By Peter O’Connell
HE doesn’t look 90 and can’t quite believe that he is. Tom Whelan, originally from Doonbeg, has been living and working in O’Dea’s Road, Kilrush for several decades. He has shod thousands of horses since training as a farrier with Barry’s in Kilrush many decades ago. These days, Tom still tips away in his forge across from his house.
“Tis a pity,” he laughs when the 90-year figure is mentioned.
“Hard work. A lad that sits down gets seized up. It’s like a car or a tractor that’s idle. It seizes up,”
Tom replied when asked how he was in such fettle.
“I was always on them,” he added, pointing to his finely polished work boots.
Tom has been around horses since he was knee high to a foal. When he was growing up in rural West Clare, everybody had a horse. They were essential.
“Everyone had a horse, a pony and an ass. Creamery, ploughing and gardening. Cutting hay and so forth.”
Tom lapsed into momentary silence as he reflected on the dependence on the horse or pony when he was a child.
“Then, the horse with no head [tractor] came in,” he smiled.
Tom’s love and knowledge of horses came in very handy when Gerry Markham of Derryguiha set about buying a foal, which has since become a world champion showjumper.
“I bought her but I brought Tom to pick her up,” Gerry explained. “We had mentioned that I was looking for a little foal because, six months previously, Tom’s mare died foaling. So we had a foal and we decided to buy another one to go with her for company. We spotted this one in the catalogue. She had good breeding,” he added.
Their eye was in the day they bought Arraghbeg Clover.
“She went to Goresbridge but didn’t sell at the sales. They didn’t think she was up to it. But myself and Tom went up to Offaly to see her the following week,” he recalled.
Tom was immediately impressed. “She was good. A very nice foal. She didn’t sell at the sales but she turned out to be one of the best horses in the world,” he said.
“We brought her home and I had her for three years. Tom slightly broke her. Didn’t you Tom?” Gerry asked.
“I jumped her the first time. She was only two-years-old. She jumped about two feet. I gave her a few hops and she went over them lovely. After a week or a fortnight again, I gave her another couple of jumps. But they were about three or three and a half feet. She made nothing of them. ‘God,’ I said, ‘this is a right lady’,” he remembered.
Soon, the foal was sold to Adrian Williams in Darragh before she was bought by showjumper Greg Broderick in Tipperary.
“She only dropped one pole in 2013,” Tom noted.
Arraghbeg Clover has had a success-laden year winning the five-year-old Irish Sport Horse Studbook league, won €50,000 for her Tipperary-based owner at the Irish Breeders Classic in Baradown and in late September topped it all in becoming the world champion five-year-old at Lanaken, Belgium.
“As far as I know, in the last few days she has been sold on to Germany. For an undisclosed sum,” Gerry revealed.
Just last week, Gerry and Tom set about buying another possible future world champion.
“We bought down in Tipperary. She’s a year and a half,” Gerry said.
“A nice filly. We’ll have to wait and see,” is Tom’s cautious approach.
His love of horses has never waned but Tom’s career as a farrier was somewhat interrupted when the roads of West Clare began to fill with tractors.
“When tractors came in, that settled it. You wouldn’t have a steady flow of horses for the week. But there was enough coming to keep me going,” he ventured.
Tom can still clearly remember days when Kilrush was packed on horse fair day. The throngs of horses and their owners meant that he had to open his doors early and keep them open until the town was empty and silent.
“I’d start work at about half seven. You’d have to stay and meet your customers. If you closed the door it would be a bad job. You’d be closing it on yourself. The horse fairs are still good but not as good as they used to be,” he feels.
“There was good sires kept here in Kilrush and back the west. We had the best of mares around and they produced great horses,” Tom added.
Too busy to play football himself, Tom always followed Doonbeg and saw some great footballers in his day.
“Every club had them good. Fellas like Frank Kennedy, MJ Greene, Vincent Brennan and Noel Crowley,” he reminisced.
The latter was the only non-Kerry man to play on a Munster Railway Cup team when Tom was a young man.
“I remember we were all inside in the pub. The place was packed. There was very few radios in the country. Noel’s father was there and the next thing Micheál O’Hehir shouted ‘goal, goal. Noel Crowley, Cooraclare, County Clare’. Mick (Crowley) pelted up his glass, drink and all. He drowned everyone,” Tom chortled as the October evening turned to dusk in Kilrush.