Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

Derry’s tales of the turf brought to book

A new book is set to explore Londonderry’s long forgotten reputation as a horse racing mecca as far back as the 18th century.

A massive amount of research has now been collected to piece together the history of the Ballyarnett Racecourse and the Derry-Londonderry Races, which were held from the 1770s until the early 1900s.

By the early 1800s, the racecourse at Ballyarnett, in the greater Shantallow area, had become one of the most famous racing venues in Ireland.

At one point boat trips sailed every week from Glasgow to the races in the city, while race balls and other events were staged across the city.

The new 384-page book written by local historian Tom Deeney will be launched on Tuesday (7pm) at Shantallow Library.

“The History of Ballyarnett Racecourse And The Derry/Londonderry Races will fill in one of the great voids in knowledge of the history of the Derry area,” the author said.

“The more I looked into this the more I realised how much history there was here. I think it will appeal to local people and people interested in history and I wanted something that stands up in terms of the racing community also.”

Ballyarnett first hosted racing was in 1777. Mr Deeney added: “There had been, up until 1773, racing on the strand between Pennyburn Mill and Brook Hall. The last official race took place on May 5, 1905. That was a steeplechase meeting.”

Unofficial racing involving local horses went on until the 1920s, but by and large that was ended by a severe storm in January 1927 which destroyed the enclosures.

The book chronicles in great detail the story of the establishment and conduct of official racing under Turf Club rules at Ballyarnett.

Mr Deeney’s research included a number of week-long visits to Irish racing's headquarters at the Curragh, where he was afforded exclusive access to the records of the Turf Club, dating back to the year 1790.

This research was added to following numerous visits to libraries in the UK and Ireland.

Speaking about one intriguing era, Mr Deeney said: “In the 1830s there was a very strong lobby against the racing and that happened in England as well.

“The main objections were to do with drinking and gambling and it was prominent Protestants, mainly Church of Ireland, who led this. They actually managed to bring it to a halt in the 1840s. While the racing was stopped, a Presbyterian Church was built in the middle of the racecourse because it was believed the racing wouldn’t be coming back.

“Fourteen years ago Ballyarnett Presbyterian Church, which is still there, celebrated its 150th anniversary and they were the only church ever built in the middle of a race track.”

Entrance to Tuesday’s launch, open to everyone, is free. Light refreshments will be available and signed copies of the book will be on offer at a special launch price.

The book can be ordered directly from the author at the launch price of £20 by email at: tom.deeney@hotmail.co.uk or by telephone on 075 1922 3809.

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