In 1912, the modern era was beginning to dawn upon the world. The last of the great wildernesses was conquered by Roald Amundsen when he announced, on March 7th of that year, that he had successfully reached the South Pole. Two of Europe’s great capitals were pulled ever closer when Henri Seimet completed the first non-stop flight from Paris to London on the very same day. On the 11th of April the Titanic arrived into the harbour of Cobh, picking up her final complement of passengers before steaming westward to meet her destiny three days later in the freezing North Atlantic. All of these events, and many more, captured the imaginations of people – and the headlines – around the globe.
There was one trip, however, that did not make any headlines and yet demonstrates with equal force, if with less pomp, what can be achieved when one sets one’s mind to the task. It was the journey of Michael O Malley, Joe Welsh, and two Connemara Ponies from the tiny village of Ros Muc in the heart of Connemara to the gleaming iron and glass of the National Agricultural Hall (now called Olympia) in Kensington, London in time to put his beloved pony on the map in the 1912 World Exhibition of Breeds.
Michael J. O Malley is a figure well known to historians of the Connemara breed as the man most responsible for the setting up of the CPBS and the eventual salvation of the pony as a distinct breed. In fact he had attempted the formation of just such a society (twleve years before his efforts finally came to fruition) in 1911, the year before his trip to Olympia. A man clearly driven by his passion for the pony, he wrote many times on the subject of their plight. These letters have thankfully been preserved, published, and are available via Pat Lyne’s Connemara Pony Book Store. Studying for a career as a vet in Rathfarnam, Dublin, Michael gave up his books to return home to Ros Muc and take over the family affairs upon the death of his father. It is from there his journey back to the east, and further east again, began.
If one was to make the same journey today, imagine the planning! A suitable vehicle, a hotel booked – maybe two, the inevitable which-bank-card-has-money-on-it query, tickets booked online for the ferry, route maps printed out, phonecalls, e-mails, text messages… Imagine now if none of these advanced planning methods were possible. O Malley’s route took him from Ros Muc to Maam Cross station – a route with barely even a road in 1912. A cart track, at best. He and Joe would have ridden the stallion Irish Dragoon and mare Eileen Alanna the twelve or so miles to the station before boarding the Clifden-Galway train with the ponies safely ensconed in a cattle car. The train would have then taken them – slowly – to Galway, where they would most likely have waited to walk, water, rest and feed the ponies before continuing on another train ride to Dublin, some 250 miles away.
The intrepid quartet would take more trains, ferries, and simply ride on their journey through Dublin, accross the Irish Sea, through Liverpool, down to London and finally the last miles to the National Agricultural Hall (Olympia). The Hall itself had been erected in 1885, by Andrew Handyside of Derby, covering an area of 4 acres (16,000 m2). The Grand Hall alone was 450 feet (140 m) in length by 250 feet (76 m) in breadth, and was said to be the largest building in the kingdom covered by one span of iron and glass. For two men from Ros Muc the undertaking to reach this goal must have been immense. The cost in fares alone would have paid the average weekly wage of 25 shillings – possibly many times over – just for one of the party travelling third class one way. The most high-tech their arrangements would have gotten is to have sent telegraphs. They were travelling through England with, one would imagine, very few contacts and friends to help them along the way. Through an England that watched as thousands of Irishmen back home armed themselves with German rifles and paraded for Home Rule. All the while bringing along, looking after, and feeding two ponies.
In the end, Michael O Malley and Joe Welsh succeeded in what they had set out to do. The Connemara Pony was entered into the lexicon of breeds from around the world and had achieved what was very likely its first official recognition. O Malley was presented with a simple certificate for his troubles, but one can imagine how deeply that certificate was treasured. It was a courageous, awe inspiring journey. Maybe we should start thinking now of how to commemorate his initiative and passion when the centenery of that incredible journey comes around.