Death of Iris Kellett the Equestrian Great

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Updated: March 13, 2011

The death has taken place on Friday evening  at a Naas Nursing home  of Iris Kellett,  undoubtedly the single most influential figure – male or  female – in Irish Equestrian history to-date  and our first International female sports superstar.

In a  glowing  tribute to Iris, Horsesport Ireland  reminds us how as a 22 year-old international show jumping rider, Iris  won the Princess Elizabeth Cup at White City, London, in 1948. Remember this was at a time when women were not allowed to compete in the Nations Cup. A year earlier she had won in Holland overcoming the great Col Harry Llewellyn. More than 20 years later, in Dublin, her riding and expertise won her the 1969 Championship of Europe – almost certainly the pinnacle of her competitive career.

Yet the influence of Iris Kellett upon equestrianism in Ireland in particular, and the Irish horse industry in general, extends far beyond the medals and glittering prizes of her competitive years.

Much more than just a household name, she has set unique standards and provided inspiration for generations of Irish riders, some of whom went on from her tutelage to blaze glory across the international stage. Eddie Macken is but one person whose genius was discovered, then nurtured and refined by Iris Kellett. She was also a major influence on the career of another, –   Paul Darragh.

Darragh  was only 10 when he first had lessons from Iris  who was Ireland’s most famous woman show jumper before she became the country’s most distinguished trainer. Always a stickler for getting the basics right, she gave her pupils (among them the great Eddie Macken) the best possible start to their illustrious careers.

Iris Kellett arrived on the international show jumping circuit towards the end of the military era in the sport, when the World War of 1939-45 put an effective end to the dominance of the great military equitation schools (Ireland’s Army Equitation School is the only one to survive at world competition level). And as the era of the civilian show jumping rider dawned, the young Iris Kellett – a woman competing in what had been up to then an almost exclusively male sport – became one of the world’s top professional riders.

In the years that followed her international success, Iris Kellett devoted herself to the teaching side of  equestrianism, not only in show jumping, but in dressage and eventing as well. At her first school in Dublin’s Mespil Road, she coached young businessmen in the art of horsemanship. In later years many of these men would, in various ways, assist the development of Ireland’s successful horse industry.

At her famous school in Kill, Co. Kildare, she introduced her great understanding of the psychological, as well as the physical, techniques required to bring both horse and rider to the peak of achievement.  And over the years her knowledge has been keenly sought by riders, teachers and administrators in equestrian sports worldwide.

In between, Iris Kellett  had suffered a near fatal accident following a fall.   Her broken ankle (broken so severely that the ankle joint was smashed) had to be broken again before its final setting; she then  contracted tetanus during treatment and suffered the debilitating symptoms of lockjaw, muscular spasms and intense pain. Her full recovery from this devastating  accident served but to exemplify her great fighting spirit.

The recovery of Iris Kellett from this devastating accident exemplifies her magnificent fighting spirit.  It was  a repetition of  the great  grit and determination that had led her, at the tender age of  15, to the management of the Mespil Road Riding School after her parents had become ill, led her now to blaze back into the equestrian world.  She was competing seriously within five years of the accident.   “It took me ten years to get back to where I was at the time of the accident” she commented later on being inducted to the  Texaco Sports Hall of Fame in 1997.
Iris Kellett also judged, lectured and demonstrated her skills in many countries, where her expertise in horse breeding, production, training and competition had become almost legendary.

She served as a director of Bord na gCapall, and was a major advisor on the  development of equestrian science as a degree subject at the University of Limerick.

Iris also served on various other boards and committees over the years, where her influence on the development of Ireland’s horses and riders was without parallel. Typically, she also took a lively interest in the activities of riding for the disabled in Ireland. She was the recipient of many honours, both at home and abroad, her death this  weekend truly deprives the Nation of one of its greatest   sports stars of all time.

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