THE equestrian world has lost a very special man, Jim Berney of the well-known saddler company Berney Brothers of Kilcullen in Co Kildare founded by Peter Berney in 1880.

The business started out as a harness maker and moved with the times over the years to a saddlery and tack business, with outlets now also in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford and Arklow, Co Wicklow. Jim was born in 1932 and started as a teenager in the business, overseeing it with his father Tom and brother Tom and other members of the family into what it is today. Their workshop hand make over 1,000 saddles a year, including bridles and a wide range of tack, exporting much of it to many parts of the world including Europe, Middle East, America, Canada, and the Far East including China. They provide a service to all the top stables in racing, hunting, show jumping, eventing, dressage and polo. The fact that many of the Berney family have hunted over the years puts them in a unique position to understand the market requirements. The eighth generation of Berneys now run the business with Jim’s son Jamie, his brother Tom and his son Tom Jr.

As a Person

Jim has been described as a caring man, committed community man, a true master of his craft, proud of his business, a gentleman, kind, a fountain of knowledge and a deeply spiritual man. For many years, his favourite place to holiday was Co Wexford. He was also known as a man that could entertain, singing his favourite party pieces, the Al Jolson song ‘Mammy’, and ‘When I’m Sixty Four’ often entertaining the patients at St Vincent’s Hospital in Athy and Bermingham Home in Mooretown. He was a lifelong supporter of his local Parish Church and sponsored the first Lottery, which was to become an important fundraiser.

In his younger days, Jim was somewhat of an adventurer, heading off to Canada working on building a bridge in the Yukon Territory. But his mind was never far from the business back home in Kilcullen, as he came across a stitching machine in Calgary in Alberta called a Pearson No 5 that could stitch leather up to an inch thick. When he came back home in 1959, he purchased one and bought eight more in the subsequent years.


Boxing was a life-long hobby of Jim’s, training first in Frank Snell’s backyard and, as the club grew, moving to Dan Brennan’s Loft, to Alice Coleman’s Boarding House and then to The Hideout and, in 2011, to the present premises in Kilcullen Community Centre. Many of the instructors were army personnel from the Curragh Camp. One of the most famous boxers to fight in Kildare was the remarkable Dan Donnelly, who was known for his exceptionally long arms. He fought George Cooper in 1915 and became the first Irish Heavyweight Champion, in what was to become known as Donnelly’s Hollow. As a fundraiser, Jim played the part of Dan Donnelly in a re-enactment of the fight, even though he was well short of Dan Donnelly’s six feet plus stature!

Berneys featured twice in the RTÉ documentary titled ‘Hands’, with his brother Tom and father Tom, in 1981 dedicated to the Irish Bloodstock industry and later in 2010 during Heritage Week in the remake titled ‘In Good Hands’, with Jim relating the story of how Berneys transitioned from being a harness maker to a saddler and tack business.

They also became the longest stall holder at the Dublin Horse Show starting in 1951, with Jim manning the stand for over 70 of those years.

Jim Berney, judge at Bandon Agricultural Show in May 2019, with winners of the Riding School Pony class, Katie O' Rourke with her mother Claire and sponsor of the class Susan McCarthy from Meelin Stud

Special Modifications

Something people may not be aware of is that Berneys make 10 different styles of saddles and four styles of bridles and nosebands. As Jim and the Berney staff have the skills to handle any special tack requirements, Berneys was always the place to go as customers knew that their modifications could be fulfilled, and that is what sets Berneys apart.

Long-term customer Michael Hickey, whose family own Garryrichard and Sunnyhill Stud farms, described Jim as a man who was proud of his business and, no matter when you visited Berneys, Jim was the first person you met. Michael’s father, also Michael Hickey, was one of the top show riders with an impressive six Dublin Horse Show Supreme Hunter Championships. For example, Michael Hickey Snr always rode in a straight flap saddle as many of his generation did, which modern day judges found difficult to ride in without knee rolls. Jim customised a very narrow knee roll as a gesture to accommodate overseas show judges. He also remembered Jim’s annual holiday for many years to nearby Horetown House in Wexford.

Trainer Tom Mullins remembered visiting Berneys first with his father, champion trainer Paddy, who enjoyed Jim’s company, particularly recalling stories about people and places long ago, and said you never left the shop without buying something, as Jim was such a good salesman. He recalled his father getting Jim to make special heel boots, which he used during the winter to protect horses getting cracked heels in the heavy wet ground.

A bespoke refinement for top trainer Willie Mullins saw the Berneys making saddles that were fitted with serge lined panels, which is a fabric that has diagonal lines or ridges in a two up and two down weave that acts for better grip.


Dominick Coonan, whose father Peter J bred Team Spirit, the 1964 Aintree Grand National winner trained by Fulke Walwyn and ridden by Kildare jockey Willie Robinson, remembered his father buying a special head collar for the horse. Dorothy McAlinden, daughter of the late Galway Blazers field-master Willie Leahy, recalled her father often buying 10 to 15 Berney saddles at one time from Jim and remembering that he was a formidable person to negotiate a sale with, as Jim valued his products so much that he did not see why he should give a discount. It must have been interesting to watch the two of them, as Willie had to have flexibility in all his business dealings!

Jim Berney, the master craftsman and treasured member of his community, will be sadly missed by his family and his wide circle of friends and customers around the world. He was predeceased by his wife Pat and son Stephen and survived by his children Vincent, Aisling, Jamie, Patricia and Jennifer, their partners Finna, Aisling, Paul and Chris, his brother Tom and grandchildren. Requiem Mass was celebrated at the Church of the Sacred Heart and St Brigid with burial at the adjoining Cemetery.