Kitty Donohoe, the recipient of the Kilkenny Chamber of Commerce Lifetime Achievement Award for 2020
A long life in local business was heralded when Kitty Donohoe was named the recipient of the Kilkenny Chamber of Commerce Lifetime Achievement Award for 2020.
Kitty is one incredible woman - I should know, as she is my mother in law! She also likes to remind me on occasion that she is the real Mrs Donohoe!
That’s Kitty; always a joker, always tongue-in-cheek, a woman with a big heart and a shrewd businesswoman.
Kitty was the driving force behind her family business, Goresbridge Horse Sales, which was started in 1968 by her husband, Ned. His untimely death in 1978 placed her, a non-horsey 42-year-old mother of nine children with another baby on the way, at the helm of what has become Europe’s largest auctionhouse of sport horses.
Kitty was the first woman appointed to the Irish Horse Board, then known as Bord na gCapall. She drove the business forward, while raising her young family of 10.
Originally from a small village in Templetuohy in Co Tipperary, she is fiercely proud of her home place in Goresbridge, Co Kilkenny.
Here is a glimpse into Kitty’s world…
Kitty, it’s an honour to interview you. Yours is a story I’ve wanted to tell since starting this column. You are so modest and humble about your life achievements. What does receiving the Lifetime Achievement award mean to you?
Siobhan, I was very excited when I received the award, but I couldn’t believe all the fuss. I just did what any woman and mother would have done to provide for their family. The show just had to go on.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the Kilkenny Chamber of Commerce for the award, it is a huge honour.
Bring us back: how did you and Ned start the horse sales in Goresbridge?
I was called to the civil service in Dublin in 1956 and that’s where I met Ned at a dance. He was with another Kilkennyman Bill Fogarty and Bill told Ned to ask me out to dance! The rest is history.
We married in 1961 and moved to Goresbridge and bought a premises on the Main Street that included a drapery shop, a bar and a grocery shop.
At the time, farmers were beginning to sell cattle by auction in the marts. Ned thought if livestock could be sold by auction, why not horses? In spite of a number of horsemen disagreeing with him, he went ahead.
The first sale was in 1968 and it was really successful. Ned stood on a trailer in the yard and sold 30 horses that day, along with a coloured donkey, which was sold for a £120. That was fierce money at the time.
The sales have come a long way since then!
They sure have! The highest price paid for a horse in our sale’s ring was €1.4million. That was a record at auction for Dougie Douglas, an Irish sports horse who represented Britain twice in Nations Cup and has gone on to successfully compete in America for its new owner.
The sales have also diversified over the years too. My son Martin took over the running of the business which he developed in many ways including starting up Ireland’s very first Breeze Up Sale.
This is a very unique way of selling an Irish racehorse. The buyers see the horses breezing up / racing on the race track in Gowran and the next day they bid on them in our auction room.
This year, because of Covid, we have gone online with sales and Martin’s wife Mary Francis is in charge of that. It’s going amazingly well, despite the lockdowns throughout the year.
You have reared a strong bunch. They had big shoes to fill, especially when your husband Ned passed away so young.
Ned died from a massive heart attack at the age of 45. I was eight months pregnant with Jim and we were on our way into St Luke’s Hospital for a regular check-up. Ned suggested we get dressed up and head out for our tea while we were out.
On the way into town Ned wasn’t feeling great and we pulled into our friend Dr Mike Canning’s. Ned was taken to the hospital but he didn’t make it. He died in my arms shortly afterwards in Dr Fall’s office.
Ned died on March 14, 1978 and Jim was born on April 9. After the funeral Ned’s brothers suggested that I cancel the upcoming horse sales. I said ‘no way’, I had nine mouths to feed and another one on the way.
Martin, my eldest son came home to work with me. The older ones reared the younger ones. We managed, with had no other choice.
With Martin’s initiative and ability the sales continued and developed into one of the biggest sale of jumpers and eventers in Europe.
I suppose it is in the blood. Ed, my second son is our top auctioneer at the sales and Mike (third son) is a bloodstock agent for the Irish Bloodstock Association.
You were very entrepreneurial, you even opened the first mini supermarket in Goresbridge.
Yes we did, but the women weren’t too happy about carrying a basket around to collect their items. They were used to coming up to the counter with their shopping lists.
We also had the antique business which Ned had started and was developing when he passed away.
You have always championed Goresbridge.
Goresbridge is a great village to live in - the only thing wrong with it is that it is not in Tipperary!
There’s everything you need here, a health centre, supermarket, post office, a pharmacy, Credit Union and a community shop. There’s nothing like that in Templetuohy.
Goresbridge is also the home of Connolly’s Red Mills, a world-famous animal feeds business.
What was it like being a woman in a male-denominated industry of the Irish bloodstock trade?
It was very surprising when people used to come into the office and ask to see the boss. The girls used to say ‘we’ll get Mrs Donohoe for you’ and customers would respond saying ‘no, we want the boss’.
I had no other option, I was left with 10 children.
You’ve had lots of crosses to bear over the years. From losing your husband and son Jack and you nearly didn’t survive a car accident. Yet, you have such strong faith.
Yes my faith was some help, I like going to mass every morning before working in the office. I miss it these days.
Martin, your mother is very modest about all she has achieved. What was it really like working with her?
It was easy to work with my mother. She gave me plenty of free rein to run with any new ideas that I had. She always backed me 100%.
Getting the award means a lot to her, it’s nice to have her acknowledged by the business community. It goes without saying we are all very proud of her; we are very lucky to have her.