“They’re coming. They’re coming, look! They’re coming at last,” said old John Larry. “ Look at them down in Leighleitir”... “ Who’s winning?” said Micilín Deaid, “It’s not our giorrán by any chance?” “No, I don’t think so,” said another. “There’s a black one in front with a white star”.... “ Come on Garrai Gamhain!” shouted one. “ Come on Leamhcoill!” roared another. “ Up Leitir Í! Said a few young lads. “ Come on Cnoc ar Eas Thoir!” answered others.
No it’s not the Cheltenham Gold Cup. It’s something far more important. It is the ‘tarraingt abhaile,’ the ‘draggin’ home,’ a wild but immensely popular tradition in the townlands on either side of Moycullen, the busy village half-way between Galway and Oughterard. It was unique to Moycullen. As we will see in a moment, it was watched in the mid 19th century, and continued into the 1950s before the tractor, car, van or lorry replaced the contribution of the horse on the farm.
In the townlands surrounding Moycullen lived a community where the horse was king. Even today some of the finest Connemara ponies are bred there. Seán Ó Murchú from Cor an Dola, remembers that ‘the ponies were working ponies, some better than others, but not racehorses. The racing started after the wedding with the crowd shouting and screaming and giving encouragement. Some of the ponies had a great reputation, and some riders went to great lengths to get the loan of a good pony for the day...’
Pádraig Breathnach recalls that although the ‘draggin’ home’ might have been dangerous, there was great excitement among the people watching the race which began immediately the bridal sidecar set off from the church, and continued at breakneck speed all the way to the wedding house. ‘For weeks beforehand the ponies were well prepared for the big challenge. Their feed was supplemented with eggs and white water (a mixture of warm water and flour, which was considered essential to build up the pony’s stamina ). The side cars moved at a good speed as well, though they were not part of the race. Unlike the saddle ponies, the sidecars were obliged to let the bridal party lead the way. Young lads lit bonfires along the route for which they rewarded with sweets. The adults were sometimes thrown a bottle of whiskey.’
The description at the opening of this paragraph is taken from Tomás Ó Raghallaigh’s account of a ‘draggin’ home’ to Leamhchoill. “ Then they disappeared from sight at the hollow at Caoch. The crowd were frantic as they clamoured on the walls to catch sight of them as they reappeared up the final hill. They came in a cloud of dust with Máirtín Plásán working furiously out in front.”
“Hi for Máirtín Plásán!” they roared in unison as he came home in the lead. The others followed him one after another. Shortly after came the rattle of the sidecars as they came home too. The newlyweds sat proudly in the first one...”
Tom Mac Lochlainn, in his excellent book The Moycullen Ponymen*, hints that the sexual prowess of the riders, and the excitement of the wedding, gave more than an added spark to the occasion. The riders took pride in their appearance, the speed and stamina of their mounts. How they performed reflected on them. ‘The strength and speed of the ponies and the riders’ mastery of them in the riotous full-blooded race (Micil Sheáin was once ‘hefted out of his saddle’ by Tadhg Mhaitias in a fierce re-run ) gave the riders an aura of superiority, that did not go unnoticed in the festivities that followed. The comely maidens of Leamhchoill and Knockarasser positioned themselves to advantage for the exchange of partners in the set-dances that night. John Raftery may have been the groom, but Máirtín Plásán was The Man!
A traditional song called Láirín an Ghearaltaigh (Fitzgerald’s Little Mare ) begins:
A Ghearaltaigh álainn de shíol na sárfhear,
Ar do ghabháil thar bráid duit do phreab mo chroí,
Cé nár chroith me lámh leat bhí bá agam leat
Is guímse an tádh leat i bhfad na slí.
My lovely Fitzgerald, descendant of greats, /My heart went a-racing as you rode by my gate./ Though I still haven’t met you I fell for your charm,/May you have good fortune and stay safe from harm.
‘Shouting and whooping’
Violet Martin (1862-1915 ), who formed one half of the famous writing partnership, Somerville and Ross, lived on the Ross estate; half-way between Moycullen and Oughterard. In their joint memoirs Some Irish Yesterdays, Violet recalls watching a draggin’ home (a slight variation to the one discussed above ):
‘ At the gate of the church, some shaggy horses were tied up, and having clambered on to one of these, much as a man would climb a tree, the bridegroom hauled his bride up behind him, and started for home in a lumbering gallop. Shouting and whooping, the other men got on their horses and pursued, and the whole clattering bumping cavalcade passed out of sight, leaving us transfixed in admiration of the traditional dragging home of the bride.’
More about Moycullen men and their horses next time
* The Moycullen Ponymen - From Working Ponies to International Stars by Tom Mac Lochlainn, published by Ashbrook Connemara Pony Stud, on sale €20.
Crom Dubh in West Kerry
Following last week’s Diary about St Patrick’s fight with Crom Dubh at Maan Eán in the Maam Turk mountains in Connemara, Mary Johnson wrote that Crom Dubh is well known in West Kerry, her husband Tom's native place. In fact she says the people there were more afraid of Crom Dubh than they were of God.
‘There is an old teampaill and cemetery in the village of Cloghane where Crom Dubh was carved into the boundary wall. A piece had broken off his nose and the story goes that while doing some masonry there one of the masons, as a dare, flung a hammer at Crom Dubh knocking off a piece of the nose. Soon afterwards the mason died a horrible death. It is quite possible that the man died of appendicitis which would have been a horrible death.
‘ Some years ago Crom Dubh was stolen in the middle of the night. The people were not outraged; they said that Crom Dubh will return and that the person/s who stole him will have neither luck nor grace until he is returned.’