01 October 2020

Two Co Cork churches
and the beginnings of
steeplechase racing

Buttevant remembers the first steeplechase … a mural at Moloney’s pub (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

A mural on the gable end of Moloney’s pub in Buttevant, Co Cork, boasts how the world’s first-ever Steeplechase was run from Buttevant and Doneraile in 1752 after a hunt, when a local man, Edmund Blake, challenged his neighbour Cornelius O’Callaghan, to race across country from Buttevant church steeple to Doneraile church steeple, a distance of four miles away (6.4 km).

The church steeples of Saint John’s Church, Buttevant, and Saint Mary's Church, Doneraile, were chosen so both riders could see their finish point all along the route and stay on track to the end.

Blake and O’Callaghan raced along the banks of the Awbeg River, jumping over stone walls, ditches and hedges along the way.

History does not record who won the bet, and little did they know their sport would still be thriving 2½ centuries later.

The race, from steeple to steeple, gave birth to steeplechasing – also known in Britain and Ireland as national hunt racing. It is also popular in Canada, the US, Australia and France.

In addition, this part of north Cork also gave its name to the Doncaster St Leger, which is named after Anthony St Leger, an army officer and nephew of Arthur St Leger, 1st Viscount Doneraile.

Anthony St Leger devised a flat race, first run in 1776. It is the world’s oldest classic race and set the pattern for classic racing throughout the modern world.

The tower of Saint Mary’s Church, Doneraile, no longer has a steeple (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The modern usage of the term ‘steeplechase’ differs from country to country. In Ireland and Britain, it refers only to races run over large, fixed obstacles, in contrast to ‘hurdle’ races where the obstacles are much smaller. The collective term ‘jump racing’ or ‘National Hunt racing’ is used when referring to steeplechases and hurdle races collectively – although, properly speaking, National Hunt racing also includes some flat races.

In other parts of the world, ‘steeplechase’ refers to any race that involves jumping obstacles.

The first recorded steeplechase over a prepared track with fences was run at Bedford in 1810, although a race had been run at Newmarket in 1794 over a mile (1.6 km) with 5-ft (1.5 m) bars every quarter mile (400 m). The first recorded steeplechase of any kind in England took place in Leicestershire in 1792, when three horses raced eight miles from Barkby Holt to Billesdon Coplow and back.

The first recorded hurdle race took place at Durdham Down near Bristol in 1821. There were five hurdles on the mile-long course, and the race was run in three heats.

The first recognised English National Steeplechase took place on 8 March 1830. The 4-mile (6.4 km) race, organised by Thomas Coleman of St Albans, was run from Bury Orchard, Harlington in Bedfordshire to the Obelisk in Wrest Park, Bedfordshire.

Most of the earlier steeplechases were contested cross-country rather than on a track, and resembled English cross country as it exists today.

Today, the world’s most famous steeplechase is the Grand National, run annually at Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool, since its inception in 1836. The first official race was held three years later.

Saint John’s Church in Buttevant was rebuilt in 1826 and is now closed, while Saint Mary’s Church in Doneraile no longer has its steeple. The 260th anniversary of the first steeplechase in 1752 was marked in Donraile in 2012 with a re-enactment of the steeplechase from Buttevant Church to Doneraile.

Saint John’s Church, Buttevant, was rebuilt by the Pain brothers in 1826 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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