Although the late Aga Khan did not start breeding until the 1920s, this particular region of Ireland was identified as prime land, and he later admitted that he “would probably never have been known as an owner west of Suez”, but for the influence of his friend Lord Wavertree.
Sheshoon, with the incorporation of the Brownstown property, is the oldest continuously operative stud in Ireland or England and was the first Irish farm purchased by the Aga Khan in 1923. Sir Henry Greer, the manager of the newly formed Irish National Stud, agreed to manage Sheshoon for the Aga Khan and was assisted by Colonel Tommy Peacocke, a man with extensive experience handling remounts in India.
Between them, Greer and Peacocke guided the stud through its formative years and established uncompromising management standards that have been upheld since. Numerous champions were raised at Sheshoon, including Dastur, Firdaussi, Udaipur, Taj Kasra and Bahram, whilst Mumtaz Mahal, the foundation mare of the breeding operation, was based there throughout her career as a broodmare.
The initial purchase of Sheshoon amounted to some 200 acres. Thereafter, the policy was to buy adjoining parcels of land as they became available. Acquisitions included Duggan’s Yard and Brophy’s Yard. By the time of his death, the Aga Khan had expanded Sheshoon to 750 acres. Nowadays the property stands at 1200 acres, the latest addition being a large portion of Brownstown, acquired from the McGrath Trust in 1988.
A second stud farm, also in County Kildare, was bought by the Aga Khan III at the beginning of his breeding activity. Ballymany Stud, located near The Curragh, Ireland’s main racecourse and training grounds, was bought from Major Cape in 1926. Later on in 1944, the dimensions of the late Aga Khan’s breeding operation led him to purchase yet another farm in County Kildare, Gilltown Stud.
When the Aga Khan IV took over the studs from the estate of his father Prince Aly Khan in 1960, his inheritance included six farms in Ireland: Sheshoon, Ballymany, Ongar, Gilltown, Sallymount and Williamstown.
When it became apparent that these land holdings needed to be streamlined in order to facilitate more efficient management, the Aga Khan disposed of Ongar and Williamstown in the sixties and sold Gilltown and adjoining Sallymount to Mr. and Mrs. Bertram Firestone in the 1970s. 18 years later when Gilltown and Sallymount came back on the market, and now needing more land, the Aga Khan bought them back, thus a total surface of more than 1400 acres. The same year he sold Ballymany Stud to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
Gilltown Stud is steeped in history and reflects the lore of the past. Gilltown and Sallymount are the sites of two ancient forts dating back, respectively, to Neolithic and Viking times. In the 12th century, they were part of a very large land holding which Dermot McMurrough, King of Leinster, presented to the Cistercian monks of Baltinglass Abbey. The monks were displaced in the 16th century when Henry VIII, who had declared himself head of the Church in Ireland, enacted legislation in parliament suppressing the monasteries. By the end of the century, Gilltown had passed into the possession of the Borrowes family who had received a baronetage from Charles I. Borrowes' descendants lived there into the 20th century.
Gilltown assumed a new role when it became a stud farm, first under Captain RB Brassey and then Viscount Furness. When the farm was acquired by the Aga Khan III, he retained the services of its then stud manager Georges Smithwick and after his death, Smithwick's widow.
Great attention has always been paid to the overall care and upkeep of these studs. Today Gilltown, Sallymount and Sheshoon are nature sanctuaries with a great variety of wildlife, flowers and rare mature trees. The Aga Khan thinks of these properties as part of Ireland's national heritage and a legacy for future generations.