The death occurred on 31st January of John Kirwan, St. Judes, Brownstown, the Curragh, Co. Kildare, after an illness of some months duration. He had recently celebrated his 71st birthday. John, is survived by his son Dan, daughter Joan, grandchildren, as well as a sibling, Anne Lynch, relatives and friends. His second son Peter predeceased him, the result of an accident in the 1970s.
John spent the first twenty years of his life at Lower Grange, Goresbridge, Co. Kilkenny, where his father Dan Kirwan (1911-60) had what was often called the Gowran Park Stables : the race-course of that name was nearby. Indeed, John’s grandfather another John Kirwan (1878-1950) who established the stables c. 1900, was with Dr. Heffernan of Kilkenny, chiefly responsible for laying out the course at Gowran Park for its first meeting in 1914. A cousin, John F. Kirwan (1895-1966) of Goresbridge and Ballyellen, who also patronised the Turf, was the Hon. Secretary of Gowran Park into the early 1940s, when the course closed, only to re-open after the war, having as its new hon. secretary, Jack Duggan, of Kilkenny. Incidentially, Jack Duggan’s sister, Daisy Phelan and her husband Dr.Will Phelan, were patrons of Dan Kirwan and the trio clocked up many successes with Sweet Eileen and Fair Nell.
John, like his father and grandfather had a passion for the horse, and all his life kept a couple of horses. Indeed for a time in the 1970s he had sought to make his living from training, a very tough profession, especially when the competition included established figures such as Paddy Sleator, Mick O’ Toole and Tom Dreaper. He experienced some successes notably with a gelding called The Bronx and the filly Lady Rainbow, which was owned by his aunt and uncle, Paul and Eileen Kirwan of Inistioge. The latter under John’s tutelage won on both the flat and over jumps, ending her career with a very respectable nine wins. Her dam, Eleanor M (named after a deceased sister) had also picked up a similar number of wins, again on both the flat and over jumps. Eleanor M had been bought as a yearling by John’s father who had the reputation for being a good judge of horseflesh. In his stables at the time of his death in June 1960 was Nicolaus Silver (which he partially owned with Bookey and Bertie Hutchinson of Kells, Co. Kilkenny. The horse was sold the November after Dan’s death for 2200 Guineas (£2600) to an English buyer who sent it to Fred Rimell’s yard. The following March it comfortably won the English Grand National, the first grey to do so since The Lamb in 1868.
The loss of the family place partly as a result of his father’s early death, left John without that valuable asset, which included its own gallops which had been laid out by his grandfather, and improved upon by his father. One of the earlier John Kirwan’s notable buys was a filly named Red Linnett 11(foaled 1908) which was acquired at a dispersal sale at Woodstock House in 1912, held on the instruction of Edward Kendrick Bunbury Tighe. The reported price was 12 Guineas. This filly which was very well-bred (out of Kilwinnet b.1894) became the foundation mare of the Gowran Park Stables and though she never ran herself, she produced many winners out of her reputed twenty-two foals. Many of her progeny had notable successes on the Turf one being Gowran Girl (b. 1915) who bred Business Girl by the Knight of Kilcash in 1931, who in turn was the dam of Dress Parade, (foaled 1947) who was the dam of Height o’ Fashion (foaled 1957). The latter was bred owned and raced by Jack and Lulu Donohoe of Barrowmount, Goresbridge, the former being a first cousin of the elder John Kirwan. Height o’ Fashion ended her career having won over eighteen races including the Irish Cesarwitch. (1962, trained by Paddy Mullins). On one memorable occasion she finished second to the great Arkle in the Irish Grand National (1966) albeit 40 lbs. lighter. The photo-finish photo was a treasured possession of the owners.
Height o’ Fashion was a small gallant mare who won sizeable prize money and trophies for her owners, just as her great-grand-dam, Gowran Girl, had won for the elder Kirwan, many prizes, including the Tetratema Cup at Gowran Park on two occasions. This was a race established c. 1920 with particular support from Lady Helen McCalmont, née Conyngham, daughter of the Marquess Conyngham of Slane Castle, and the first wife of Major Dermot McCalmont of Mt. Juliet. Lady Helen favoured National Hunt racing whereas her husband preferred the flat. Indeed John’s father Dan, who rode successfully as a young man before inheriting the family place, was the pilot on Lady Helen’s horse, Red Park, when it won both the Grand National and the Galway Plate in 1933. Only four other horses have performed this feat in the history of these two races. That same year at Tramore, the elder Kirwan clocked up something like ten races out of twelve run, at the August meeting, a record which I believe still stands. Is it any wonder then that the younger John wished to carry on this family tradition, which in horse breeding terms went back into the eighteenth-century, when a earlier John Kirwan of c. 1770 stood a stallion called the Arabian, at Lower Grange for the princely sum of 10 shillings ‘plus grass gratis overnight’. This at a time when Roman Catholics were supposedly forbidden by the Penal Laws from owing a horse with a greater value than £5.0.0.
Another famous buy by the senior John Kirwan, again for a small sum - 18 Guineas - was the horse destined to be called Hatton’s Grace (foaled 1940) which he bought at a Ballsbridge sale in 1941. According to Paddy Mullins – Master of Doninga - John Kirwan had great expectations for this ungainly gelding which he called ‘Your Grace’. The young horse was given time and when he left Lower Grange in early1946 he had learned how to jump magnificently. The rest is equine history. Initially, Dan Corry, an army show-jumper bought a part-share in the horse from Kitty Kirwan, the trainer’s second wife, and somehow or other after her sudden death in November 1945, the other share passed out of the family . Incidentally, Hattons’ Grace was out of Hatton whose sire was Mr. Jinks, a son of Tetratema, and a grandson of The Tetrach, all McCalmont sires from nearby Mt. Juliet.
Goresbridge district has had many families like the Kirwans ; their cousins the Donohoes (at Lower Grange, Ballyellen and Barrowmount), the Hughes family of Fenniscourt and latterly the Mullins family of Doninga, which is now into its third generation of tremendous successes, who have been associated chiefly with National Hunt Racing. Willie Mullins the founding father of the dynasty purchased Doninga House and farm c. 1920. His most famous son, Paddy Mullins needs no introduction, nor does the latter’s sons and grandsons, notably Willie Mullins Jun and most recently David Mullins, son of Tom. The Gavins neighbours at Doninga are yet another family who fits into this category. The O’ Donnells of Clashwilliam and Bramblestown are yet another. There can hardly be a district in Ireland which has had such a concentration of equine-minded breeders, owners and trainers. No doubt the fertile limestone land is a key element here both in contributing to good bone for the horse but also to the relatively deepish pockets of its families.
When training did not work out financially for the younger John Kirwan he obtained employment with HH The Aga Khan, who owned the Ballymany, Giltown and Sashoon studs, where he worked for many years, formerly retiring about five years ago. John continued with his life-long interest through his own horses and those of a few close friends, who sent him the occasional horse to get ready for the track. From HH The Aga Khan, he purchased Padashpan, which he subsequently jointly owned with his Kilkenny friend Bill Brennan, which was given to none other than Willie Mullins to train. Pandaspan won many races, including the Morgania Hurdle, for its owners.
Cricket was another interest which ran in the family and one which John also followed. The game was regularly played in Gowran and one of John’s prized possession was a tantalus, which was presented by the Gowran Cricket Club to the senior John Kirwan on the occasion of his marriage in 1910. The senior John did’nt drink, but he kept its decanters fully stocked for visiting owners, and unknowingly - for a while at least - for a house-keeper who did. She tried to hide the evidence, by topping up the decanter with water, until one day an owner when invited to take a drink, was subsequently asked if water was required, to which the rather dry response was : ‘No John, it’s watered already’.
John’s nephew, Mark Lynch, paid a special tribute to John at his funeral mass commenting rather amusingly on the known Kirwan trait of being ‘careful’ with money, yet acknowledging too his uncle’s generosity on due occasion. He ended by saying that his’ Uncle John’ was a gentleman, who had lived his life quietly, without fuss, and that, true to form (excuse the pun) it was his last wish that his funeral be conducted along those lines. He choose not to be buried with his people in Goresbridge but soon some of his ashes will rest there, (as well as on the Curragh) amidst the fields and families he grew up amongst, and from which he never really departed.