Cool and clinical, the brilliant Eddie
Macken was a hero of our youth
Nobody could get Harvey Smith’s autograph on that muddy, memorable day in Strokestown in 1979. Several had asked, all had been rebuffed (at least from what I could see). It wasn’t on a par with the Pope’s visit later that month (not to Strokestown, to Ireland), but we were pretty excited at the presence of sporting superstars in the town. Con Power was there, Paul Darragh too. Even more exotic…stars from England, walking around in our midst, in our mud, in our collective horse manure, in Strokestown. David Broome! Showjumping royalty! I had no doubt that the Queen knew David, probably hosted him at parties. And, scowling in Strokestown, the unmistakable, brooding Harvey Smith, charismatic straight-talking bad guy off the telly.
In those days, the annual Strokestown Show featured top international equestrian showjumping, with big prizes. A golden era. Ado Kenny, a teacher from Strokestown, was a big figure in Irish showjumping circles. The Show was held in the grounds of Strokestown Park House. And I was there, in the mud, celebrity-gazing, thrilled at the presence of the showjumping stars. In the nature of this sport, they mingled, whether they liked it or not. Horseboxes parked, abandoned almost, zigzagged into the landscape. Onlookers everywhere, rubbing shoulders with the stars. They (the showjumpers), in their splendid attire, whip in hand, circling, walking, some signs of impatience, some nervous energy, the odd smile, their attention always on their horse and their small but important entourage.
Everyone gazed at Harvey, every step and turn he took. I’m sure he served up some Harvey charm that day. But I noted, as I watched, that he was turning down all autograph requests. Which was disappointing. Because I was 15 years of age, and I had a copybook and a pen in my pocket.
The reason I was looking for autographs was because showjumping was big. And these showjumpers were household names. This sport had a profile in the 1970s and early ‘80’s which was not entirely dissimilar to that of snooker at the time.
The Aga Khan Cup (competed for at the Dublin Horse Show each year) was unmissable…just as the FA Cup Final was in those days. And several weeks of the year, there were televised showjumping competitions. The sport was perfect for TV; colourful, glamorous, graceful, exciting. Clear rounds were the ‘currency’ that paid handsomely. If invested in a particular rider and horse, you felt great tension as they approached each new fence. Making it even more exciting was the race against the clock (the fastest rider-and-horse combination declared winner if two or more competitors were level on jumping ‘faults’).
There were accomplished participants on the circuit who were from beyond the British Isles, but mostly this was a weekly showdown between the English elite and Ireland’s small but brilliant crop of jumpers.
Tommy Wade had been an Irish hero in a different time. Now we had a golden era, a handful of riders who always seemed to be in contention. World class horsemen, including Paul Darragh and army riders Con Power and James Kernan. And we had a man who, in my teenage years, stood supreme. Or sat supreme, on the peerless Boomerang (honourable mention here for another horse, ‘Kerrygold’). That man was Eddie Macken.
King of showjumping
I couldn’t leave him out – so that’s why he’s in!
Maybe it’s a minority sport. Maybe it’s not cool, well, not now. Maybe I need to stop almost apologising! Fact is, nothing can undo what was. And, while we mightn’t pass much as heed on it now, for many people, showjumping was an unmissable TV sport in the 1970s and ‘80’s. Midst all the GAA greats and soccer stars, and the mesmerising casts at Wimbledon and Sheffield (Crucible Theatre), there was a Granard man who had hero status in our house. Granard! That, perhaps, was a small part of the allure. Local pride. We passed through Granard a few times a year, on our way to visit our grandparents in Ballyjamesduff. Before anyone even mentioned ‘Come back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff’ (the song always got a mention on those journeys) there was the thrill of passing Macken’s filling station, on the edge of Granard. That’s where Eddie Macken was from. The man whose great feats ensured that RTE’s likeable sports’ anchor Brendan O’Reilly could never realistically be Granard’s most famous son.
For a few years, Eddie Macken was one of my top sporting heroes. Showjumping was a wonderful fit for TV. Any night (usually midweek, making it all the better) that it featured on TV, it was relished. It was riveting. What a cleverly constructed sporting theatre! Elaborate, beautiful fences, water obstacles, doubles and trebles, tension, drama, jump-offs, the rider torn between the need to approach each fence with caution while remaining conscious of the time factor. Frequently, Macken triumphed. He was always generously hailed by the UK commentators.
He was clearly a brilliant horseman. His most famous horse was Boomerang, though I recall Kerrygold too. With Boomerang, he made showjumping history, winning the Hickstead Derby four years in a row (1976-’79). He was the King of Showjumping at that time.
Hero of Hickstead
Radio was a special friend in those days, at least for those of us who were drawn to sport. There was so little televised sport then, compared to now. On European soccer nights I patiently adjusted the dial back and forth to try to get the BBC commentary as clearly as possible. Great commentators painted evocative pictures for a teenage boy in Rooskey, ear to the radio, imagination running free.
On nights when the showjumping wasn’t televised, there were breathless radio reports of never-to-be-seen rounds and jump-offs against the clock. I remember a BBC commentator rhapsodising about Eddie Macken one such night, the man from up the road in Granard conquering Britain’s best again. Eddie also starred in many great Irish wins in the Aga Khan Cup.
Of course David Broome and Harvey Smith and many others – I recall, for example, Michael Whitaker, Caroline Bradley, Nick Skelton – all had their successes too. Truth is, I can’t be sure where Eddie Macken rates in the all-time equestrian list. Oddly, it’s proven difficult to find any polls, any record of ‘Best ever Irish showjumpers’ or ‘Best ever showjumpers in UK & Ireland’. Be that as it may, I’m certain that Eddie Macken is an equestian great – for that matter, one of Ireland’s finet sportspeople (though seldom mentioned)!
What I have discovered is that Eddie Macken rode competitively long after that golden era. In recent years he moved to Canada, and is still involved in the sport. He was wonderful, and he brought a lot of pleasure to fans during his glorious peak. His feats at Hickstead, and the memory of his cool, clinical brilliance ensure his place in showjumping’s Hall of Fame. I’ll certainly always remember how this man – more than anyone else – made showjumping a wonderful part of my sports-following youth. The man who would definitely win any ‘Granard’s Best’ list(!) was a true Irish sporting hero. Thanks for the great memories, Eddie!
Harvey hits back…
Back in Strokestown over forty years ago, mud…muck, manure. And Harvey. One of the reasons the showjumpers tend to be accessible – certainly it’s easy to see them up ‘close and personal’, to kind of mingle with them – is because they have to hang around for so long, between rounds. Often a jumper might have two horses in an event. It can be a long day.
While Eddie Macken certainly competed – and won – in Strokestown in the 1970’s, I don’t think he was there in ’79. All eyes were on David Broome and Harvey Smith. Especially on Harvey.
When he hit me, I went reeling. The ‘he’ was Harvey. Harvey Smith. I didn’t know that at the time. For a few seconds, I didn’t know anything! Here’s what happened…
Being a 15-year-old boy, long day at Strokestown Show, muck and moody showjumpers everywhere, I’d started to daydream. There are only so many times you can walk around in circles, checking out smelly horseboxes, celebrity-gazing, waiting around. So I’m daydreaming, wandering, head down, and next thing…THUD! My left shoulder/upper back reeled with pain! I looked up. Harvey Smith had accidentally bumped into me! Yes, Harvey Smith had bumped into me!
I was shy – and sore. But this was my moment. Harvey mumbled an apologetic “sorry, son” – then I just went for it. I asked him for an autograph. Time stood still. Then, he scribbled his name into my notebook, before shaking my hand. Eddie Macken was my hero, but this was special too.
A golden sporting world, depicted weekly on our TV screens, had landed in Strokestown. I may have been the only person who managed to get Harvey Smith’s autograph in Strokestown that day. I had a sore shoulder, but I had Harvey’s autograph!
Now for the Pope…