This year, Galway celebrates 150 years of horse racing. You might be forgiven for assuming that the Galway Races, like many long running festivals, started from small beginnings. Eh….not exactly……..on August 17th 1869 there were at least 40,000 lunatics on hand to watch the first day’s proceedings.
It’s amazing to reflect that this race meeting is older than the Gaelic Athletic Association, which didn’t officially come into being until 15 years later, in 1884. Both have aged along similarly impressive lines though.
When you strip away the helicopters, razzamatazz and hardcore horse racing fans, it strikes me that Galway is a festival, then and now, that’s a celebration of country life. Country life in full technicolor perhaps!
The Monday and Tuesday of Race week are evening meetings of long standing tradition, both days have a more pronounced local feel to them. A core of GAA, trades and farming stock. What people outside the region might not appreciate is that most towns within a 30 mile radius of Galway city have a village day at the races, in other words that village goes en masse together to the Ballybrit racecourse, similiar to a team and supporters, representing their parish. The group gatherings are usually on the Monday or Tuesday but in recent years you can throw in the Friday to the mix as well.
These particular days in Galway are a great place to mix with old friends and foes from different townlands and GAA clubs. The crowds early in the week are usually slightly less manic and maniac than the traditional marquee days of Wednesday and Thursday. As a result the vibe is relaxed, with pints flowing, conversation easy and texts flying in and out from people you haven’t heard from in a year, looking for or dispensing with tips.
Indeed, people you haven’t caught in a shoulder for 15 years, will glide into one of the many brush fires of conversation that break out, without needing to stand on the tedious ceremony of explaining where the hell they’ve been or what they’ve been doing with their life. The only requirement is evidence the person has been paying attention to all things GAA and country in the intervening decades. It’s a tried and tested formula for discussions of intensely savage craic to spontaneously erupt. Everywhere.
And before you know it – just like Keyser Söze – the next race arrives and everyone’s vanished. To place a bet and take their place at another impromptu exchange of GAA ideas.
In this setting, between races, the chat is usually about county ball, football and hurling with honourable mention this year to Shane Lowry. It only requires a smidgeon of luck to catch a glimpse of a famous person. A famous GAA person that is. It’s not unheard of, for one to hop in on a conversation either. This year a recurring theme I’ve heard and over-heard is that Donegal’s Michael Murphy deserves a 2nd All Ireland. One of my favorite types of conversation. Trying to conceive the possible out of the seemingly impossible.
Bookie and punter alike are agreed on one point, backing against Dublin is a mugs game in 2019 . There is an abundance of recent commentary in the press about splitting Dublin in two. While this is a grand theological pursuit, in person, I’ve heard no-one that actually wants this scenario to play out – to most country people this would be akin to admitting defeat. Not many are prepared to do this as far as I can tell. The attitude seems to be, It’ll take some more time, but GAA folk are confident that eventually one of the other 31 counties will figure out how to remove the word
‘Fuckin’ from the now accepted, country GAA vernacular, of starting sentences about Jim Gavin and Co as ‘Fuckin Dublin’
The phrase is an agrarian compliment by the way.
One of the common Ballybrit talking points each July, revolves around whether the crowds are up or down on the previous year. Opinion seems to be that crowd numbers are holding steady this year but that on course betting is down. This is probably not a signifier that Galway race-goers are becoming more sensible in their old age, but rather that most punters, have access to both a bookie and weather forecast in the palm of their hands in 2019.
In terms of attendance, the weather in the two weeks before Galway is as good an indicator of how numbers will go for the week as any. This year, to my nose, early July had a constant, healthy aroma of slurry emanating from the farmlands of Galway and South Mayo. A good omen.
In times gone by the Galway races were a farming deadline in these parts. The 11th commandment: All major harvesting jobs, Sillage, Hay and Turf should be completed before the Races.
Judging by my nostrils most farmers met this year’s deadline with a bit to spare, leaving a good 250,000 acres of testosterone time to luxuriate in how Michael Murphy can get his 2nd All Ireland.
For Murphy to get a well deserved number 2, the central GAA question needs to be answered. Can Donegal take a number 2 and slurry spreader to the Dubs this year? The consensus opinion in Ballybrit was that they are the only team with the firepower, conditioning and balls to put a dent in this years Dublin machine. Interestingly though the consensus opinion has a caveat. Not everyone is convinced Donegal can beat Mayo.
While nobody I spoke to thought Mayo had a chance of winning this year’s All-Ireland or beating the Dubs more than 50% thought them capable of handling Donegal in Castlebar. Go figure. So in essence this weekend’s game in Castlebar is huge for Mayo and even bigger for Donegal in most neutrals eyes. Mouth watering stuff.
In 1869 the inaugural Galway plate had thirteen runners and was won by a horse called Absentee. The 1860’s was a time of rampant absentee landlordism in Ireland. I wonder had that anything to do with the winners name?
The following day’s Ballybrit plate, the precursor to today’s Galway hurdle ( I think!), was won by a giddy up called Ishmael. Roughly translated, Ishmael means
In Galway this week, the tenant farmers of the game yearn for him to stop listening to the landlords of the GAA and dream up some alternative endings.
Meanwhile the bookmakers sniff the breeze for the whiff of the naive. The odds are Murphy and Mayo have awhile longer to wait but their leather satchels will gladly accept your offerings.