Blog post

Steeplechase: the Irish roots of the first race

Racing horses between two churches

black and white photograph of a number of horses and jockeys jumping fences
by
Adrian Murphy (opens in new window) (Europeana Foundation)

The name steeplechase is now given to an athletic race, where athletes race over hurdles and water jumps. Olympic gold is the highest achievement that an athlete can reach.

black and white photograph of two athletes jumping over hurdles

But the name steeplechase actually originated in a horse race, first held in Ireland in the 18th century.

As the name might suggest, that very first race took place in 1752 between two steeples in rural county Cork in the south of Ireland. At that time, church steeples were among the tallest buildings in the landscape.

On that night, Cornelius O'Callaghan and Edmund Blake were at dinner at Buttevant Castle, having a good time.

black and white photograph of a castle with ivy growing on the walls and surrounded by trees

They made a bet between themselves to race from the steeple of Saint John's Church in Buttevant to that of Saint Mary's Church in the town of Doneraile.

colour photograph of a church surrounded by trees and a field
colour photograph of a church

The distance was around 4 miles, crossing countryside and rivers. The winner would be the first to touch the base of the steeple in Doneraile. The prize? More than 600 gallons of port.

Sadly, history has not recorded who actually won the race. But that race has gone down in history, with steeplechase races becoming a tradition.

black and white illustration with four horses and jockeys jumping over fences
booklet from a race meeting with text and illustrations including headline 'Ward Union Hunt Steeplechases'

By the early 1800s, races over fences on prepared race tracks were taking place in England, with the first recognised English National Steeplechase taking place in March 1830. Such steeplechases races can also be known as point-to-point races.

In 1839, the British Grand National race at Aintree was established, a race that is still run today over roughly the same distance of around 4 miles.

box for a board game with a colour illustration of horses jumping a fence in a race track with text 'The Grand National Steeplechase'
black and white photograph of two horses and jockeys jumping over a fence

Today, steeplechase horse racing takes place in countries around the world - a tradition traced back to County Cork in 1752. And that sport has lent its name to a race between Olympic athletes over hurdles and water.

black and white photographs of horses and jockeys jumping over fences
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