The Irish Hobby Horse

There is a pervasive brightening in the air where the mighty Atlantic pummels the rocks and cliff faces and claws its way onto the secret shingle beaches of Connemara on the west coast of Ireland. Above the littoral a quilt of stony fields conjure up a mystical past. It is easy, in this magical place, to sense the timelessness of nature and our own brief sojourn in the vast sweep of creation. Here is the land of Queen Maeve, Cú Chulainn, Finn McCool, Oisín, the Fianna and the mysterious Tuatha de Danaan. Add to this a vision that time after time will startle the eye and the heart. It is the Connemara pony standing majestic and wild as the Atlantic in the tiny rock-strewn fields. They belong here, inseparable from the landscape like the stone walls, delicate as lace, that surrounds them.

Connemara Pony

Connemara Pony


The Connemara Pony has a noble history. It is descended from the, now extinct, Irish Hobby Horse. The Hobby was bred in Ireland from Spanish and Libyan stock.  According to James Lydon : “Hobelars (the name given to lightly armed riders on hobby horses) were highly mobile and excellent in scouting, reconnaissance  and patrols … eminently suitable to terrain in which military operations had to be conducted in Ireland.” In the Scottish Wars at the beginning of the 14th Century, Robert de Bruce and contemporaries like William Wallace deployed Hobelars to great effect against the bigger and more heavily armed knights of King Edward I (Longshanks) of England. The Hobelars could travel up to 60 miles in one day to escape or launch surprise attacks against their enemies.

Edward 1 - Longshanks

Edward I (Longshanks)


Robert de Bruce


Edward recognised the advantage these hobelars had in the mountains and marshlands of Scotland and he forbade the export of hobby horses from Ireland to Scotland. In 1296 he also requisitioned troops from Ireland and amongst them was 260 Irish Hobelars

We have a first-hand account of what is undoubtedly an Irish Hobby horse in 1399. Jean Creton, a valet-de-chambre to the French king Charles VI joined the English King, Richard II’s expedition to Ireland, via  Waterfoprd, with a large army. Richard wished to chastise Art Mor McMurrough , king of Leinster, for his blatant disregard of Richard’s  rule in Ireland. Art was not intimidated by Richard and he continuously harassed the English army on its way to Dublin. As a result, Richard sent his emissary, the Earl of Glochester, to treaty with Art.  Jean Creton observed that meeting and recorded it in his Histoire du  Roy d’Angleterre Richard 1399. He describes the arrival of Art:  ”He is a fine , large, handsome man, marvellously agile, yet stern of countenance and indomitable mien. He wore a high conical cap covering the knape of the neck and a parti-coloured cloak, long coat and undercoat all of gay yellow, crimson and blue. He rode a very swift horse of great value, valued that of 400 milch cows, having neither saddle nor house, but could rush down a hill faster than a deer or hare. After divers discourse Art told my lord: ‘I am the rightful king in this land, thereby it is unjust to deprive me of what is my land  and country by force of conquest.’”  There is an  illustration of that famous meeting in Jean Creton’s history.  King Art’s  horse is clearly depicted as being lighter than the horses of the English knights and Art is riding without stirrup or saddle which was typical of the Irish horseman at that time.

Art Mac Murrough arriving to parley with the Earl of Glouchester

Art Mac Murrough arriving to parley with the Earl of Glouchester

Jean Creton’s remarks on the speed of Art’s horse bears out what Alexander McKay-Smith states in his book Speed and the Thoroughbred  wherein he explains that the speed of the modern thoroughbred  is inherited in great part from the Irish Hobby and its descendants, the Connemara Pony and the Irish draught Horse. “This is not surprising” he writes “the name of the hobby comes from the Gaelic obann   meaning swift or fast.

So, the next time you see a Connemara remember its unique and noble ancestry.

PS. Henry VIII greatly admired the “Irish Hobby” for its natural, ambling gait and comfortable ride. He began racing his own specially bred Hobbys against horses owned by others of the English nobility. By 1816, Henry’s pastime would lead to the word “hobby” being entered in the dictionary with a new meaning: “a costly pastime indulged in by the idle rich.”

Verm Bludvile, The Candle Lighter

Verm Bludvile swears vengence on Cesare Greyfell, King of Dredgemarsh

“Verm could not remember why, but he hated “them above”. It was in his blood, some old long-forgotten grievance or dreadful wrong done to him. ‘Degenerates and fornicators,’ his father, old Wat Bludvile, used to fulminate at the mention of the royal household and its staff, never explaining, even on his deathbed, the reason for his obsessive hatred. He had also been the Candle Lighter. Verm knew nothing of his mother, but in his grim world of flickering candlelight, the only kindness he had ever experienced was from old Wat. Now, the passing years had almost extinguished that trembling flame of affection and left in its place an emptiness that, on occasions, even the hard armour of bitterness could not repel. But as long as he had his candles to light, the squalor of Verm Bludvile’s existence could be endured.”
Chapter 4 The Reluctant King

“Now in the autumn of the fifth year of Cesare’s reign, something startling and strange began to happen to Verm. He was beginning to feel some vaguely unsettling emotions. Ideas, totally alien to him, began to hover and flash indiscriminately across his mind. It took him some time to realise that his unease was growing as the stock of candles, in the storeroom below the Great Hall of Echoes, was diminishing. It was unprecedented; the supply of new candles to the storeroom had ceased. These emerging feelings grew, and changed to fear, and finally terror. It was as if the candles were burning away the hours and minutes of his life.”
Chapter 4 The Reluctant King

“… he cursed and howled with rage, until a deadly calm took hold of him and he began to plan his revenge on Cesare Greyfell, the author of his misfortune.”
Chapter 4 The Reluctant King

“Verm could smell the hateful pursuers now, could hear the excited baying of the lymers. He turned sharply right through a small opening in the tunnel wall. There was nowhere else to go. The way forward was blocked by the massive granite blocks of Dredgemarsh’s outer wall. He was trapped at last, in a dismal chamber in the very pit of Dredgemarsh. He crouched down in the furthest corner of the room.

Poor Vermie, poor Vermie. He was experiencing an incredible dislocation in time and place. He was a small petrified boy, trying not to cry, not to give himself away and the terrifying unctuous voice saying, poor Vermie, poor Vermie, I’m coming, coming, won’t hurt Vermie…be nice to your…no harm, no harm at all…our little secret, Vermie. The smells came back, rich perfume, nauseating, the sweet comfits, and the soft white insistent hands. Verm Bludvile wailed in anguish. His pursuers stopped, appalled by the sound. It was not anger or defiance they heard, but a cry of unfathomable desolation and loss. Then the lymers gave voice again and the spell was broken. ”
Chapter 19 The Reluctant King

The Reluctant King at:



View from Carrigoona


View of Powerscourt from Carrigoona, The Rocky Valley, Kilmachanogue, Co. Wicklow, Ireland

 God’s breath is here

On the valley’s rim

Where I stand poised

On the edge of an ocean

Of bleached air.

I could sail over the

Quilted fields;

Breughal’s Icarus.

And you who come

After me, you will feel

The same, looking on

These painted fields

Yellow, brown, green

Fading to lavender upon

The sleepy hills.

The distant bleat and

Caw like ancient bells

Calling you to prayer

In the perfumed grass

God’s breath is here.

© D. McCabe


The Peoples' Park, Lower Dargle Rd., Bray, Co. Wicklow, Ireland

Please don’t wear red tonight
Listen what I said tonight
Red is the colour that my baby wore

She was not my baby, but she did wear red and I danced with everyone except her. I was cool; we were all cool, small town cool. I danced with everyone except her. Only looked when she was not looking. Only glimpsed her hair, her back, her ankle as we danced and laughed and sang. There was not a moment when I did not know where she was in that room. Each time we passed close, I could smell her perfume, can smell it now, can see the sheen on her black hair.

It was her party, her house. The dress is what I remember best. Flaming red, tight with a row of buttons in front from low-cut top to hem. A girl in a woman’s dress, exquisitely awkward.

I could be happy with you by my side
I could be happy and Oh I tried

She blushed when she proffered the tray of neat sandwiches.

‘No thank you,’ I said. She passed on and did not insist or ask a second time. Ask me again I thought, please ask me again. Too late. I was cool then, real cool.


I instantly recognised Jean’s brother amongst the throng of summer holiday home-comers. We both hesitated, poised between a simple passing nod of recognition and  stopping to talk.

‘Peter,’ he said and held out his hand as he approached. He still looked like her, even after so many years; those dark eyes, that dimpled smile.

‘You haven’t changed,’ I said. He grasped my hand warmly.

‘Nor you. God, how many years has it been? Fifteen, twenty?’ he was shaking
his head from side to side, smiling that smile, her smile. I wanted to run, wanted to say, ‘I’m sorry, I must go, let’s meet later,’ anything to escape. But I could not speak. In that unguarded moment, twenty years of forgetting were obliterated and I felt the ache of longing as raw and urgent as on that warm Summer night so long ago.
The exhausted dancers sat in happy disarray and sang along with Scott Walker.

Joanna, I can’t forget the one they call Joanna
We owned that Summer hand in hand Joanna
I love you but nothing in this world could make you mine
But still in time, Joanna  you may remember me and change your mind.

We weaved our own anxieties and imagined heartaches into the music that drifted out and away on the warm night breeze. I imagined that, somehow, she would know that the words had a special meaning, that she would know that that was how I was feeling about her.

‘Peter, are you alright?’ He was looking urgently at me and shaking me by the shoulder.

‘Yes, yes I’m so sorry, just a bit distracted, work you know.’

‘Oh, no need to tell me. The world’s gone mad.’

‘Too true,’ I said.

‘You’re going out on this flight,’ he stated the obvious.

‘Yes, heading home for a few days. The mother’s on her own now.’

‘Same here,’ he said, ‘visiting home I mean. Both mam and dad are gone, but Jean stayed on in the old place. You remember Jean?’

‘Jean. Yes of course. How is she?’ I tried to be offhand, amazed that even this  casual mention of her could precipitate such internal turmoil. I felt like a schoolboy.

Passengers for flight EI906 occupying seats 1 to 16 please commence boarding.

‘That’s me. Listen,’ he said, ‘in case we miss each other at the other end, don’t forget to drop in on us. Jean would love to see one of the old gang. Don’t forget, we’ll expect you. Oh do you have a lift from Dublin Airport? Jean is collecting me and if you…’

‘No! no, thank you Brian, a friend’s collecting me. Good luck.’ Still terrified at this age. Christ does it never end.

I was also terrified that night, twenty years ago. I could hardly breath when she sat down next to me on the sheepskin rug. Though we were facing in different directions, chatting and laughing with those all around us, every atom of my body was conscious of her presence and still I feigned indifference. Why? She leaned back casually and brushed against the sleeve of my shirt. Was that on purpose? Was it simply me, reading all kinds of hidden messages into her every move and gesture.  I still don’t know.  I wanted to touch her, to say something clever, but all I could do was speak out loud so that she could hear me.  ‘I love that song,’ I said hoping that she would know the words of the song revealed what I was so abysmally incapable of saying.

I don’t remember the flight home to Dublin or the bus journey home. I can’t remember how I greeted my mother, but at breakfast on the first morning after my return she said,

‘You’re not yourself. Working too hard I’ll bet.’  I felt guilty and selfish. I was home to see my mother, to cheer her up and here I was moping like a love-sick teenager.

‘Mam I’ll be fine after a day here with you. I am so happy to be home and to see you looking so well. Has Mick Dutton proposed to you yet?’

‘Go on with yourself. Your father was the only man I ever wanted.’ She gave me a gentle tap on the back of the head with the knuckles of her left hand. We both laughed.

‘Mick Dutton, how are you, that aul divil should be saying his prayers and doing penance if he wants to stay out of hell. God forgive me.’

‘You’re a hard woman, mam.’

‘Not half hard enough. Now me bucko, are you just going to mope around here all day or are you going to clear out of my way. I’ve work to do.’

‘OK I can take a hint. I’m gone’.

The town seemed smaller than I had remembered. It was simply a place where my mother lived but, more importantly, I must admit, it was the place where Jean lived. It was her presence in this ordinary small town that made it special. I could not banish the sense of her presence, could not dismiss the recurring questions and imaginings of what she was doing at any odd moment of the day. I did not belong in that town anymore, but I also knew that I could not simply leave and not see her.

The days drifted relentlessly by and still I hesitated.

‘Peter, Peter you’re miles away love.’

‘Sorry mam, what were you saying?’

‘Ah nothing much son, but you look troubled. Is it that you’re leaving in the morning? Sure you’re not that far away and you can come back any time.’

‘Don’t mind me at all, mam. I’ve had a great time here and sure, as you say, I’m not  that far away. It’ll be no time ’til I’m back again. Mam … would you mind if I stroll out for a while, I know it’s the last evening and …’

‘Go on, go on, and don’t be such an aul cod.’

It was a beautiful placid evening of stars as I strolled through the People’s Park. Her house looked exactly as it had twenty years ago.When I approached, I could hear music filtering out from the open sashes of the windows. I stood just out of range of the soft lighting from those same windows and tried to quell the turmoil within. Just be casual I thought. She might not even recognise me.

The front door opened. It was her. I moved quickly into the shade of the big chestnut tree that had always stood directly in front of her house. Though I could not see her properly, I knew, even from that limited view, that she had not changed. She lit a cigarette and stood there, partially illuminated by the light from the doorway. She was talking to someone from within the house. Her voice was still like a young girl’s. She laughed out loud, throwing he head back and running her free hand through that dark hair.

I stepped out from the shadows.  She turned her head slowly in my direction and, though it would have been impossible for her to see my face at that distance, I sensed from the curious tilt of her head that she knew I was no stranger.  She began to walk slowly towards me. I could hardly breathe.

‘Peter?’ That soft velvety voice that had haunted me for twenty years made me gasp with pleasure.

‘Jean,’ I said.

‘What are you doing here?’  I felt foolish. If she only knew that this moment was the fulcrum of my life and yet, and yet somewhere deep inside a voice was saying, ‘she does know, she knows. Don’t falter. I reached out and took her hand. She did not resist.

‘I had to come,’ I said, struggling with each single word.

She stopped smiling. I felt that everything in my life, every achievement, every triumph was toppling down into the dust around me and there was nothing left of me. Slowly she reached out her other hand and took mine.

‘Peter.’ There was a lifetime’s regret in her voice. As I looked into those soft dark eyes I knew that she had not forgotten and my heart soared.

It was only when she cried, Mama, did either of us notice the small dark girl standing halfway between the open hall door and where we stood.  Then she turned and ran back towards the house ‘Dada, dada, there is a man with Mama.’ Moments later, a man’s voice,

‘Jean, Jean love who is it.’ I was already walking away.

‘Jean ?’ the voice called a little more urgently.

‘It was only a stranger … he was lost,’ she said.

Dermot McCabe


Big Sugar Loaf and Little Sugar Loaf - North Wicklow, Ireland


 On a sky hill
Lies a green diamond field
Where the wind sings soft
Through sweet grass
And ancient voices steal
Inside my head
Till I am dizzy with desire
For the clayey secret
Of its green diamond fire

                 Dermot McCabe

Tales from the Lower Dargle Road – Jem Naylor

View of the Dargle Bridge and the Lower Dargle Road

‘There is too much turmoil in this fucking world,’ Jem Naylor said and put down his knife and fork on the table. He rose with studied politeness, walked out of the kitchen, leaving the bawling twins and his eldest son punching Asumpta, who was screaming in protest. Molly Naylor picked a well chewed dummy off the floor and plunged it into the yowling gob of one of the twins.

‘That’s it,’ she yelled, ‘off to the pub when things get difficult. Leave it all to me. It’s not as if you brought a happersworth into this …’ Jem slammed the front door so hard that the whole house shook. Absolute silence settled on the kitchen for a split second but the blessed moment passed and Jem could hear the racket resume more lustily than ever as he walked down the street..

He tilted his trilby slightly over his right eye. Humphry Bogart did something similar, not that Jem wanted to copy Humphry Bogart. No, Jem was better looking than Bogie any day of the week.

The saucy Mrs Byrne was leaning on the jamb of her halldoor, enjoying a smoke after tea.

‘Howya Jem. Goin’ down for a few stiffners?’

‘Wouldn’t need them where you’re concerned Jackie.’

‘Maybe not Jem, but you might need St John’s Ambulance afterwards.’

‘Ah let me take you away from all this, Jackie.’ Jem made a theatrical sweep of his arm taking in the small grey street of terraced houses.

‘And where would you take me Jem?’ Jackie drew deeply on her cigarette and leaning back blew a plume of smoke up into the evening air.

‘The city of young lovers, Paris.’

‘Twenty years ago since you were young, Jem Naylor. And as for lover well …’ Jackie scoffed and took another drag on her cigarette.

‘I’ll prove it any time you want Jackie, day or night.’

‘In your dreams, Jem.’ she laughed.

Jem shrugged his shoulders, adjusted the collar of his jacket with deft little lift and pull on his lapels and then tipped the brim of his hat with the forefinger of his right hand.

‘Don’t know what you’re missin’ mam.’

‘Get over yourself, Jem.’

Jem smiled. Smashing bit of stuff, all the same. Wouldn’t mind at all. What she sees in that dozy bollix Danny O’Toole. Not his looks or personality, that’s for sure. He began to whistle China Doll. Hope there’s a bit of a sing-song tonight.

It was a warm evening with a pleasant breeze blowing off the Dargle River and Jem decided he would walk through the park  and along the riverside path. He slid his hand into his right hand trouser pocket and felt the crisp little bundle of fivers. Pity I didn’t have a few more bob on. Could’ve cleaned up. Still, twenty five’s not bad. And there was me ready to hand over a full tenner and she spoils it. Well, she can whistle for it now. Still, the nippers need a few bits and bobs. Ah we’ll see.

‘Mr Naylor, Mr Naylor, a minute of your time.’ Jem groaned  raised his eyes skywards; then turned smiling to face a pancake faced woman with a scarlet complexion who was shuffling after him as fast as her flat feet would allow.

‘C’mon Trigger.’ She was dragging a pug-faced mongrel behind her. “It’s not on, Mr. Naylor, your Seany has me driven mad with his football banging mornin, noon and night against me wall. I’m going to get guard Murphy’

‘He’ll do sweet feck all Mrs Bailey. I’ll sort Seany out when I get home.’

‘That’s what you said last week, and the week before.’

‘Mrs Bailey, it will be done and dusted before the night is out. You have my word. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve some business to attend to.’ Jem tipped his hat and walked away. Cantankerous aul bitch.

‘Business?’ Mrs Bailey said. ‘Did you ever hear the likes Trigger? Business me arse. The man’s never done a decent days work in his whole life. C’mon, Mick will home for his dinner shortly. Business?’  Mrs Bailey and Trigger waddled towards the park exit.

Meeting Mrs Bailey dampened Jem’s  bouyant mood for a while ’til he put his hand in his pocket again and felt the nice little wad of notes. Fuck her, not that anyone would. The only banging she’ll get is Seaney’s football against her precious wall.

As he rounded the Bridge he spotted Gerry Molloy and Francie Martin leaning over the bridge wall, staring intently into the Dargle  River below. They were both wearing their poleroid sunglasses.

‘How’s the men. Anything stirrin.’

‘A few runnin alright Jem,’  said Francie.

‘Well I’m good for one lads. Don’t forget me now.’

‘See you in the bookies tomorrow morning,’ Gerry said without diverting his gaze from the river below.

‘Oh bollocks, here’s Sweeney,’ Francie whispered softly from the corner of his mouth and then shouted out, ‘Howya Guard Sweeney.’

‘I’m off lads,’ said Jem. ‘Guard, you want to watch that pair, they’re an awful pair of gangsters.’ Jem tipped his hat and headed up towards the Royal Starlight.

‘Thanks a bunch Jem,’ Francie shouted after him, ‘Thanks a bunch.’