Ireland’s Connemara Ponies

Rugged and beautiful, Connemara is situated on Ireland’s west coast.  It’s a wild place: a rock strewn landscape softened by the lush green of field and bog; of purple heather interwoven with the golden flowers of gorse; of towering scarlet and purple fuchsia hedges; of blue sea and empty, sandy beaches and of vast skies.  On a warm, summer’s day there can be no more benign a place yet when the gales and driving rain arrive, you are reminded that there is nothing but open Atlantic until you reach the shores of America. It is here that the Connemara pony, as enigmatic as the land that produced it – gentle but tough – developed.

The origins of the ponies are lost in time.  Some believe that they date back to the Vikings, others that the local breed crossbred with shipwrecked Spanish Armada horses.  What is known with certainty is that during the 19th century they were crossbred with Hackneys, Thoroughbreds and Arabians until by the early 1900’s the pony bloodlines were being lost.  In 1923 the Connemara Pony Breeders Society was set up to preserve the breed, the result being that the Connemara is now thriving with societies, clubs and shows worldwide. 

The most important of all of these shows – and rightly so – is the one of its birthplace, the Connemara Pony Festival at Clifden, held each year during August.  It is to the Festival that I was lucky enough to be invited last week.

 
My interest in horses, I have to admit, is somewhat limited.  I ride and (even if I say so myself) am quite good at it, despite only learning ten years ago but I do find the prospect of sitting watching horses for three days going around a ring rather daunting.  But this is Ireland and the craic is as good as you would expect it to be – here you can wander in and out of the showground, the locals are happy to chat to you about anything and everything and the setting is superb: a small showground in the centre of a pretty, brightly coloured town bounded by a dark brown, peaty watered river and backed by mountains.  And of course, there is Guinness!  A bonus was the weather – hot and sunny, every day.

I stayed and watched some of the jumping competitions before my attention waned.  The standard of the riding was very mixed but fun was had by all and it was interesting to see how the children just climbed back on board and carried on without, it seems, a second thought.  Perhaps that is why so many of the top jockeys are Irish ….

However, when it comes to ‘loose’ jumping, I can stay all day.  To watch the ponies move without the restraints of rider and tack, I find fascinating.  Here, the atmosphere is very much more relaxed and the banter never ending.

After a long day, what better way can there be than to end it with a stroll through the town, visiting a bar or two along the way?  Clifden is also a stronghold of traditional Irish music and from every open doorway the sound of the fiddle eminates.  Traditional music has been a lifelong interest of mine and I have had all the elements of a terrific day out – horses, Guinness, Ireland, song and warmth.  I walk back to my house, twenty-five minutes outside the town, set high up on the cliffs, as the sun begins to set.  The perfect end to a perfect day.

This seems an opportunity to talk of my own horse, Barney.  A giant of a horse (who, by coincidence, also came over from Ireland), gentle, wicked and a lot of fun, he helped teach me to ride by ensuring, I like to think, that the saddle was safely underneath me when I landed after a jump.  After months of treatment for lameness, he was ‘put down’ – a very sad day.  However, I now have Bart who compared to Barney goes like a Ferrari.  An ex-eventing horse, he is beautifully schooled and very disciplined, it has taken me a while to feel comfortable with his power and speed.  More of all this on a later post – below is an image of him and Ernie, our other horse, as a taster!

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About Frost Free Flowers and a Bomb Plot…

I know the mind plays tricks as you get older but when I was a small child Bonfire Night was always bitterly cold and frosty. Afterwards, it would turn milder and wet – my father told us it was because the bangs from the fireworks frightened the clouds and made them cry.

a frosty morning in the secret valley

Whether it really is due to global warming or just chance, (probably a bit of both), but this year has been milder than ever. We have had a couple of slight frosts but not enough to do much damage other than to the really tender plants such as dahlias. This post is really more of a photo shoot of plants that ought to have been long finished. In between, for the benefit of overseas visitors, I will explain about the tradition behind Bonfire Night.

fuchsia megallanica

“Remember, remember the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot” starts the old rhyme that children learn, recalling the day in 1605 when a group of men tried to assasinate King James I by blowing up the Houses of Parliament. The main conspirators were Robert Catesby and Guy Fawkes and it is the latter that is remembered because he was the one that got caught.

allium triquetrum – don’t they realise it isn’t Spring?

The burning of the guy, as the effigy of Guy Fawkes is traditionally known, represents the death of Fawkes and right up to the recent past (trick or treat seems to have taken over) children would take their guys, which they made, from house to house asking for ‘a penny for the guy’.


a stunted but proud Foxglove

The bonfire is always accomanied with a firework display, these days usually organised affairs by charities or village committees. What happened to the real Guy (which is where the modern day name for any man originates)? He was tortured and taken to the gallows to be hung, drawn and quatered – the baying crowd were cheated of this spectacle as he jumped to his death before the noose was placed around his neck.

a tender Salvia – not sure which one – any thoughts, please?

As for Catesby, he and the other conspirators escaped, but were found three days later and shot.

this surely has to be the last butterfly of summer?

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