Legendary equestrian mentored Eddie Macken and was a shrewd businesswoman, writes Rory Egan
Published 20/03/2011 | 05:00
One of the greatest equestrians this country has ever seen died last week after a long illness. Iris Kellett was, without doubt, the most influential and respected person in Irish show-jumping for many years and her reputation spread internationally during that time.
She was born an only child into a Protestant family who owned Kellett's of George's Street a large drapery shop well-known in Dublin. Her father was a vet in the British army but retired his commission to join the family business.He had acquired the old British army cavalry stables at Mespil Road, Dublin 4, and turned it into a riding school. He was renowned for his great knowledge of horses and for the gentle way he would break and train young animals, a skill Iris was to perfect many years later.
Her parents encouraged Iris to horse-ride from a young age, but Iris lost her mother when she was a teenager, after which her father took ill also, and from then on she threw herself into her horses.
She was educated in St Margaret's School in Mespil Road and would come home every day and take lessons at the stables. Iris decided not to take up a place at Trinity College when she finished school in order to concentrate on her riding career and running Mespil Riding School.
Show-jumping is one of the few sports that men and women compete in on a completely equal footing and Iris Kellett soon proved she was the equal of any man or woman on horseback. Her riding career is filled with a succession of victories on horses that she picked and schooled to international standards. Early on, her favourites were Starlet, the pony-strided horse that she competed to a level many thought impossible, and her beloved Rusty, with who she won the Princess Elizabeth Cup at White City in London in 1948 at the tender age of 22. The pinnacle of her career was when she won the European Championship in Dublin on Morning Light in the RDS in 1969, which confirmed her as one of the top riders in the world at the time.
Having taken over the riding school from her father she continued a philosophy of equestrian training that she promoted all her life. Her lifelong friend Pam More O'Ferrall said: "Iris was very kind to horses. She would train by reward, not punishment, which many other people failed to learn. But she was very modest about it and would always say that 'it works for me' rather than take the credit she so richly deserved."
In 1972 Iris sold Mespil Road after many offers -- she knew that she needed more land to really improve it. She bought the required acreage in Kill, Co Kildare, and built what was at the time the finest equestrian centre in Europe.
Apart from her unique horse-riding ability, Iris combined three major talents so rare in one person: a deep understanding and knowledge of horses; an ability to teach; and a shrewd business brain. Together with her great friend Madeleine Byrne, she ran her new equestrian centre with her father's military precision. She demanded no less than perfection when it came to her horses or those of other people who queued up to put theirs in livery with her.
Though strict when it came to the high standards which she demanded, she was particularly kind to young riders in her school, often walking courses with them to help them see potential problems.
The reputation of the equitation school in Kill spread worldwide and soon there were pupils sent by the governments of Oman, Kuwait and Iran and private students from all over the world staying for her mentorship.
She recognised the great talent of a young teenager called Eddie Macken early on in his career. Originally partnering him up with his first great horse, Pelé, which she had been schooling, she honed Macken's natural talent and encouraged him to ride internationally. Later, Eddie was to reach the height of his career on another horse that Iris Kellett had schooled in show-jumping, the legendary Boomerang.
She was approached by Con McElroy to sell the equestrian centre and decided that the time was right and she moved her horses to Daffodil Lodge in Naas, Co Kildare, where she lived for many years before she succumbed to ill health. A fall off a horse in Daffodil Lodge led to compound fractures of her leg, and, complicated by a bout of tetanus, it seemed to take a lot out of her.
However, Iris Kellett was nothing if not a fighter and got back in the saddle again and rode until quite late in her life. Her last years were blemished by the onset of Alzheimer's, a cruel fate for someone who had created so many memories in her time.
At her funeral, Col Billy Ringrose, himself a legend of the Army Equitation School, spoke eloquently of her many achievements. The service was made even more poignant by the number of close friends she had acquired going back to her days as a gifted show-jumper and teacher in Mespil Riding School.
Iris Kellett's passing will merely have confirmed her place as a legend of Irish equestrianism. Her legacy is the philosophy of respect for horses that many people in the sport that have carried on to this day and enhanced this country's reputation in the international horse world.