Bones of Contention – Frank McNally on fearless jockeys, Sean O’Brien’s arm, and climbing for sport

An Irishman’s Diary

It's not much of an exaggeration to say that, at the Horse Racing Ireland awards on Tuesday night, you could not have swung a cat without hitting somebody named O'Brien. In one prize category, the clan accounted for three of the four nominees, with jockey Donnacha holding off his jockey-turned-trainer brother Joseph, and their father Aidan, to win.

At my table, meanwhile, there was yet another O’Brien: rugby star Sean. Nobody would mistake him for a jockey. On the contrary, he’s a prime example of that celebrated human-equine phenomenon: the horse of a man. I definitely wouldn’t hit him with a cat, or with anything else.

He did, mind you, have one thing in common with many of the jockeys present. He had recently broken a bone in the course of his work. Happily, only three weeks after its violent collision with Argentina, his right arm was already out of the cast and back in training.

Apart from a scar the length of Ireland’s current winning streak, you wouldn’t have noticed the injury, although the eight screws that have been inserted in the bone will probably be setting off airport security alarms for years to come.


Another of my table neighbours, Johnny Murtagh, astounded me by admitting that he had never broken anything while racing. Maybe he broke a few bookmakers in a riding career during which he won Irish and English derbies, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, and just about everything else. But he told me the only time he ever broke bones was while skiing.

Of course he was a flat-racing jockey (and now trainer).

And while flat horses may travel at frightening speeds, they do have the advantage of not falling very often.

Whereas the other jockey next to me on Tuesday, Mark Enright, makes his living in the jumps version, so naturally he had broken most of what was breakable. He won this year's Galway Plate, but I'm sure he has a few plates inside him as well.

WB Yeats was lost in admiration for the reckless courage of those who rode horses for sport. He considered it one of Ireland’s national virtues and, even in the late poem that became his epitaph, sang the praises of “hard-riding country gentlemen”. But they also made him feel inadequate because (a) he couldn’t do it himself and (b) they usually weren’t much interested in the thing at which he excelled: poetry.

He could not have imagined that, decades after his death, Ireland would produce a champion racehorse called Yeats. I'm not sure whether it was named for him or his brother Jack, the artist who also loved racing and painted it regularly.

But it was trained by the aforementioned Aidan O’Brien, winning many prizes, including a record four-in-a-row Ascot Gold Cups from 2006, making him arguably the greatest “stayer” of all time. And who was on the back of this four-legged Yeats when, in 2009, they romped together into history? Yes, it was my neighbour the other night: Johnny Murtagh. WB would surely have written a poem about it.


Most Irish people will be familiar with another equestrian celebrity, Shank’s (or Shanks’s) Mare, even if her origins remain somewhat obscure. The usual explanation is that “shank” means “leg” or “shin-bone”. Hence the expression, since to travel by Shank’s Mare means to go by foot.

But this too can be a sporting endeavour, especially when it involves hill-walking or climbing. And many of its enthusiasts will be in Dublin on Thursday night for the latest annual Joss Lynam Lecture: held in honour of the great mountaineer who died in 2011.

The 2018 speaker is Paddy O’Leary, a man who was writing about the importance of adventure sports in this newspaper as long ago as 1970. He later advanced the cause as head of the National Adventure Centre in Tiglin for 20 years.

But he has gone on to many other adventures, at extreme heights and distances. He led the first Irish expeditions to the Himalayas and Peru. He was the first western mountaineer for 50 years to explore the Kinnaur area of northern India. And his interest in lesser-known peaks also took him to such outposts as the poetically named Mountains of the Moon in Zaire.

Tonight’s event will be somewhat nearer sea-level: No 47, Pearse Street, Dublin 2. Refreshments are at 7pm, the talk at 7.45.

And as if to prove that adventures can start from any walk of life – whatever Monty Python thought – this one is in the lecture hall of Chartered Accountants Ireland.