Monday 20 November 2017

Not a one-horse town, more a leafy metropolis

In a new series about the vibrant places beyond the Pale, Barry Egan visits Kildare to hear tales of supermodels, the Rolling Stones, racing priests and rugby stars in BMW boots BMW

MEET THE LOCALS: (From back left) Ross Murphy, Dick O Sullivan, Keith Walsh, David Wardell, Alan Bannon, (front from left) Ciara Smullen, Noelle O’Connor, Brenda O’Donoghue, Barry Egan, Ailish Brennan, Phil Donnelly and Valerie Roe
MEET THE LOCALS: (From back left) Ross Murphy, Dick O Sullivan, Keith Walsh, David Wardell, Alan Bannon, (front from left) Ciara Smullen, Noelle O’Connor, Brenda O’Donoghue, Barry Egan, Ailish Brennan, Phil Donnelly and Valerie Roe
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Dick O'Sullivan picked up the phone in his office in 2006. Someone at the other end of the line wanted to know about the security arrangements for Yasmin Le Bon, the star-turn (courtesy of Newbridge Silverware) at that year's Punchestown Races. Dick, managing director of Punchestown Racecourse since 2002, was in a manner of speaking "stumped."

With all the girls in his office out for lunch, the only answer he could muster in relation to the English supermodel married to your man from Duran Duran was: "I think she's running in the 4 o'clock race on Saturday.

Dick, a 78-year connoisseur from Tralee in a designer suit, recalls precisely the reaction from the person at the end of the phone: "I could hear him mutter 'Imbecile' under his breath. Then he hung up!" Dick roars with laughter.

Sitting beside him in a grand room in the world famous K Club - where 10 local legends convened to talk all things Kildare - Denis Flannelly, a high-performance equine coach based at Kill International Equestrian Centre, has his own horse-related tale.

He has a vivid recollection of attending the first Christmas Mass, Father Breen, 'The Racing Priest', celebrated at Eadstown Church in 1995. The church was full. The Breener, as he was affectionately known, delivered a profound eulogy.

"Just before the last hymn," Denis begins, "he declared that his faith over the years had been challenged on many occasions, but he was never so sure that God exists as he is now. He said it was God who organised his appointment to Eadstown, placing him between three wonderful racecourses: five minutes from Punchestown; 10 minutes from Naas; 15 minutes from The Curragh . . . "

"The congregation erupted with laughter, before he announced his predictions on which horse would win or place at The Leopardstown Christmas Festival, which traditionally starts on St Stephen's Day. A number of racehorse owners, who had horses running over the next four days, were in the church and he pointed them out just in case more information was sought by his flock.

"He was an amazing man, an amazing priest," Denis says, adding that when The Breener died in 2009, aged 72, they broke the mould. "He buried my mother Kathleen in 1997 and christened my son, Josh, in 2003." Josh's famous mother is sitting on a couch in the K Club to Denis's right: Valerie Roe, the ex-boss of Lillie's Bordello nightclub and now a PR supremo, has lived in Naas with partner Denis for 20 years. Asked to put Kildare natives in context, she says "celebrity means nothing to them".

A golden example of this, she relates, is when rock-star Ronnie Wood lived locally, once upon a time, and he brought a gang of friends from London to his local in Naas. "As the night progressed," recounts Valerie, "they got louder and louder, and then they all started to sing. The owner of the pub went over and told them to stop. One of the locals said to him: 'Jaysus! Do you know who that is? It's fecking Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones!' 'I don't care if it is Daniel O'Donnell himself!'" came the reply. Valerie (whose two sisters Gillian Quinn and Trish Roe also live in Kildare) laughs now: "Kildare [people] are completely unassuming. They are great fun."

Kildare sporting supreme being Geordan Murphy seems to adhere to this philosophy, according to his brother Ross. "In 2003/2004 the Irish rugby team trained in Naas rugby club. One evening, after training my brother, Geordan suggested we should go for a few pints in Kavanagh's bar in Naas. Little did I know he was joined by 14 members of the Irish rugby team. One pint turned into 10. Soon it was the end of the night until someone offered us a lift to the local nightclub, Time. Some travelled back to the team hotel in Killiney."

Others, it transpired, didn't . . .

"Ten of us piled into a 5 series BMW wherever we could fit. It was less than a mile away. When we got into the nightclub we realised there were two people missing - Geordan and a pal!"

Ross, who is sales manager at Capital Oil, laughs now at the memory.

"So we went to look for them and found them chatting in the boot of the car outside."

Dancing with words tonight in Kildare, RTE's Brenda Donoghue contextualises her love of her county thus: "A bit like Bono has said, when he lands in Dublin airport - it's that feeling of coming home. When you see the 'Welcome to County Kildare' sign on the motorway, you know you're back where you belong. I love the Curragh, I love the canals and I also love the bogs of Kildare.

"My Dad's from Allenwood and each Kildare native contains a little bit of bog inside of them. It's rich conversations, often bad hair days and gentle rivalry between the different villages and towns. So being called a 'culchie,' or a 'bogger' is a badge of honour to me."

Kildare's Rose of Tralee entry this year, Ailish Brennan, adds: "My favourite thing about County Kildare is the St Brigid's Cross, a significant symbol of Kildare. Come February 1, our house is taken over by copious amounts of long, green rushes. We spend hours weaving the rushes into crosses to give them to family members and friends. It's an old tradition, weaving a cross, but it's one very close to my heart and one I feel privileged to have been shown by my dad, Pat Tom."

Republic of Telly star Keith Walsh is in equally reflective mode: "Growing up in Kildare, and Newbridge in particular, I remember feeling that it was classless. A classless society, certainly amongst my peers.

"I was part of a very large group of teenagers of varying ages and from different parts of the town, it didn't seem to matter if you were well-off or not, we all pooled our resources. Anything we could pull together went towards our mission to find the party and have a mad night. There was a brilliant local music scene, the band I was attached to was called The Haggard. They were a bunch of feckless, dress-wearing, long-haired grunge types. I was a friend/groupie/head mosher."

In a tweed jacket beside the one-time head mosher is the perfectly spoken David Wardell of The Irish National Stud.

"Kildare is the most diverse county in Ireland," he says.

"On one side you have Roche's pub, near Donadea, which is literally sinking into the bog in a farcical manner that would put a smile on anyone's face. On the other side, we have the best equine-breeding land in the world, with billions worth of horse flesh grazing in the fields.

"As diverse the land," he continues, "the same can be said for the people. My mother moved to the UK for a while and she couldn't understand why she was so homesick until she realised what she missed most about Kildare was the social life. It sounds a cliché, but Kildare really is a classless county. Be it the butcher, baker, trainer, breeder (horse), politician or international 'blow-in', Kildare has the best parties in Ireland."

An Arcadian vision of pastoralism and harmony with nature entranced us as, with the sun setting on Kildare, we all went for a walk in the majestic gardens of The K Club, with Irish-bred horse Niko, trotting behind us.

"Kildare is synonymous with horses," says Michael Davern, chief executive and general manager at The K Club. "They don't call it the thoroughbred county for nothing. Home of the thoroughbreds - that's people and horses. Everyone that lives in Kildare has some kind of affiliation to horses and even if they know nothing about racing, breeding or training, everyone seems to be an expert.

"If you ask anyone about a race meeting that's coming up, everyone seems to throw in their tuppence worth - a tip for a horse, news of a trainer or some old nag that's a complete outsider but 'worth an each-way bet'. That's something of course that I can relate to well, being from and growing up in Cashel, Tipperary, so close to the world-famous Ballydoyle and Coolmore. It's a great county for socialising too, Naas and Maynooth, both so close to Straffan.

The K Club in particular has a glut of great restaurants and bars and there's a real boom going on in food production with lots of wonderful artisan producers making craft beers, chocolate and cheeses."

Adds Michael: "My wife Aideen is from Straffan in Kildare, plus three girls, Ava (10), Emer (8) and Clara (5) all from Kildare . . . bar one, the eldest, Ava, who was born in Barbados. And believes she is Bajan!"

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