One hundred and fifty years racing at Ballybrit

We know that horse races were organised in different parts of County Galway from the middle of the 18th century, in places like Kilconnell, Eyrecourt, Rahasane, Ballinasloe, Ballymoe, Carraroe, and Bermingham House near Tuam. They were known as ‘racing matches’. In 1764, there was a five day meeting held at Knockbarron near Loughrea, and between 1829 and 1857, 15 meetings were held in Kiltulla near Ballybrit. In 1867, a series of races was organised at Bushfield near Oranmore.

The first meeting in Ballybrit took place on Tuesday August 17, 1869. It was estimated that 40,000 people attended, the main attraction being the Galway Plate, which was worth 100 sovereigns to the winner. There was not a bed nor a stable to be had in Galway and people were allowed camp on Eyre Square. The Midland and Great Western Railway transported horses to and from Galway provided they were going to take part in one of the races. The trains were always packed with punters too. Corrib Navigation would ferry steamers full of people from Cong.

In 1874, a telegraph office was installed near the stand so journalists could send out their stories directly from the race course. They would hand in their reports through a hatch in the window and it would be tapped into the system using Morse code. Paddy Hynes was in charge of this office.

The Galway Hurdle was run for the first time in 1877. It must have been a wonderful sight looking at long lines of horse drawn coaches, carriages, traps, side cars, donkeys, and carts wending their way on all roads leading to Ballybrit. In 1898, the old wooden stand was replaced by a new one. 1904 saw the first motor cars (two of them ) at the racecourse, and in 1925 a concrete stand which could hold 2,000 people was constructed. The longest bar in the world, 210 feet long was also built. A one-day visit to the races became a sort of annual pilgrimage for country people from all over the west.

In 1929, the races were broadcast on radio for the first time. They featured a number of times on radio during the war when William Joyce, aka Lord Haw Haw on his “Gairmany Calling, Gairmany Calling” programme suggested to the races committee that they might spruce the place up because there was a good chance that Hitler would be attending the next meeting. In those days, all the shops in Galway closed at midday on the two race days to allow staff to go to Ballybrit. In 1952, a two-level stand was built which could accommodate 12,000 people. In 1963, the races were televised for the first time.

In 1959, the Galway Races was a three-day event, it was increased to four in 1971, to five in 1974, and to seven in 1999. The September meeting was first set up in 1969, and in 1979 was increased to a three day event.

In 2006, a plaque of the famous poem on the races by WB Yeats was cast in bronze and unveiled by President Mary McAleese, and in 2007 the Killanin Stand was built. The Race committee seem to manage improvements to the Ballybrit complex every year and this year is no exception with the unveiling of a major sculpture by one of Ireland’s leading artists, John Behan, which shows a man and a woman leading a horse and jockey in to the enclosure. It illustrates the social aspect of the races rather than the racing which is very apt, as the Galway Races are the ultimate racing festival in the country.

Our photograph shows a group of racegoers very focused on the racing c1955.

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