Saturday 25 November 2017

The legend who made Eddie Macken a winner

Louise Parkes

I felt better after talking with Eddie Macken last Tuesday evening. "She was always Miss Kellett to me and, even much later in my life, I was still uncomfortable about calling her Iris," said the show jumping rider who became the pin-up boy of Irish sport throughout his world-class career in the 1970s and '80s.

I had called him to discuss the passing of legendary horsewoman Iris Kellett, who died the previous Friday night aged 85.

I had been wondering why I felt so uneasy about referring to her by her Christian name myself.

Having spoken with Eddie, I realised it was because I too only ever referred to her as Miss Kellett, and somehow it seemed incorrect to imply any greater familiarity with this woman whom I had always held in such high esteem. Old-fashioned and stuffy concepts to people of another generation no doubt, but this woman of substance always commanded the utmost respect.

Iris Kellett was a star of the sport of show jumping during her glittering career, but above all she was a true horsewoman.

She rode brilliantly -- winning the British Ladies National Title in 1947 at the tender age of 21; the Grand Prix at Dublin Horse Show in 1948; the coveted Princess Elizabeth Cup at White City in London in 1949, and again in 1951; and then, after a long break due to injury, the Ladies European Championship title in 1969.

But her knowledge of horses and her skill in the management of them and their riders ensured she would become a superb coach, breeder and horse- producer.

Born in 1926, the greatest influence in her life was her father, Harry Kellett, who ran a successful riding school at 39 Mespil Road in Ballsbridge, Dublin. Her mother, Dora, died when Iris was in her early teens and her father was determined that his only child would step into his shoes and take over the reins at his riding centre.

Iris was born into a world where the horse still featured prominently in everyday life. Dublin at the time was still dotted with yards, often owned by families who had been involved in the supply of remounts for cavalry units in England, Belgium and elsewhere for generations. So a riding school on banks of the Grand Canal was nothing unusual. Nor was the sight of Iris leading a group of students down Baggot Street on their way to a good gallop across Sandymount Strand; or walking her ponies up Anglesea Road on her way to compete at the RDS.

By the age of 12, the precocious young lady was already an accomplished instructor, and her time was in great demand.

Her father has often been described as "very strict", and Iris herself was never a woman to be trifled with.

Despite her outward severity at times, Iris had a great sense of humour and fun, and was not averse to having a good laugh at her own expense.

It was after her second win at White City in 1951 that her career came to an abrupt halt, due to a horrible schooling fall which left her with a shattered leg and recurring tetanus that very nearly claimed her life.

It was almost 10 years before she was sufficiently recovered to return to the saddle, but in typical fashion she eventually bounced back and went on to further glory, including that historic Ladies' European title which she claimed on her home turn in the main arena at the RDS in 1969.

That was the year that Eddie Macken arrived at Mespil Road, and would prove a turning point in both their lives. "I came for six weeks and stayed for six years," Eddie said.

Iris instantly spotted his exceptional talent, and, having decided the time had come to retire, handed over her enviable string of horses, including Morning Light, Oatfield Hills and Maxwell, to the young man from Granard, Co Longford.

"Looking back, I realise how very, very lucky I was and appreciate everything she did for me. She didn't just give me direction but she also gave me so many good horses to launch my career," Eddie said.

"I think, when you are young, you don't always appreciate things as much as you should at the time -- I'll always be deeply grateful to her," he added.

He wasn't the only great talent she nurtured. Three years later, the late Paul Darragh also came under her wing and she helped hone his undeniable determination into a powerful force that, alongside Macken, helped raise the profile of Irish show jumping to great new heights.

When Iris decided to sell Mespil Road and move her riding centre to Kill in Kildare, she was once again ahead of her time. She brought with her the much-valued team that included her right-hand man Jim Smith and manager Madeleine Byrne.

And she was followed by the majority of clients who had frequented her Dublin base. Kildare was a long way for a lot of them, but they knew the value of her expertise.

She offered residential training in Kill, so Irish students were joined by others from all around the world. Kill became another centre of excellence from which many of today's leading figures in Irish equestrianism emerged.

She contributed a great deal to the early success of semi-State body Bord na gCapal, in its efforts to restore stability to the non-thoroughbred horse world in Ireland as it struggled through the 1970s, and was a supporter of the Riding for the Disabled Association.

At her funeral on Wednesday, there was no sense of great sorrow, just a celebration of a life well-lived and memories of a woman whose life touched and nourished many others.

Indo Review

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