Epsom Derby week read?

Jockey Bernard Dillon

A tale of triumph and tragedy, dreams and disasters aptly describes the life of Bernard Dillon, as detailed in a new book by Stephen Fernane. This captivating biography delves into the extraordinary journey of Dillon, who won the prestigious Epsom Derby in 1910 on Lemberg. The 2024 Epsom Derby takes place on Saturday 1st June.

Dillon on 1910 Derby winner Lemberg Agence Rol –  Gallica Digital Library Public Domain

For the first time since Bernard’s death in 1941, a book captures his astonishing rise to success and his subsequent fall from grace due to heavy drinking. From a talented apprentice to a shrewd professional, Bernard Dillon won the Epsom Derby and the Grand Prix de Paris, epitomizing a life of sporting triumph and human tragedy.

In 1901, at the tender age of thirteen, Bernard left Kerry with dreams of becoming a jockey in England. Remarkably, within three years, he had become the most popular sporting personality in both Britain and Ireland.

Stephen Fernane reveals that his fascination with Bernard’s sporting achievements and the overshadowing sadness of his later years inspired him to write this book. The fact that Bernard’s story is not widely known also motivated him.

As reported in the Irish Independent on 25th May the author said;

“Discovering Bernard’s career and learning about all he achieved is what inspired me to write it. The inner demons that led to his demise in later life are just as fascinating. To think that very little is known about someone as colourful and complex as Bernard Dillon is astonishing,” Stephen said.

The book, titled The Life and Times of Bernard Dillon: The Narie that Won the Derby, nods to Bernard’s birthplace at Caherina in Strand Road, Tralee, in 1887.

“I want to bring Bernard home for the book launch. To bring his story back to where it all started, and present it to people who might not know about him. That is the best tribute I can give him. Bernard is a ‘Narie’ for sure, which is why the Kerins O’Rahilly’s GAA Club is the appropriate venue. It’s his spiritual home as he was born only a few yards from the clubhouse,” Stephen explained.

Bernard Dillon’s journey from 1901 to 1911 was anything but smooth as he grappled with celebrity and adversity. Sadly, his downfall included domestic abuse and the mistreatment of his wife, the famous music hall artist Marie Lloyd.

Bernard and Marie met in 1905 and began a turbulent relationship. They were Edwardian England’s first celebrity couple, with Marie eighteen years older than Bernard. However, notoriety came at a cost. Bernard’s downfall began when he lost his jockey’s licence in 1913 over gambling allegations, marking the end of his reputation as a superstar.

Stephen believes it was essential to write Bernard’s story due to the fragmented way it exists in the archives. With Marie Lloyd being the more famous personality, information about Bernard’s life is usually viewed through the lens of Marie’s biographers rather than Bernard’s perspective.

“He wrote his memoir in 1922 which has largely been ignored until now. While he does not explain the more violent side to his personality in the memoir, I was able to solve this by reading through many court sittings he appeared before,” Stephen said.

“Even though the court charges are upsetting to read, my aim is to show Bernard’s opposing sides – not just him as a famous jockey. There are examples of closeness and intimacy between the couple that have never been written about before now,” he added.

“There is a chapter about Bernard and Marie being incarcerated at Ellis Island in 1913 because they were unmarried. It’s staggering to imagine two of the most famous people in Edwardian England being detained with hundreds of immigrants.

“They were the Posh and Becks of their time, for sure. As for Bernard’s active service during WWI, a judge accused him of engaging in more violence in London than on the Western Front! Nothing was ever straightforward in Bernard’s life from the time he left Tralee in short pants,” Stephen explained.

Stephen sums up Bernard’s life as ‘totally unorthodox’ and emphasizes that the book is about more than just horseracing.

“I wouldn’t want anyone to get the impression the book is solely about horses. Significant though they are in Bernard’s life, there is an undertone to the book that symbolizes a tragic love story between two people trying to deal with fame and infamy,” he said.

“This is a global story that started in a quiet Kerry street and extended to far-off places like America, South Africa, and the Middle East. I just felt it was time for Bernard’s story to be told in his own words. I think the book is fair to him and shows that no matter how successful we are in life, we are vulnerable to self-destruction,” Stephen said.

The Life and Times of Bernard Dillon: The Narie that Won the Derby will be launched on June 6.

The book is priced at €15 and is available at www.buythebook.ie/bernarddillon.

Top image: By Leslie Ward – Published in Vanity Fair, 12 September 1906, as “Men of the Day” Number 1031. Public Domain and background By Hywel Williams, CC BY-SA 2.0