Wednesday, June 21, 2023

The Irish National Stud & Japanese Gardens. Among the country’s top attractions.

The Irish National Stud & Japanese Gardens.

Among the country’s top attractions.

Cards, stars and horses, all played by Colonel Walker,
founder of the National Stud.

There is a double bronze sculpture on a patio just inside the entrance to the Irish National Stud, at the point where your guided tour starts. It features a life-sized be-hatted gentleman of a previous century gazing at a combination of horses, star signs and playing cards.

The double sculpture is in honour of Colonel William Hall Walker who bought this Tully estate in 1900 and went into horses rather than the family brewery in the UK. He had a fascination for Asia (hence the Japanese gardens here) and astrology. He used the stars to determine the future course of his horses - if the star signs were bad at birth, the foal was sold, no matter what the breeding.

The Colonel. Reading the stars


Despite much criticism of that particular “method”, he became one of the most successful breeders of his time, winning classic after classic. More recently, Sea The Stars was another classic winner and there is a sculpture in the horse’s memory, unveiled by the Queen in 2011. It is called Sea of Stars and contains astrological symbolism.

There is a more down-to-earth souvenir of the great Arkle: his skeleton! There is much more to see here and when your guided tour is over, you are welcome to explore at your leisure. Indeed, if a guided tour doesn't suit your schedule you are welcome to walk around independently. But you will miss out as the guides are full of information, courtesy and good humour.

The current star of the stud is the much-loved stallion Invincible Spirit. Now in his old age, his services are still much sought after and indeed his fee is negotiated privately whereas the other stallions have their fees posted on a board at the stud. Mares come from all over and, on arrival, are medically tested and are also “showered” and fitted with special shoes (in case they kick out when mating).

One for the future. Just a few weeks old

Big money is mentioned a lot around here yet most of these mega-deals are included in a modest-looking single-storey house called the Stud Office. It and its immediate garden are very well kept indeed as is the whole area. 

A highlight is a millennial garden by award-winning landscape architect Professor Martin Hallinan, built on a former bog and called St. Fiachra’s Garden. St. Fiachra, the patron saint of gardeners, also made a name for himself in the Loire and, if you find yourself in the village of Saint Fiacre you’ll see it is surrounded by vines. They make some fantastic Muscadet here and do watch out for Günther Chéreau Confluentia Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie (the Irish importers are Liberty Wines). 

Invincible Spirit. In Limestone. Plenty of limestone in Kildare as there is in Kentucky another great horse breeding region.

Irish National Stud’s tribute garden is a stunning attraction seeking to capture that which inspired those involved in Ireland’s monastic movement in the 6th and 7th centuries. It does so principally by paying handsome tribute to the Irish landscape in its rawest state.

While the stallions bring in the cash, it is the lively geldings that bring in many of the visitors. Hardy Eustace is the big gentle star and the much smaller Hurricane Fly is also in the same field but you’ll need something sweet if you hope to get to pat him. Faugheen and Beef or Salmon were also hanging around the day of our recent visit.

Faugheen enjoying his role as a visitor attraction

In adjoining paddocks, you see the stars of the future as these fields are home to mothers and foals, some just a couple of weeks old. They are well taken care of with plenty of space. If for some reason, the original mother cannot look after her own foal, a surrogate is available and so you see one or two oddly coloured mares here. 

It is not only the stallions that are well looked after in Tully. The in-foal mares, many of them paying guests in their last month, are checked every twenty minutes! HSE please take note.

A young foal with its foster mum.

Some other facts from our guide:

Covering dates start on, believe it or not, Valentine’s Day;

the gestation period is 11 months;

Every single foal is officially born on January 1st;

There is no A1 in the racing industry. That would spoil all the fun, and make it all boring, according to H…., our excellent guide; 

Resident stallion Tommy The Tease checks that each mare is ready but then has to step aside for a big-name stallion. Tommy has the consolation of two covers a year (with the surrogate mothers), a poor enough return.

Most visitors will end up in the Japanese Gardens at some stage during their visit. It is not the biggest in the world, far from it but, now over a hundred years old, it is still very much worth visiting. Some 120,000 visitors soak up the peace of the gardens every year. There is a choice of two paths, one called the Easy Path, the other the more familiar Path of Life (our choice!)

Refreshments are available all day in the on-site café. Meals are based on local produce
even if the building style echoes a Japan equivalent.

The gardens were devised by Colonel Walker and were laid out by Japanese master horticulturist Tassa Eida and his son Minoru between 1906 and 1910. Walker named one of his classic winning horses after Minoru.

After all that walking around, or maybe in between, you’ll need some sustenance and you’ll enjoy some good stuff in the Japanese Gardens Café (it also serves the National Stud - both attractions are covered by the one ticket and adjoin each other). The café building has Japanese features and has lots of seating, both indoors and out.

Ballymaloe-trained Natalie Collins and her manager take pride in offering simple, wholesome food with an emphasis on freshness and flavour. Local ingredients are used wherever possible. Current menu offers include Silver Hill Roast Duck Salad, Homemade Lasagne, 12-hour roast beef of Ciabatta, Chill Beef Nachos and much more, including dishes for children. We enjoyed a cuppa and a couple of pastries including their ever-popular Portuguese Tart.

The Tea House in the Japanese Gardens. No tea here, just for decoration

Service in the cafe was friendly, efficient and proactive. And indeed that friendliness was evident right from the reception desk here in the Stud and everywhere we went after that, including Lawlor’s Hotel, the Country Market and during our stroll along the banks of the canal where everyone smiled and said hello. Another lovely reason to return to Kildare and check out more of its attractions.

For more on the stud and gardens, please check here 

Also on. this visit:

You're on course for a great time when you stay at Lawlor's of Naas 

Lawlor's Naas is a great base for Kildare's many attractions 

The gardens in the stud grounds, especially St Fiacra's, are splendid.
Spotted this swan and cygnet in a pond there.

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