In medieval Europe, the horse was a weapon of war and only the nobility were allowed to ride into battle on horseback. Horse racing, jousting and other equestrian activities were indeed the ‘Sport of Kings’ and the aristocracy. The sectarian Penal Laws of 1695 were intended by the colonial ruling establishment to dispossess the native Irish Catholics of land, power and wealth. One of the laws stated that no Catholic could own a horse worth £5 or more. Yet equestrian sports were always popular across all sections of Irish society as epitomised by the traditional Irish song “The Galway Races”:
There was half a million people there from all denominations
The Catholic, the Protestant, the Jew, and Presbyterian
There was yet no animosity, no matter what persuasion
But sportsman’s hospitality inducin’ fresh acquaintance.