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Andy Duff, Benny McCabe & the Slane Castle Stables

Thomas and Monica Duff at the yard in Slane castle with Andy’s Royal Enfield and a Ford Consul.

Andy Duff was based in the Slane stables in County Meath for much of the 1960s where he was the principal jockey for trainer Tony Riddell-Martin. I interviewed him at his home in Slane Village shortly before Christmas 2015. His daughter Monica Murray and an old friend called Benny McCabe were also present. Benny was a stable boy at Slane during the Riddell-Martin years.

 

STABLE HOUSE

 

The Duffs lived in the back left corner house in the first yard (with the chimney still extant) at Slane Castle, assuming you are approaching the stables from the Slane entrance. The house had always been lived in by under-keepers and such like and was one of the few houses on the estate. Andy worked there for a few years before he brought his family to live there, circa 1965. They stayed about seven years; Riddell-Martin left before the Duffs moved out. They were a small family – his wife [name], his daughter Monica (born 1958) and his son Thomas. Andy was also a keen scrambler and kept a Royal Enfield at the stables.

 

RACING CAREER PRE-SLANE

 

Andy was born in Kilcock, County Kildare, and initially served his time with trainers such as Patrick Sleator and Gerry Flood before making his way to Vincent O’Brien’s yard in the early 1950s. He was with O’Brien from at least 1955 when Quare Times won the Aintree Grand National, until 1958 by which time O’Brien had switched to flat-racing.[1] He then went to work with Pat Taaffe (1930-1992) at Rathcoole, County Dublin. As a jockey, Pat Taaffe rode Arkle to win three Cheltenham Gold Cups between 1964 and 1966, as well as the Irish Grand National, the King George VI chase, 2 Hennessy Gold Cups and the Whitbread Cup. Taaffe also won a fourth Gold Cup, 2 Aintree Grand Nationals and 6 Irish Nationals. He rode out on Rosinver Bay for Riddell-Martin in the last Aintree Grand National of his career.

‘Pat was a gentleman,’ recalls Andy. ‘He’d help you in way, he would … I rode the first winner he ever trained. Ted Walsh claims to have done the same but he’s right and so am I. Pat still had a jockey’s licence and was training under his father’s name until he got going. That’s when I won for him, but when he got his own name down, that’s when Ted won for him.’ So chronologically I think we can chalk that up as a victory for Andy Duff!

 

TONY RIDDELL-MARTIN ERA

 

Pull a Pint at Baldoyle, with Andy Duff on board, 1965 or 1966.

Tony had the stables at Slane from circa 1963 to 1969. He did not live at Slane; he may have initially lived in a hotel nearby. However, he did have his offices in the stables, on the left side of the 2nd yard, beside the horse stalls. He drove a Jaguar, probably a green one. ‘The great thing about him was that all his horses were trying to win’, says Andy.

The pick of his crop was Pull-a-Pint, ‘a brilliant jumper’, and Andy has several photos of this horse in winning form upon the wall of his home in Slane. These include Pull-a-Pint winning the Rank Cup at Phoenix Park, circa 1965-1966, and the Balbriggan Hurdle in Riddell-Martin’s black and amber colours. Other photos record victories at Navan and Mullingar (where he later sadly broke his leg) while Andy also regularly rode at Baldoyle, Tuam and Galway in this period.

The Slane-born Benny McCabe also rode out during this era and, as a groom, credits himself with the fine shine on Pull-a-Pint evident in the photograph! His grandfather Jim McCabe and an uncle worked as labourers on the farm at Slane but he does not recall any equestrian connections. ‘There wasn’t racehorses there when I was young’, he said, ‘apart from the odd hunter and that.’ There was mention of a good big chestnut horse who won a bumper for Lady Mountcharles at one point but then something happened to stop him … Neither man remembers any workhorses at the stables.

Riddell-Martin’s horses were trained on The Gallops, also known as the Snow Field, on the Navan Road. This had previously been where Major Bourke of nearby Stackallen exercised his horses, and Benny worked with the Bourkes at the time. The Snow Field is where they headed on crisp and frosty mornings. ‘You wouldn’t do it on those roads now’, laughs Benny. He remembers how the field would be full of sheep when all the horses arrived. And then Paddy Walsh would stand at the top of the Gallops and give a whistle and all the sheep would run into the middle.  He rarely needed to summon his sheepdogs for back up.

Other Riddell-Martin horses include Rosinver Bay (who should never have gone to the Aintree Grand National, thinks Andy) and Alastair Stewart [is that really the horse’s name?]

Towards the end of the 1960s, Riddell-Martin moved from Slane to ‘a nice place’ by Ashbourne; he then sold that and moved to Summerville. In August 1969 Benny McCabe left Ireland and went to Worcestershire where he stayed for nearly 40 years, working close to Capability Brown’s parklands at Croome.

Andy later rode Cropping Up for Avia Riddell-Martin. The horse was trained by Mrs. Saint John and won a bumper race in Dundalk, when ridden by Bunny Cox, before he came to Riddel-Martin at Slane. However, after a  few races he injured his leg and that was the end of his race career.

 

YARD MEMORIES

 

Most of the action happened in the second yard. There was a wonky-eyed gamekeeper called Cyril Thompson, from Tullamore, who briefly lived on the left side of the second yard, next door to Mr and Mrs Kennedy, a gardener, while Mr Dean was across the arch where Alex’s offices are now. There were hens there and horses were also kept in this yard at the time. John Smith [who was he?] later moved into Thompson’s house.

Next door to Duffs lived Edie Armstrong, a castle maid, and her mother, Mrs Brooks, a house accessible by two routes. No one knows what Mrs Brooks did, but she had chickens. ‘She used to have a cauldron over the fire and we’d always be looking in through her window to see her beside it. She’s put the chicken skins into it and boil them up. And then Daddy told us she was a witch so we were always scared of her. She called us the cubs. “The cubs won’t talk to me”, she’d say to Mammy, but we couldn’t talk to her because we were afraid she was a witch!’

The feeding room was just inside the arch of the second yard, with the grain room above.

In the lower yard Monika recalls men such as Ted Smith, Paddy Walsh and Gussie Dockett gathering to receive instructions from the farm manager. ‘Ah there was great banter,’ says Monica. “I remember one time the lads were all in the first yard and there was a big snowball fight.’ Benny was there too: ‘Lord [Henry] Mount Charles came up on his bike, with Simon on another bike, and I knocked him off it into the snow as he came through the arch into the yard. I shoved him off! I didn’t hurt him or anything.’[2]

Mary Brown, the cook, lived in the castle ‘for donkey’s years’, says Benny …

Mick Martin, the farrier, who died circa 2013, but he came up to the castle rather than living there.

David Gow [sic] was carpenter (possibly?) but they think he died before Riddell Martin lived there …

 

GAME & HOUNDS

 

Monica recalls a time when the Dairy, aka the dome building that divides the avenue beside the entrance to Slane, was full of Boyne fish, mostly salmon, which had been caught and gutted by Jim Conolly the gillie. Rabbits and pheasants were also hung here. Jim Conolly son lives beside the chapel in Slane.

Monica remembers people putting coal cinders down their boots before they went out to hunt the otters, which were eating their fish. This follows an old tradition that when an otter bites your leg and hears a crunch, he will let go – so the cinders were designed to make him think he’d broken your bones and let go! Benny recalls otter heads are on walls in the castle from circa 1908 …

There were kennels beside the Gamekeeper’s house on the hill, which I visited, but they have gone now.

 

CONYNGHAM CONNECTIONS

 

Mrs Mayberry, the Gamekeepers Wife. She may have had a daughter Jean … and a son.

As well as snowball fights, they remember other occasions playing with the Conyngham boys and Henry likewise recalls playing football with them.

Patrick Conyngham was often down at the Duff’s house.  The Duffs used to play with him in the Dungeons and they also had a fine house in the wood using all the lovely furniture and statues from the dungeon until someone grassed on them! He liked drinking in local pubs. Simon was more reserved.

‘Lady Mountcharles was very good to us,’ says Monica. ‘Very pleasant. She’s always come to the door with something on Christmas Eve.’ She sometimes paid the children to go in to pick raspberries or pull ragwort; Monica admits they used to rob the orchard too!

They have a picture of Lady Eileen with Kayleigh, the Irish wolfhound, and Gina the black Labrador.

 

 

FOOTNOTES

 

[1] Andy was with O’Brien when the brilliant Ballymoss won the 1957 St Leger and 1958 Prix de L’Arc) – his job was to make sure horses didn’t win! – he rode a winner the week for the owner Frank Vickerman. For more on O’Brein see http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2009/jun/02/obituary-vincent-obrien

[2] Was this the big snow of 1963? See https://www.turtlebunbury.com/history/history_irish/history_irish_big_snow.htm )