Arabian horses given to Irish leader by US tycoon caused 'embarrassment'

Ireland's prime minister hoped thoroughbreds would boost national stock lines but they were found to be 'quite inferior'

Charles Haughey, background left, at Ballydoyle Stables, Tipperary, in 1987. Getty
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An American millionaire’s gift of seven Arabian horses to an Irish leader in the late 1980s left officials red-faced because of the poor state of the animals, government archives show.

Charles Haughey was taoiseach (prime minister) of Ireland when he accepted an offer of supposedly pedigree horses from Vincent Melzac, a businessman from West Virginia.

Mr Melzac, who had met Mr Haughey during his trip to Washington DC for St Patrick’s Day in March 1989, wanted to donate the horses in honour of his wife’s Irish heritage.

Mr Haughey, a well-known horse lover, immediately accepted, but his hopes of receiving exquisite animals were later dashed when, upon inspection, they were found to be “quite inferior”.

The revelation came to light in confidential papers released from the State Archive.

After the Irish ambassador to the US and officials from the Department of Agriculture in Dublin visited Mr Melzac’s property to view the animals, arrangements were made for them to be exported.

The two stallions, four males and a colt were imported to Ireland in late September 1989.

The documents reveal that the Irish state bore the £25,000 ($30,065) cost of transporting the animals across the Atlantic.

Charles Haughey accepted a gift of Arabian horses from an American millionaire, only to be left disappointed. Getty Images

A hand-written note by a senior official in Mr Haughey’s office noted that the taoiseach had said “he would like to meet these horses when they arrive in Ireland ― possibly on arrival in this country”.

Mr Haughey was the owner of several horses and riding was one of his hobbies.

On November 21, he indicated that he would attend an acceptance ceremony on December 12 at the National Stud in County Kildare, where the horses had been taken for a resettlement period.

But the animals’ poor condition left a senior vet and the stud manager less than impressed, with the latter telling the taoiseach’s department they were “quite inferior”.

In response, the Department of Agriculture said that the animals were of “impeccable pedigree”.

A memo written only a week after Mr Haughey accepted the invitation indicated that he would not, after all, attend the ceremony.

“The taoiseach spoke to me on November 28 saying that he had received information to the effect that the horses were of very poor standard and in the circumstances it could be embarrassing if he were to visit the stud to inspect them,” a senior official wrote.

Mr Haughey requested that an expert from the British Arab Horse Society be brought to inspect the horses, and offer an independent view. He ordered an assessment to be carried out in early 1990 by brothers Finn and Kieran Guinness.

Finn Guinness, who at the time was president of the British Arab Horse Society, concluded that three mares were “quite nice” and could be used for breeding. The fourth, however, had a “bad head and a lot of white on her, which is particularly unsuitable in the Irish climate”.

He said the colt had “quality” but acknowledged it had weaknesses, possibly due to immaturity. “If space can be found for him while he matures, he may make a useful stallion,” Mr Guinness wrote.

On the two stallions, he said they “do not seem to be good enough to contribute usefully to our breeding here in Ireland”.

After his assessment, the four mares were sent to an agricultural college where they were used for breeding.

The colt was left at the National Stud for fa urther year, while the stallions were leased out to non-thoroughbred breeders.

Mr Melzac, who was terminally ill at the time he offered the horses to Mr Haughey, had hoped to attend the ceremony in Ireland in 1989 but died in October of that year, aged 75.

Updated: December 29, 2022, 11:38 AM