nursery stalls c Elizabeth Willoughby

The studs of County Kildare
by Elizabeth Willoughby

To describe horse racing in Ireland as popular would be akin to describing the Irish climate as moist. This is an island with oodles of rain, race courses and studs. That's studs as in stud farms, not hunky men. With my North American shortcomings in English-speaking Europe, you can imagine my surprise at an invitation to go visit a stud. I raised one eyebrow and said yes. It was a thoroughbred breeding farm, however, and while it wasn't coffee with Colin Farrell, the stallions were indeed a feast for the eyes.

The Irish National Stud in County Kildare, about 45 minutes southwest of Dublin city, is a mixture of attractions each blending into the landscape with great planning and care. Some things you'd expect in such a place, but others you would not.

One surprise feature is a Japanese garden, built between 1906 and 1910 by Japanese designer Tassa Eida, which tells the story of human existence, from birth to death. Life's path meanders through flowery banks and over stepping stones, around flowing streams and falling water, up rocky hills and under passes. Each piece of the terrain represents the challenges encountered at man's different life stages.

But the Japanese garden is not the grounds' only path of contemplation. Covering nearly 1,000 acres, guests stroll leisurely about the ponds and gardens and enjoy viewing the horses in the paddocks – of which there are many: stud paddocks, nursery paddocks, weaning paddocks, youngster paddocks, filly paddocks, colt paddocks and even paddocks for retired racehorses – until they come upon Ireland's patron saint of gardeners. A monk known for his charitable work and encouragement of cultivated gardens, a sculpture of St Fiachra sits on a rock at a pond's edge outside his monastic beehive cell contemplating a grain of rice in the serene setting, while the occasional swan glides past.

St Fiachra c Elizabeth Willoughby

Closer to the box stalls there is a farrier and a saddler whom guests can watch at work. There's also a horse museum, a thoroughbred breeding school that attracts students from around the world, and a restaurant. Despite its many attractions, the regal atmosphere doesn't allow one to forget that the Irish National Stud is first and foremost a producer of world class thoroughbreds. That story began when English businessman William Hall Walker (1856-1933) purchased it in 1900, and he brought with him an unusual perspective.

Walker had become interested in Buddhism and astrology when he was stationed in India with the British army. This experience reflected on his methods of choosing his champions, which were somewhat unorthodox in Ireland – he predicted each foal's potential on the racetrack according to its birth date and the alignment of the stars and constellations – and he was exceedingly successful. Though most scoffed at his ridiculous methodology in deciding whether to keep or sell a foal, Walker's predictions were uncannily correct and he was considered the most successful breeder of the time. Perhaps part of his success also had to do with the farm's location. With a limestone aquifer as its natural filtering system, the water quality was top notch, and the meadows were lush and, I presume, delicious, for a horse.

stud c Elizabeth Willoughby

Walker fancied himself not only an exceptional breeder, but an accomplished bridge player as well. Why else would King Edward VII invite him to play bridge so often? According to family, the reason for so many invitations was to enable the playboy king's ongoing affair with Walker's wife. Meanwhile, Walker was embroiled in his own extramarital affair, which resulted in a pregnancy; his own marriage was childless. Since divorce at the time was ruinous to one's social standing, Walker found a suitable husband for his pregnant mistress. At some point he accepted the young Mr Ferguson as his son, and in the end he bequeathed his estate in Cheshire to him. The farm and stock, however, he left to the Crown in 1915, which became Irish property when a fledgling Irish State purchased the farm from the British Government.

Building on Walker's successes, today the Irish National Stud is a multi-million euro bloodstock business. Here over 100 foals each year are born mostly March through May and bred mostly for flat racing. Stud fees depend on the stallion, naturally, and range from 2,000 to 20,000 euros. The Stud's track record of producing winners was impressive from the start with no less than seven Classic winners from 1904 to 1914, not to mention Sun Chariot's British Fillies Triple Crown win for King George VI in 1942. Mares from around the world are sent to be covered by Irish National Stud stallions. Afterwards, many stallions are sent to Australia for another breeding season in the southern hemisphere. It's hard work being a stud.

Walker statue c Elizabeth Willoughby

To commemorate the centenary of the Irish National Stud in 2015, the estate's CEO, John Osborne, commissioned a sculpture of William Hall Walker. Using photos of the man, he and sculptor Bob Quinn narrowed down a model for the piece. They didn't have to look far – Walker's great grandson, with a similar physique, posed for Quinn in Walker's own top hat and jacket with cane, and the statue stands in pride of place at the visitors' entrance.

There is a certain majesty about horses, as anyone who has spent time with them knows, and there is a pervasive sense of peace and tranquility throughout the Stud's estate. With over a century of dedication to the stallions, mares, foals and gardens, the Stud is worth a visit rain or shine. But it is Ireland, so best bring an umbrella (and mind the wind).

"Dragon Pulse" goofing around in his paddock at the Irish National Stud farm in Tully, County Kildare, Ireland 2016

Images, video and article ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2016

This article was published at 2016

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