Turtle Bunbury

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Castles in the Sky



It is nearly 90 years since Croke Park hosted Tex Austin’s International Rodeo for an ‘engrossing and astonishing’ seven day spectacle. The people of Ireland had never seen the like of it. But boy did they enjoy it. Tickets to the world-famous rodeo sold out in record time as crowds of up to 35,000 made their way to Croker for the daily shows at 2:30pm and 6:30pm. The programme promised its audience that they would bear witness to ‘skill, strength, courage and all other qualities that go into the making of a real man … and [which] are regarded as insurance against any possible development of a race of mollycoddles’.[i] It also guaranteed that all these ‘Outlaw Horses’ were ‘not merely untamed, but untameable’.[ii] Nonetheless, viewers were assured this was a show that ‘even the most tender-hearted nature-lover can watch without compunction’.

Tex Austin knew how to lay on a good show.[iii] Born in 1886, the Texan enjoyed a successful career as a rancher before marketing the concept of ‘rodeo’ as a sport in 1918.[iv] In the early 1920s, he organized rodeos at Chicago Stadium, New York's Madison Square Garden and, in June 1924, at the newly opened Wembley Stadium in London.[v] From Wembley, the International Rodeo crossed over to Dublin.

Tex Austin always insisted his rodeo was a sporting competition, not a Wild West Show. That did not stop crowds turning up on the off-chance they might see Calamity Jane shoot a pack of playing cards or maybe get a glimpse of Sitting Bull’s impassive face. But few who attended the Croke Park rodeo can have left disappointed.

On offer were a series of events, primarily the aforementioned steer wrestling[vi], bronk riding (ie: the riding of unbroken horses), trick riding and pony express (or relay) races, where competing cowboys changed horses and saddles four times over the course of a mile.[vii] The day culminated with a wild horse race in which cowboys and cowgirls chased and saddled unbroken horses, and rode them for a minimum of fifty yards without a bridle.[viii]

Over sixty unpaid cowboys and cowgirls took part. They were mostly ranch workers although some had worked their way up to become ranch owners.[ix] Each person covered their own costs of entering and training for the championship, hoping to win back the costs and a good deal more by capturing one of the lucrative prizes on offer. Many were already household names in North America, while others came from Canada, Mexico, Argentina, New Zealand and Australia. At least six were of Irish decent, most notably Tommy Kirnan, regarded as the world maestro of roping, and the beautiful Vera McGinnis, whose party trick was to crawl under a horse’s belly while it was at full gallop.[x]

A further attraction was the ‘extremely funny Red Sublett, the highest paid clown in the rodeo business. Accompanied by his sidekick mule ‘Spark Plug’, Red was paid $4,000 and expenses to perform in Dublin. ‘Shucks, I had always wanted to see Ireland’, he later remarked. ‘I would have worked that rodeo for the ship ticket, a daily ration of corn beef and cabbage, and a bottle of Irish whiskey.’

The Dublin Rodeo of 1924 marks one of the highlights of a fascinating photographic exhibition at the GAA Museum in Croke Park. As the photographs explain, the bronco-bucking show was one of several events that one would not normally associate with Croker. Events such as the opening of the Special Olympics ceremony in 2003 or the U2 concerts in 2005 and 2009 are one thing. And the showdown between Muhammed Ali and Al ‘Blue’ Lewis which took place in Croke Park in July 1972 will remain the stuff of legends for centuries to come.


But don’t miss the GAA Museum’s rare photographs of the Tailteann Games, Ireland’s answer to the Olympics, which commenced on 3rd August 1924, just three weeks before Tex Austin’s rodeo arrived in Dublin. It is claimed, with good reason, that these annual games, dating to the 2nd millennium BC, were the oldest sporting festival in the world.[xi] However, the games ground to a halt soon after the Normans arrived and had all but vanished by 1922 when the new Irish Free State government backed a GAA plan to revive them.[xii] Tens of thousands duly arrived at Croke Park to enjoy two weeks of sporting events including archery, boxing, cycling, football, hurling, tennis and gymnastics. The Tailteann Games were again hosted at Croke Park in 1928 but interest rapidly dwindled and the 1932 games were utterly upstaged by the Eucharistic Congress. The 1936 games were duly postponed and the festival has yet to recommence.

Thunder and Lightning Final (1939)

One of the most spine-tingling events in the history of Croke Park was the so-called ‘Thunder and Lightning’ hurling final which took place on September 3rd 1939. Nearly 40,000 fans crowded into the stadium to watch Cork and Kilkenny battle it out for the McCarthy Cup. As the second half got underway, an extraordinarily loud thunder clap stunned the audience to be followed by an epic lightning storm.[xiii] The gallant players continued on, with Kilkenny emerging as winners by a point. But for anyone wondering what the thunder storm might have signified, they only had to look at the newspapers. That same day, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared that the war with Hitler’s Germany had begun.

The ‘American Invasion Tour’ (1888)

Sporting tours in foreign lands have long been considered a useful opportunity for sportsmen to miss the return trip home and start anew. Such was the case with twenty of the fifty-one Irish athletes who sailed to the USA in 1888 as part of a GAA initiative to promote Gaelic games in North America. The group traveled extensively between Boston, New York and Philadelphia, hoping to instill in Irish emigrants the same sense of excitement that gripped Ireland after the GAA was founded in Thurles in 1884. However, despite a hearty reception in New York, they were up against dreadful weather conditions and the distraction of a heated Presidential election campaign. The tour ran out of money and had to borrow £400 from Michael Davitt to get home. The tour was deemed a financial failure when officials had to request a grant of £400 from Michael Davitt for the return journey home. As nearly 40% of the players decided to remain permanently in the USA, the trip became known as the ‘American Invasion Tour’.

One final photograph to consider is that of the Trinity College hurling team. It dates to 1879, five years before the GAA itself was founded, and is the earliest in this fine collection.


[i] A unique image of two cowboys on horses courtesy of the National Library is used in the exhibition while an official programme from the 1924 Dublin Rodeo is on display in the main exhibition area. The programme also contains a cowboy dictionary of terms such as ‘man killer’, ‘outlaw’ and ‘saddle emptier’. Posters for the show featured a young man on an explosive, rearing horse carrying his sombrero in one hand, a huge cloud of earthy smoke beneath them.

[ii] “Outlaw Horses with Wicked Records!’, it promised, that will ‘test the skill, courage and horsemanship of the world’s greatest riders’. But presumably these horses were herded in from somewhere in Ireland or the UK, or did they really come all the way from the USA and if so hadn’t they been broken by then?!

[iii] ‘They do say that the finest sight in the world is a fine man on a fine horse’, said Tex Austin. ‘But I’ll tell you a better – a fine man on a buck jumper’.

[iv] ‘Rodeo’ is a Mexican word for ‘round up’ and the round up at first meant a mobilization of cattle for shipping purposes, as seen in the Baz Luhrman film, ‘Australia’. The history of rodeo was straightforward. First there were small local competitions, generally matches between the best men of individual outfits who they chanced to meet, probably while driving their respective herds to a shipping point. It then grew to be a State or provincial, the National and finally became International. The Times noted that the rules in these competitions were ‘precise and complicated’.

[v] Managed in the UK by theatre expert and Noel Coward colleauge Charles Blake Cochran, the First International Rodeo performed at the Empire Stadium in Wembley for 2 weeks (June 14-28). It was described in The Times as ‘a championship contest, said to be the most popular sport on cattle-raising countries’ (ie: USA, Canada, Australia) but was first of its kind held in UK. There were two performances a day, with 5/6, 8/6 and 12/6 per ticket. Proceeds from opening day went to a charity.

[vi] Steer wrestling is decided by the length of time it takes the wrestler, who starts on horseback, to leap from his pony and wrestle the running steer to the ground.

[vii] In a similar contest for cowgirls, the mounts were changed four times but not the saddles.

[viii] The Dublin crowd were spared the steer-roping which appalled the London crowds in June when a heavy white Hereford, at full gallop, was roped around the neck and thrown so heavily that one broke its leg and had to be shot in front of everyone. This resulted in a (presumably) costly court action by the RSPCA (who lost). Once this event was removed from the programme, everything else was designed so that ‘even the most tender-hearted nature-lover can watch without compunction’. Nonetheless, several complained to the papers that ‘making a circus’ of these ‘necessary’ rural practices was ‘demoralizing’ and ‘disgusting’. One cavalry captain advocated that ‘if we must return to barbarism and reintroduce the Circus of Rome, then let us have more noble sport, and fight man against man, armed with sword, net and trident. Let our giants wrestle with our strong men’. But for man to fight the most noble and nervous beast that serves him – the horse – and wrestle with the brute upon which he will shortly feed is a very silly and sordid business’.

[ix] Some credence to Austin’s claim that this was a genuine sporting competition is gained by the fact none of these contestants were professionals. Or, for that matter, amateurs.

[x] Others said to have been of Irish descent include Ambrose ‘Nowata Slim’ Richardson, Ruth Roche, Bea Kirnan and Jim McDonagh.

[xi] The event was originally tied in with ancient Celtic celebrations of the feast of Lughnasa.

[xii] As a show of its commitment, the government granted the GAA money to build two new stands at Croke Park, including the Hogan Stand. I believe the revival was the brainchild of JJ Keane, founder of the National Athletic and Cycling Association of Ireland (NACAI), in conjunction with JJ Walsh, Minister for Posts and Telegraphs in the new Irish Free State.

[xiii] When fans awoke that morning they were greeted by torrential rain however undeterred they proceeded to Croke Park and by the start of the game the rain had eased. After a first half dominated by Kilkenny the half time score line read Kilkenny 2-4 to Cork 1-1. Just as the game restarted a clap of thunder heralded a ferocious lightning storm which coincided with a Cork comeback. With a few minutes to go the sides were level however Kilkenny’s Terry Leahy scored a vital point which saw Kilkenny emerge as victorious with a final score line of 2-7 to 3-3.

With thanks to Selina O’Regan, GAA Museum Education Officer, and Mark Dorman, GAA Museum Director.