The huckster’s harvest

“The Galway Races are unique in Irish sport. For this is a real Connaught holiday. Caravans and their picturesque owners are making their trek weeks ahead. Urgent farm work is abandoned for an hour. Business and professional men; regular race-goers, hunting folk, farmers of all ranges of acreage, holiday trippers from the eastern cities; Connemara and Aran Island men and maids who speak English only, are here in colourful buoyant groups. All the fun of the fair; huge fields of beautiful horses; thrilling finishes and good priced winners — all lend glamour and life to this great outdoor festival of the west.

“’Why is the Galway Plate so popular?’ I once asked a well known Co Limerick breeder of thoroughbreds and hunters. His answer was satisfying and complete — “Only a rale good horse can win it.” And examination of records from Hill of Camus to St Martin bears out that theory — no bad horse, or middling horse, has ever won the Galway Plate!

“When you walk the searching course the reasons are clear. The undulating surface, the formidable jumps, the fine galloping stretches, the steep fall and demanding rise with two firm leaps one behind the other when horses are tired; that pinch into the straight, the slope, and the fast finishing flat — all these test the best qualities of a true chaser. He must be a clever fencer, with speed and stamina to get home in front of a field that includes the best horses in Ireland.

“Eyre Square on race nights is a midnight bivouack. Taverns are open all night. Open turf fires everywhere. Dancing, singing, carousing everywhere — and all in the great good humour of glad holiday spirit — the huckster’s harvest. The salt tang of the Atlantic fortifies us against indispensable late hours. The morning brings no ill results other than a dash to Salthill can dissolve. And the bright spirit of these mingling throngs is contagious. Even the bookmakers cease to grumble at Galway.” These words were written by PD Mehigan in 1941.

Records of organised race meetings in Co Galway apparently go back to the mid 13th century, when what were known as horse matches were run under King’s Plate Articles. In 1764 there was a five-day race meeting at Knockbarron near Loughrea. The first race day at Ballybrit was on August 17 1869, when contemporary records show that some 40,000 people turned up to watch the racing. The park in the Square had to be used as a campsite for the huge crowds. The racecourse, measuring one and a half miles, was laid out by a civil engineer, a Mr T Waters, and was described in a local paper as “covered with herbage or moss and excelling any course in Ireland for good going”. It was a magnificent success and a prescient reporter wrote in the Galway Vindicator, “The Galway races promise to advance in the future equal, if not superior, to any other provincial races in the country”. How right he was ... the Galway Races have gone from strength to strength ever since and the committee seem to be able to bring about improvements to facilities every year.

Our photograph was taken from the stand c1941 and shows the horses being paraded before a race.

Finally, a note of apology to the family of Terry McSweeney for a slip of my pen in last week’s column on Mervue United. I am afraid I gave him a different name. Terry was with United from almost the beginning and he and his wife Bridie were great supporters of the club. His four sons played with Mervue, and now his grandchildren are carrying on that tradition.

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