A Clydesdale horse breeder of huge renown

MEMORIES DRENNAN RI Farm
DAUGHTER: Former RUAS President Mrs Margaret Collinson OBE with old photographs of Clydesdale horses owned by her father Mr John Drennan CBE, JP. Picture: Paul Callaghan

THIS week we put the spotlight of one of our greatest agriculturalists from the past … Mr John C Drennan CBE (c. 1899-1982) of Carse Hall, Limavady, County Londonderry.

He was a successful breeder of the majestic Clydesdale horse and he served in the Clydesdale Horse Society of Great Britain and Ireland’s highest office, as its President.

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During his lifetime John Drennan bred countless prizewinning and champion Clydesdales and some of his horses travelled to other countries,

including Canada, New Zealand and Australia. His 640-acre estate was a centre for all those interested in Clydesdales and horse breeding and not surprisingly he was frequently asked to speak on the subject to various groups. Not only that but, from time to time, his voice was heard on the BBC’s farming broadcasts.

He was also a leading judge of Clydesdales and was entrusted to undertake this task at some of the breed’s leading shows, including those staged by the Royal Highland and the English Royal societies.

Quite simply, when it came to all his work with Clydesdale horses, John Drennan had a ‘curriculum vitae’ which few, if any, could rival. He was and will remain the greatest figure in our history of the magnificent Clydesdale breed!

John Drennan was a Justice of the Peace, Her Majesty’s Lieutenant for County Londonderry, the County High Sheriff, Chairman of the Ulster Unionist Council and a member of the Northern Ireland Senate. Such was the contribution made by John Drennan to public and agricultural life that we can barely scratch the surface of all that could be told.

According to the census of 1901, John Drennan (aged one), was living at Carse Hall with his father John W (59), his mother Catherine (31), his brother James (seven) and sisters Kathleen (five) and Mary (three).

Also living in the residence were two servants and a groom, namely Lavinia Cassidy (21), Mary Ann Crown (15) and Joseph Martin (39).

In July 1916 John Drennan’s father passed away and this great family loss was compounded when John’s older brother James, who had joined the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, died from wounds received at the front on 12th August 1917. He was 23 years-of-age.

On a happier note, John’s sister Margaret went on to marry the Rev Colin R Montgomery, CF, brother of the famous British Army officer Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery KG, GCB, DSO, PC, DL, otherwise known as ‘Monty’.

Against this background John Drennan took on the running of the extensive Carse Hall Estate and from an early time made the decision to specialise in the breeding of Clydesdale horses. Year in, year out, draft sales of stallions, colts, mares and fillies took place on the home farm with one of the earliest taking place on Thursday, October 13, 1921. It was conducted by the local firm of Sherrard and Sons.

But it was in the show-ring that, right from the beginning, John Drennan’s prowess as a breeder and exhibitor of Clydesdale horses was demonstrated most fully.

If, towards the end of his life, one had asked John Drennan about some of his outstanding champions his mind may well have drifted far back to the 1920s as he thought of the wonderful mare ‘Marjory,’ which was a supreme Clydesdale Champion at Ballymena Show, and then, of course, with much pride he’d have remembered his amazing and wonderfully-bred champion stallion ‘The Bishop of Old Bishopton’ (20993).

The mare ‘Margery’ and the ‘The Bishop of Old Bishopton’ had something in common in that both were sired by the famous stallion ‘Dunure Footprint’.

Describing the latter sire in his book ‘Farm Livestock of Great Britain’ (5th edition published 1923), author Professor Robert Wallace described Dunure Footprint (foaled in 1909 and bred by William Dunlop, Ayr) as the ‘greatest living sire’ and ‘of full cart-horse scale, he had abundant quality and a magnificent constitution’ and was by Baron of Buchlyvie.

During the early Twenties John Drennan’s sister Margaret attended King’s College London, where she made great friends with a girl called Margaret MacFarlane from Hartlepool.

Such was the friendship that later Margaret came to visit Carse Hall and was introduced to John Drennan – they got married in 1926!

John Drennan had been blessed with that innate flair of spotting top Clydesdales and by this time Carse Hall was becoming known as ‘the home of the Clydesdale in Northern Ireland’ and many students visited to improve their education.

In 1931 about 20 4th year students from Queen’s University got a treat when, having been shown the 30 pedigree Clydesdales in the stud, they were given a demonstration on ‘the good points of the breed’ with John Drennan’s mare ‘Daily Sketch’ being the subject! She had taken honours at that year’s Balmoral Show.

Young Farmers’ Clubs too availed of visits to Carse Hall, perhaps most notably those belonging to Limavady YFC. On one occasion John Drennan travelled to the students rather than them travelling to him when, in the Assembly Rooms of Moneymore, he addressed them on the subject of horse breeding. John Drennan’s thoughts on the subject were also broadcast by the BBC.

One such pre-war occasion, sandwiched between the programmes of the London Symphony Orchestra and gramophone record, John Drennan took part in the BBC’s ‘A matter of Opinion’ broadcast in which he discussed ‘The breeding of Farm Horses and the Care of Brood Mares’ with another well-known ‘local man’, Mr George Low of the Agricultural Research Institute, Hillsborough.

Whether it was mentioned over the airways or not, but some time before the programme went out a stallion called ‘Silver Lining,’ which had been used at Carse Hall, was exported … to Australia!

On Wednesday, February 16, 1938, a spectacular and historic event took place in Carse Hall when over 20,000 visitors attended the first International Ploughing Match.

Upwards of 1,000 competitors took part, including Mr Donald McCubbin (Scottish Champion), the North of England Champion and a one-armed ploughman from Toombridge!

At the end of the day the Mayor of Coleraine paid tribute to Mr and Mrs Drennan for hosting the event, which had been such a wonderful success. Speaking at a special dinner held later that year, Mr John Drennan said that it would always “give him pleasure to recall that it had been his privilege to provide the venue for the 1st International Ploughing Match to be held in the British Isles”.

During this same year of 1938 a filly foal was born at Carse Hall which would have presented a sweet picture when taken to Balmoral the following year. Owing to the commencement of hostilities some month later, this would be the last Balmoral Show for seven years!

At this show John Drennan dom-inated the Clydesdale competition and in a strong class his young yearling filly headed her class and was made female champion and then supreme Clydesdale Champion. Later that year she was sold to W & J. Kean, Chapelton, West Kilbride, Scotland, and was named ‘Chapelton Colleen’.

‘Honour for Mr J C Drennan’ was a leading caption of page 2 of the Londonderry Sentinel dated March 9, 1944, which reported that the then six-year-old ‘Chapelton Colleen’ had won the famous Clydesdale Horse Society’s Cawdor Cup and supreme female championship.

This was the first time an Irish animal had won this, which was the blue riband of the Clydesdale Horse Society.

‘Chapelton Collen’ was described in the Scottish Farmer as “magnificent”. Twenty years after this momentous year for her, Mr Drennan presented the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society with a painting of ‘Chapelton Colleen’, left to John Drennan on the passing of her owner.

Given his wealth and experience and service to the breed, it was a great honour for John Drennan and indeed the Irish horse fraternity when, in March 1951, he was elected President of the Clydesdale Horse Society of Great Britain and Ireland (est 1877) at the AGM which took place in Glasgow.

It is very unlikely, when he was starting out with Clydesdales all those years before, John Drennan ever envisaged serving the breed in such high office!

The year of 1959 got off to a memorable start for John Drennan, having been awarded a CBE in the New Year’s Honours List. He attended the investiture held by the Queen in February. Reporting on this, several newspapers described Mr Drennan as a ‘world famous breeder of Clydesdale Horses’.

John Drennan had indeed had a remarkable career in the equine world but there is a time for all things and on Wednesday, January 14, 1959, many people keen to tap into a good strain of Clydesdale blood travelled to Carse Hall (which had just been sold) for the dispersal sale.

Twenty horses were on offer and it was not surprising that many people from Scotland attended this sale, conducted by Mr Alexander Love of Limavady. At the sale a seven-month-old foal fetched £100 paid by Mr James Picken, Torrs Farm, Kirkcudbright.

It was unfortunate that delays in the cross-channel steamer services on that day meant some people from Scotland arrived too late for the sale. One of these later tried to get the new owner of the aforementioned foal to accept the £100 he’d paid for it plus another £50! Quite sensibly, this was refused!

In addition to the Clydesdale Stud, tractors and tractor and horse im-plements were put up for auction on that day, including a ‘1950’ Ferguson tractor, 1940 International tractor, Massey Harris binder, Albion mower, Howard baler and a Marshall all-steel 54 inch threshing mill, Ransome tractor plough, and Gascoigne milking machine.

Interestingly John Drennan did not ‘part’ with his magnificent stallion ‘Highland Monarch’. In 1960 this great horse sired all 11 animals in the two-year-old and gelding classes at Balmoral Show.

Watching the judging that year, John Drennan would have so many happy memories from Balmoral. He had been Deputy President but ill health had prevented him taking up the office of President.

Had John Drennan been alive at the time, he would later have taken great and rightful pride in seeing his daughter, Mrs Margaret Collinson, installed as President of the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society.

Having retired from horse-breeding and active farming, John Drennan was able to devote more time to politics. He took up residence at Deerpark, Limavady, and served as chairman of the executive committee of the Ulster Unionist Council and was a member of the Northern Ireland Senate from 1961 until it was abolished.

John Drennan was for a time County High Sheriff and Her Majesty’s Lieutenant for County Londonderry from 1965 until retiring in 1974.

It has become part of the remit of Memories from the Farmyard features to celebrate our great agriculturalists from the past.

Although we have only touched on all the successes produced from the farmyard or rather horse stud at Carse Hall, it is very satisfying to remember John Drennan as our one-time doyen and world authority on the Clydesdale breed.

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Mr John C Drennan CBE, JP, passed away on 28th December 1982. He was survived by two daughters, Mrs Anne Mark DL and Mrs Margaret Collinson OBE.

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