John Arnold: The wonder-horse who began life pulling a bakery bread van

"We had a horse here in Bartlemy called Clonmel, owned by the Adams family, and Tallow gave us Curley’s Springfield Boy. Along with the Van Boy, these are remembered in poetry and verse still whenever and wherever sportsmen gather, especially at race meetings along the valleys of the Bride and Blackwater, " so said John Arnold in his weekly column.
John Arnold: The wonder-horse who began life pulling a bakery bread van

MANE EVENT: A horse at the South Union Hunt Point to Point at Minane Bridge in 1959 — Van Boy was a legend half a century earlier

“T’WILL be 50 years ago exactly next week since I started my secondary school education in St Colman’s College Fermoy.

September of 1969 and about 120 of us, boys of 12 and 13, meeting for the first time ever.

St Colman’s was a boarding school then and for many years afterwards so I had classmates from literally all over the County, and a handful from other places too.

A few of the lads had a couple of meetings this summer past with a view to having a bit of a reunion next December or January. I hope t’will go ahead as t’would be great to meet some that I’ve not seen since we did the Leaving Cert in 1974.

Sadly, at least ten of those gathered in the ‘New Building’ half a century ago are no longer with us. Even before we had our five years done there we had lost classmates.

During my half decade in Colman’s I regularly went up and down from B to C. I started first year in Class 1B but by third year I was in 3C. I don’t know if we were graded up and down according to academic ability or were our names just drawn from a hat!

John Lane, of Monagown in Conna, was in my year. We’d have known each other before Colman’s through hurling, he played with St Catherines while I was an ‘also ran’ with Bride Rovers! My lack of hurling prowess never caused me much heartache — OK, I would have loved to star for my club and county, but despite not playing to any high standard, I developed a love for the game. John had a similar rural, GAA and horse racing background as me — sure, Conna and Bartlemy are steeped in sporting and equine lore.

John Lane died in May — another name gone from the reunion list. As I walked out from the ancient cemetery in Knockmourne after his funeral, I recalled how we’d meet at matches or races or at meetings or maybe in the street in Fermoy. John had the nickname of ‘Cowboy’ — what a larger than life character he was!

When our paths crossed, this is how the encounter invariably went. On spotting John, I’d begin: “In the parish of Conna, not far from Fermoy…” John would reply: “In the days of my youth lived a horse named Van Boy…” My next line was: “Not bred now for racing, he drew a bread-van...’ and then John would finish the verse: “And that’s how the story of the Van Boy began.” Ah yes, the famous horse called Van Boy whose exploits in the closing decade of the 19th century and the opening one of the 20th were legendary.

We had a horse here in Bartlemy called Clonmel, owned by the Adams family, and Tallow gave us Curley’s Springfield Boy. Along with the Van Boy, these are remembered in poetry and verse still whenever and wherever sportsmen gather, especially at race meetings along the valleys of the Bride and Blackwater.

In the Conna district, local poet, playwright, hurler and film-maker Pat O’Sullivan has done much to preserve and promote the sporting legacy of the area. Along with the late, great Tom Cotter, who sang The Van Boy, Pat has documented much of the area’s folklore and traditions.

Who actually wrote the song about the horse? No-one knows, but it may well have been Paddy Newtown, a local writer of renown.

In most versions of the song the second line goes ‘there lived in our school days, a horse named Van Boy’. Paddy would have been in his youth when the horse first came to fame.

Some say he was bred in Ballyduff, others in Tallow. His sire was a horse named Harold and he was born in 1888.

One way or another, the young horse ‘was nothing to write home about’ and started his road to stardom in a most inauspicious way — pulling a bread van for a bakery in Tallow, a task he fulfilled until 1894.

He was sold initially to Maurice O’Brien, a farmer at Curraheen, Conna — not far distant from the present yard and stables of Jimmy Mangan. As a working farm horse, the animal performed adequately but was sold on again to Martin O’Riordan, of Currabeha.

He was tried out first at hunting, where his speed and stamina were seen to be outstanding. Van Boy, as he was named, soon began a career at point to point racing , which would last many, many years — he finished second in two races at the Ballyduff meting in 1902 at the age of 14.

Owned first by O’Riordan and later Martin Flynn. the horse’s exploits were legendary. Running in two races on the same day was no bother to him as this report from a Kildorrery race meeting in March, 1899, illustrates:

“Van Boy, who was bought by his present owner, Mr M Flynn, for nineteen shillings, farms these small races and he had no trouble in winning a couple yesterday, one after the other and carrying a 14lb penalty the second time. It would be interesting to know how many races Van Boy has won since he was taken out of the shafts of the bread van that he used to haul around the country. He is not much of a horse to look at but fences beautifully and apparently can stay forever under any weight.”

In December, 1898, a race meeting was held under the auspices of the Hackney carriage Association in Carrigaline. The Van Boy was ridden in two races by John Morrissey —his most successful jockey. Van Boy won the opening race easily but the owner of the second horse objected on the grounds Van Boy had failed to jump one of the ‘banks’ three times. The total prize-money was £10 so the committee decided to divide it between the first two horses.

Half an hour later, Van Boy, with Morrissey in the saddle again, romped home in the Farmers Plate.

Browsing through the newspapers from 1892 to 1904, it’s very obvious that Van Boy was a star of his time. Today, a horse is limited in the number of point to point races which can be won in any single season —there were no limits in Van Boy’s era.

Not all races were reported, so a definite answer cannot be given to the question ‘How many races did the Van Boy win?’ I’d say between 50 and 60.

When he died, the famous Van Boy was buried on the farm in Currabeha. In 1909, Martin O Riordan named his establishment The Van Boy Racing Stable when he advertised a stud horse, Young Bacchus, for the 1909 breeding season.

When the Folklore Commission collected material from National Schools in the 1930s, the story of Van Boy was written about in two schools with the words of the song included.

This version hereunder is a compilation of these two and John Lane’s version — I added a verse at the end in memory of John.

In the parish of Conna not far from Fermoy, there was in my school days a horse named Van Boy.

He was not bred for racing but drawing a bread van, that is how the history of Van Boy began.

He hauled a bread van round the country for years, till one day he stopped and laid down both his ears.

As if saying to his driver, I’ve blood and some pride. I am no more a van horse than famed Lady Bride.

The driver at once to his instincts did bow, and Van Boy was sold to a farmer to plough.

But one day when riding him home to his feed, the little horse galloped with ease and some speed.

He was then groomed and cantered and trained to the fence, and down by Blackwater his racing commenced.

When matched against Vanity hailed of great stuff, the result was a dead heat near old Ballyduff.

Twelve months from that day a great race Van Boy ran. He was known from the Coltrim right down to the Bann.

And when carrying top weight at Brown’s Cross in Lismore, he came home in a canter like fast Galty More.

At the point to point meetings held by U HC, in Clonmult, Ballylegan, and old Bartlemy.

Good horses the Van Boy did easily outpace, and earned fresh laurels in each farmer’s race.

There was Starling, Mount Gifford and sore Gipsy Queen, Shanbally Keep Out and a horse named Knockeen

But a new generation now hails their pride — young Knock-na-gappall from fair Bally Bride.

We ‘re here in Knockmourne today in great pain, to bury our hero the famous John Lane

But when history is written I’m sure anyhow, ‘twill tell of our friend, the mighty Cowboy.

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