Because it was so essential in Celtic society, the horse became a major figure in Irish folklore and mythology. In battle, in transportation, and in agriculture the horse played a vital role in the conduct of daily life. Although we have no “white horses” like the Bronze Age giant at Uffington in England, our ancient tales illustrate the high regard in which they were held. While archaeologically it has been shown that the arrival of the horse pre-dates that of the Celts, according to our legends the horse was introduced into Ireland by the greatest of our native gods, Lugh, the sun god. Mannanan Mac Lir, the god of the sea, had a magical horse that could travel over land or sea; Cuchulainn had two magnificent chariot horses which came to him from lakes; many a rider emerged from the Otherworld astride a magnificent white horse, including the beautiful Niamh of the Golden Hair on her mission to tempt Oisin to leave the Fianna for Tir na nÓg.
In our folklore, the importance of horses is reflected by the otherworldly powers assigned to them. They are credited, for example, with the ability to see ghosts, and there are many stories of horses refusing to ride past a haunted spot despite the exhortations of the riders. Then there is the “fíorláir” or ‘true mare’ – the seventh consecutive filly foal born to a dam, which was safe from all evil and its rider safe from all harm. On the spot where a ‘true mare’ was birthed a four-leaved shamrock would grow which would itself have curative and protective powers.
A thousand years ago, we had our own native horse breed in Ireland, the hobby. The name ‘hobby’ came from the Irish term “obann”, meaning sudden, unexpected. Samuel Johnson wrote in 1755 in his Dictionary of the English Language that a hobby was “A strong, active horse, of a middle size, said to have been originally from Ireland…” The hobby was light, fast and agile, and was ideal for skirmishing; so much so that Edward I prevented the export of the horses from Ireland when attempting to subjugate Scotland, for fear of their suitability for the mounted raids carried out by the Scots. Although the hobby had died out by the 14th century, many of its characteristics were passed onto the Connemara pony.
Noted for its hardiness, versatility and disposition, the pony has thrived in the harsh landscape of Connemara, particularly since the Irish Connemara Pony Breeders Society was set up almost a century ago with the aim of protecting and preserving the breed. The founder of the ICPBS was Michael J O’Malley, a friend and neighbour of Patrick Pearse, a leader of the 1916 Rising, in Rosmuc. Their success in promoting the Connemara pony can be gauged by the fact that the Connemara pony is now a familiar sight not only along the western seaboard but throughout the country and indeed the world.