to court where, too late, the Judge concurred that just because one is a director of Guinness, that does not make one a professional barman. Meanwhile, Ambassador went to Munich and won what remains the only Olympic Gold won by an Irish horse. Rubbing salt in the wound, he was ridden by Graziano Manchinelli, the biggest professional rider in the sport. ‘The Olympic rules were a sham at that time’, says Tommy.

In the early 1980s, Tommy turned his expertise to management. He was chef d’equipe to the Irish junior team from 1981 to 1985, winning won one gold, two silver and a brinze, including silver at the Three Day Event at the Burghley Inter-EU Championships. He then became chef for the senior team who won the 2007 Nation Cup at Lynx in Austria, Drammen in Norway and Pozna? in Poland.

For many, Tommy’s name is synonymous with the Three-Day Event at Punchestown. [xi] He is the man responsible for laying out those much-admired cross-country courses of the 1990s, including the famous replicas of the crannogs and Newgrange that greeted the 60,000 strong crowd who watched Ireland win silver at the 1991 European Championships.[xii] Few can rival him for creating a challenging course and he has it down to such a fine art that he can practically dictate how many horses will actually succeed in making it around. Safety is paramount. Nearly 20 people have died eventing during the past six years. ‘I have been lucky’, says Tommy but nonetheless that figure dos not sit easily with him.[xiii]

As an international course designer, he has also made his mark at Punchestown and Tattersalls, in Melbourne, Quatar, Estonia and China. In 2003, fellow Irishman Kevin Connolly secured Tommy a lucrative contract from the Beijing Jockey Club to design the 5000m cross-country course for the 2004 Equestrian Olympics. Tommy made six trips to the Chinese capital and all was going swimmingly until the Jockey Club and the Chinese government had a fall out over gambling rights and quarantine. The Jockey Club withdrew their sponsorship, the games were handed over to the Hong Kong Jockey Club and ‘my contract was out the window’, sighs Tommy. [xiv]

From Aachen to Zürich, Badminton to Burleigh, Tommy won over 1,000 first prizes in twelve years, including a DAF Convertible and a Ford Mustang. In Ireland alone, he has won nine national championships on nine different horses at the Dublin Horse Show and Spring Show. He has tried his hand at everything equestrian from the high jumping (2m 20cm at Turin, Italy) to the Point-to-Points (nine winners from 12 starts).

Since 2004, he has been based at Pat and Susan O’Loughlin’s Belfield Stud, near Kilpedder, Co. Wicklow, where he is looking after ‘a selection of steeplechasers’. ‘It’s a lovely county Wicklow, summer or winter’, he says. ‘A paradise of tranquillity’. His house is bedecked with memories of the past – photographs of his jumping days, standing with Princesses and Taoiseachs, Snaffles prints and witty ballads. He remains one of the most popular bachelors in Ireland.

FOOTNOTES

[i] The farm is beside Dunnamaggin, 2 miles from Kells and close to Callan in south Kilkenny. Tommy says Kells is famous for its seven castles, while ‘The Riordans’ used to rehearse down there by the King’s River. Kilmaganny is sometimes spelled Kilmoganny.

[ii] The store was unable to compete when the big chains came in and closed in [year]. Tommy’s uncles include Tom Duggan, sometime President of Mount Juliet GC and Jack Duggan, sometime manager of the Gowran Park Racecourse. Tommy’s cousin Willie Duggan was arguably Kilkenny’s most successful rugby player to date and played for the team who won the Tripe Crown in 1982.

[iii] Rossanara House [sic], came into the possession of the Macenery family about 1880. Sir John Lavery the celebrated portrait painter and step father of Mrs John MacEnery, spent the declining years of his life here. The MacEnery’s bred Red Rum who was one of three Grand National winners from the area.

[iv] Every Sunday, the day after he was out at Mount Juliet, Tommy hunted with the Kilmagannys. ‘I was their secretary for four or five years’, he recalls. ‘They were harriers but they always hunted foxes. We had great country around Windgap, Hugginstown, Harristown.’

[v] Another diligent member of staff was in pursuit, scribbling details in a notebook as to who was out, on what horse, and how they seemed to be faring.

[vi] ‘They’d meet you as you arrived with the horsebox’, says Tommy. ‘The driver of their box was done up in a livery coat with a cap. There were twelve grooms for the house guests, all dressed in charcoal outfit, jacket, britches, boots and stock and hat. Then they’d hack hell out of it because they’d all be boozed out of it from the night before … they’d hack hell for 3 miles down the road so they wouldn’t be bucked off. Bunny was a fine lady, a tall, big bodied woman. She would fall off 3 or 4 times each hunt and it would take 3 or 4 men to put her back on. There wasn’t many pubs then so they’d serve booze from car – big Waterford Crystal tumblers of whiskey and brandy – and they’d be queuing up outside – wham! They’d be highly jarred. Everyone was queued up waiting for the booze and all – it was fantastic.’ Fortified spirits indeed. The Dolphin Hotel from Dublin did most of the catering. ‘They’d have five jeeps and a float to bring the bodies home. Blotto. Ah, great days’.

Tommy reckons there were 26 families living on the Mount Juliet estate at this time, complete with factories and laundrettes, but some of those who lived there ‘abused the whole thing’. He believes the last electricity bill was something like £65,000 for the year. The sons didn’t have the same interest so the family sold it in the late 1980s and it is now a golf club. Tommy remembers a time when the site of the present clubhouse was occupied by boxes for fifty horses. The estate was also connected to nearby Ballylinch Stud, run by John O’Connor, originally built in 1914 for a horse called The Tetracrch who was considered the greatest two-year-old of the 20th Century. He believes the McCalmont’s wealth was in part from tea plantations, possibly in Ceylon. Lady Helen McCalmont is said to have raised £1 million to get her husband Dermot off the front-line and home during the Great War. I did not realize you could buy your way back. At any rate, he didn’t get the white feather. ‘They did so much for the farmers and the pony club and everyone’, says Tommy. ‘Money was no object’. But ultimately they bankrupted themselves with their generosity.

[vii] Tommy was gutted when Kilkenny was sold to the USA, not least as the steed then competed in two further Olympics under Jimmy Wofford.

[viii] How won in Hamburg, Aachen, White City, Rotterdam, Brussels, Rome, Hisckstead, Paris and Geneva.

[ix] ‘I had two brothers, one was an engineer, the other got a tumor at 45 and died and I got the farm’, he says. ‘I spent a fortune doing up the sheds and then I sold it, which was stupid. We had a yard where we could keep 500 cattle and I used to ship them down to Waterford. I used to do all the blood-testing and all that.’ Tommy’s sister married one of the O’Neills of Gowran and her son Pat O’Neill played for the Kilkenny Cats.

[x] ‘Abbeyville was a great set up. 250 acres of parkland to play with. An indoor school. Cross-country. We had a beach 10 minutes away and 3 miles of the beach at Portmarnock. Right beside the airport. A ballroom, swimming pool, … they were great years’.

[xi] At present Tommy is the Official Course Design Consultant to Eventing Ireland which runs the Irish Horse Trials Society. He designed the course for Punchestown in 1990 and 1991, which was the European 3-Day Event Championships.

It was Tommy’s hope for the 1st European Championships to develop a fence to represent every county in Ireland. ‘We nearly got it’, he says wistfully. ‘By the time we had the second one, we were halfway there. We’d replicated Newgrange and built all the crannogs. We wanted to give tours so we could show videos of the cross-country and steeplechase and then take people around and show them all the counties. A lot of people liked jogging and running around there. Then they let if go overgrown and bulldozed it all down. It was shocking that they let it fall like that.’

In 1995 he did the 3-Day Event in Melbourne. Then back to Punchestown for the 3-Day Event in 1995, 1996 and 1997, as well as the ultimately abandoned Nissan World Games in 1998. He went to China in 2003 to design the Cross Country Couse for the Beijing Jockey and became consultant to Nanjing Equestrian Centre. In 2005, he was consultant to the Asian Pacific Games in Doha (Qatar) and in 2007 and 2008, he designed the course for Tattersalls International. ‘But there’s no money in the job’, he says. ‘And a lot of travel. I go over to take a course plan and then I stay with them to see it up. It depends if they have anyone there who knows what to do.’

[xii] ‘It was a hell of a job getting thatchers’, says Tommy. ‘The plan was to have each jump represent a different county’.

[xiii] ‘You have to make it safe. Touch wood, I was lucky. I did 20 years. But there’s been 18 people killed eventing worldwide in the last 2 ½ years and that is serious. Four were killed in Ireland. Ronnie Dukes, Dukes Transport. David Foster killed. The horse rolls over them. I set the course up. It’s a never-wracking experience to think that someone might get killed on your course. The builder just does what you tell him. But you can’t ever know for sure. Suddenly its 3 o’clock and the sun casts a shadow so the horse stands off and is too far away, hits it with his chest, tips over … its little things but this is what happens. These aren’t kamikaze jockeys were talking about. Most of them had been competing nationally.’ But where race jockeys are catapulted or shot from the saddle, eventers go so much slower that the fall is a slow-motion crush.

[xiv] The Chinese tycoon [name?] who employed him employs half a million people between Hong Kong and Beijing. He had 3,000 horses in training on his own stud farm and his own racecourse, with sixteen barns for sixteen different trainers. They had planned new 1800 metre racecourse and training facility, stabling for 300 horses, complete competition facility for the China Equestrian Games in 2005 and a 5000 metre cross-county course. But when the government refused to give him betting rights, he pulled out, put down 1500 horses and the games moved to Hong Kong where HKJC took over. ‘And my contract was out the window’.

See: http://horsebox.tv/videos/general/an-interview-with-tommy-brennan.asp


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