State Papers1992-2002

Haughey refused to visit Arabian horses gifted to the State because of ‘poor standard’

Former taoiseach’s initial excitement over import of horses at taxpayers’ expense quickly evaporated, National Archives files show

Taoiseach Charles Haughey’s enthusiasm for a gift to the State of seven pedigree Arabian horses turned to embarrassment when it came to light that some of the animals were “of a very poor standard”.

The seven thoroughbred Asil Arabian horses were gifted to the State by Vincent Melzac, a wealthy businessman and horse breeder from West Virginia in the United States.

Mr Haughey met Mr Melzac in Washington in March 1989 during a visit to the US capital, and immediately accepted his offer. The 75-year-old businessman was terminally ill at the time and wanted to gift the horses to Ireland, in honour of his wife’s Irish background.

The taoiseach was excited by the prospect and took a personal interest in every step of importing the horses to Ireland, as new records released by the State to the National Archive show (file 2022/1/210).


Mr Haughey had a huge interest in horses during his adult life. He rode regularly, owned a stud in Co Meath for a number of years, and maintained a stable of horses at his Abbeville estate in Kinsealy, north Dublin.

The horses were imported into Ireland in late September 1989 at a cost of over £25,000 to the State. It followed visits to Mr Melzac’s ranch in West Virginia by the Washington ambassador, Padraig McKiernan. Three senior officials from the Department of Agriculture in Dublin also flew to the US to view the animals.

A handwritten note by a senior official in the taoiseach’s office notes that Mr Haughey said “he would like to meet these horses when they arrive in Ireland – possibly on arrival in this country”.

On November 21st, the taoiseach also indicated he would attend an acceptance ceremony on December 12th at the National Stud in Co Kildare, where the horses had been brought for their initial period of resettlement.

However, alarm bells began to ring during their stay in Co Kildare. A senior vet and the stud manager were less than impressed by the standard of the Desert Arab thoroughbreds.

In a memo dated only a week after the taoiseach accepted the invitation, it was indicated that he would not after all attend the ceremony.

A senior official wrote: “The Taoiseach spoke to me on 28 November saying that he had received information to the effect that the horses were of very poor standard and in the circumstances it could be embarrassing if he were to visit the Stud to inspect them.”

Mr Haughey further said he wanted an expert from the British Arab Horse Society to assess the standard of the horses independently. The manager of the National Stud also told the Department of An Taoiseach that the horses were “quite inferior”.

In response, the Department of Agriculture, which inspected the horses in the US and oversaw the importation, said the animals had “impeccable pedigree”. A department official pointed out they had already been gifted to the State by the time he saw them, and it was Mr Melzac who picked the seven horses, with department officials having no say in the matter.

The seven horses consisted of two stallions, four mares and a two-year-old colt. It was generally agreed that the colt was the best prospect but the two stallions were not of the standard expected. There were mixed views on the mares.

In early 1990, the independent assessment ordered by Mr Haughey was carried out by the Guinness heirs, brothers Finn and Kieran Guinness. Finn was president of the British Arab Horse Society at the time and was an experienced judge of the Arabian breed.

In a letter from his Irish residence, Knockmaroon, Castleknock, Co Dublin, Mr Guinness gave a slightly more favourable assessment of the horses. He said three of the mares were “quite nice mares and could be tried out for breeding”.

He said he was less keen on the fourth mare which had a “bad head and a lot of white on her which is particularly unsuitable in the Irish climate”.

He also liked the two-year colt which he said had “quality”. However, Mr Guinness was “disappointed by the standard of the two older stallions.

“They do not seem to be good enough to contribute usefully to our breeding here in Ireland ... They are both quite nice ordinary animals but not up to the standard required in a breeding stallion.”

The four mares were sent to the Teagasc Agricultural College in Piltown, Co Kilkenny where they were retained for pure breeding. The colt was left at the National Stud for another year, while the stallions were leased out to non-thoroughbred breeders.

Mr Melzac and his wife, Sheila Downey Melzac, had intended to come over for the acceptance ceremony in late 1989. However, Mr Melzac died in October of that year and his wife was subsequently unable to travel.

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times