Riding high — Alison Healy on how a cowgirl stole the show at a Croke Park rodeo

Vera McGinnis had no trouble standing astride two galloping horses and, better yet, she had Cavan connections

It might surprise you to learn that a very foreign game was played on the hallowed grounds of Croke Park 100 years ago this year.

As every GAA supporter knows, Croke Park has witnessed much horseplay over the years, but this event involved actual horses. “Come and see just how vicious an outlaw horse can be,” ran an ad in this newspaper promoting the event billed as Dublin’s first rodeo. And come they did, in their droves, to see bucking broncos, steer wrestling and fancy roping.

The rodeo was arriving from Wembley where concerns were expressed about the welfare of the animals in the show but that did not dissuade the estimated 100,000 Irish spectators who attended the shows.

The Irish Times noted that the crowd filing into Croke Park on the opening day on August 18th took careful note of the cowboy dictionary in their programmes so that they would know the difference between a crow hop (a mild bucking motion) and a man-killer (a wild horse with a homicidal mania). The enthusiastic spectators included president of the Executive Council, WT Cosgrave, and a bevy of bishops.


Award-winning author Dr Conor Heffernan, who lectures in the sociology of sport at Ulster University, has whiled away many happy hours researching the event. He noted that the organiser, Tex Austin, played up the Irish ancestry of some of his riders and it seemed to have paid off because champion rodeo riders Vera McGinnis and Tommy Kirnan became almost the sole focus of the media’s attention.

Women were a bit of a curiosity on the rodeo circuit, but Vera McGinnis was no novelty act. She was a fearless cowgirl, riding since the age of three, and had no trouble standing astride two galloping horses, or circling a horse’s belly while it was galloping. And, better again, she had Cavan connections.

Dr Heffernan’s research uncovered a Cork Examiner article published before Vera’s arrival in Ireland, noting her plans to visit her mother’s home town of Killeshandra in Co Cavan. She was particularly anxious to locate parish priest Fr Judge, her mother’s old friend and she recalled how her mother had sent several pounds to the priest for the church. Dr Heffernan says she didn’t get to visit Killeshandra in the end but after her arrival in Dublin, she met a deputation from Killeshandra and was presented with photographs of the town. Her Irish trip was a triumph, and she was treated like a movie star. In her autobiography, she recalled how the champagne glasses never emptied and the Irish crowds happily stood in the rain to watch the rodeo. She contrasted the warm Irish welcome with some of the hostility experienced at Wembley and wrote that it was only in Ireland that she and the rodeo were “really appreciated”.

The Croke Park rodeo won the approval of this newspaper with an editorial deeming it to be “breezy and twangful entertainment”, whatever that means. The rodeo came hot on the heels of the revived Tailteann Games, which had been a roaring success. Described as a Gaelic Olympics, the event was the biggest sporting event in the world that year, even bigger than the Olympics in Paris. Held across Dublin, the Tailteann Games featured athletics, car, motorcycle and aircraft races, watersports, golf and cultural events such as poetry, dance and sculpture. It was supposed to be confined to Irish citizens and people with Irish ancestry but in a flash of genius the organisers inveigled some big-name athletes to attend, fresh from the Olympics in Paris. They included swimmer Johnny Weismuller who would go on to become Tarzan. Because Dublin did not have a suitable pool, he swam in the pond at Dublin Zoo. Obviously.

But back to the horsing around in Croke Park, and while the rodeo was supposed to return four years later, it never got the chance, due to scheduling conflicts.

Nevertheless, Vera McGinnis kept her memories of Dublin alive in the shape of what was said to be her favourite trophy. It was made of elephant tusk with walrus-tusk handles and included a silver shamrock. The inscription noted it was presented to her at Dublin’s first rodeo, by Maxwell Arnott and RJ Duggan. If you ever happen to be in Fort Worth, Texas, you’ll find the trophy in the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame.

Ten years after her Dublin show, Vera suffered a near fatal fall in California. Her multiple injuries, which included a broken back, led doctors to predict she would never walk again.

Yet she walked out of the hospital and lived to the ripe age of almost 98, regretting nothing apart from that one fall.