Ireland’s rapport with the horse was never better illustrated than by that which existed between show jumper Diana Connolly-Carew and her 1960s star Barrymore.
“He was a magic horse to ride,” she says of the 15.3hh grey gelding that rose from being wild and unbroken in a Cork field to jumping in the 1968 Olympics. Over a 10 year period the pair competed together in 14 countries, won in 10 and at times came within single fences or split seconds of taking some of the world’s most prestigious trophies. The 1974 Bord na gCapall Yearbook listed Barrymore on its list of famous Irish show jumpers.
Finding a star
It was a former groom at Diana’s birthplace Castletown House in Co Kildare named King that found the five-year-old grey running wild with a band of horses in a Cork field. Knowing that the then 17-year-old Diana was in need of a good horse to progress her already promising career, he wrote to her mother about the beauty he had found and she bought him for £240.
“He had done absolutely nothing when he came to us. By Oxonian and rich in thoroughbred blood he was very hot. But at the time we had a groom named Tom Tynan who was brilliant at long reining. When I first backed him I found him to be a lovely mover and the most special horse I ever rode,” explains Diana.
“He didn’t really like jumps so I would bring him out into a big field, drop my reins and let him go flat out until he was satisfied. Then I would let him pop over a small jump a couple of times before putting him over a very big jump and then I would give him a sugar cube. We did it our own way and that was all right. I named him after the famous film star Barrymore because he was such a beautiful horse,” she recalls.
Beautiful indeed! At the Hickstead Europeans in 1963 he was judged “the best looking horse in the championships” and at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City the press decided that “the most beautiful man at the Games was the white stallion from Ireland”. How were they to know that he was a gelding?
Diana and Barrymore’s career began together when winning hack classes at Dublin and Edinburgh. He was superb at jumping banks. So it is no wonder that they competed in five Hickstead Derbies.
They placed second in two and were fifth in another. In 1965, they were in a two-way jump off with Nelson Pessoa on the great Gran Geste. The following year they were clear all the way to the last fence but after knocking that they were second once more.
There were also Grand Prix wins at Dublin and Enschede. The duo won a Puissance in Portugal, were twice second in the Queen’s Cup, won the Princess Grace trophy in Monaco, had a podium finish in the New York Grand Prix and came second in the North American Championship at Toronto.
In between time Barrymore had what Diana calls “his holidays” with his good donkey friend, Duisce.
But it is their outings in the Ballsbridge arena that Diana and Barrymore are most remembered by. Having performed well at the 1963 Europeans in Hickstead and on the team that came second in the British Prince of Wales Cup they then made history by being named on the first ever army/civilian Irish side for that year’s Aga Khan. They jumped a clear in the Thursday’s Gambler’s Stakes and then got the call up for their first of five Aga Khan selections.
Following a counting first round four faults, they coped with the pressure to come up with a clear in the second round that set up an exciting first Irish win in the cup since 1949.
Three years later, Diana and Barrymore jumped the only clear to win the 1966 Dublin Grand Prix. In 1968, they were named on a three member team for the Olympics.
They jumped one good round there but then the Irish side suffered elimination. Not only that; Barrymore burst a blood vessel and cracked a pedal bone that ended his international career.
But it did not end his memory as a uniquely beautiful horse that won the heart of his rider and the those of the Irish public too.