I have often heard my grandmother say that the fun of Galway races began when you were hauled up onto a sidecar, behind a lively pony, and driven at a smart pace to Ballybrit. Passengers held on tightly to each other, or to the wooden seat, as the smell of horse, and the jolting ride over rough roads gave it a carnival atmosphere. The races were a two-day meeting then yet the jarvies, or ponymen, would hang about the town for the week hoping to get a fare. As well as bringing racegoers to Ballybrit in the mornings, and home in the evenings, they also brought them to Salthill. Sometimes they carried them to the dogtrack at College Road. Either way it was a long and busy week for the ponymen who came mainly from the Moycullen area, renowned for its Connemara ponies, and passionate owners.
I have been enjoying Tom Mac Lochlainn’s book The Moycullen Poneymen* since it appeared last year, and I am taking his collection of memories from the local people and the fun they had during the race days. In Moycullen they called the service ‘postin’. Scores of men with traps and sidecars came into the town from every direction. They made a spectacular sight lined up in Eyre Square, waiting for business. ‘As always they took pride in their appearance. Willie John Pat Walsh from Kylebroughlaun put roses through the mane. Sonny’s son, Joe Connor, recalls how John Joe Morrow, a neighbouring carpenter from Gurrane, would have his father’s sidecar in perfect condition for the special week. The owners name had to be on the shaft and a carbide light was obligatory after dark’.
Michael Joe Keady remembers going to Galway as a 12-years-old-boy with his neighbour Sonny who was postin’. Michael Joe was minding the pony outside Luke Small’s in Newtownsmith, where Sonny was staying for the week. Five men with bags and suitcases came down Abbeygate Street and asked for a ride to Ballybrit. Michael Joe ran in to Sonny who came out straight away and agreed a price with the men. They were Northern bookies in Galway for the week. Two days racing, five days celebrating! All five men, and their heavy suitcases climbed up on the sidecar, and set off. One of them took out a melodeon and began to play. ‘With a full load, money in his pocket, and music ringing in his ears, Sonny was in his element’. He called back to Michael Joe to run up to Eyre Square, and hold a place for him for when he came back.
Sonny’s pony was unregistered and unnamed. She was simply known as Sonny’s pony. She and her older sister were homebred. Sonny was reared in Tamhnacha, and his family, the Connors, were reputed to have one of the best bloodlines in Connemara. Whether postin’, carting, ploughing or pulling the dray, she was regarded as a wonderful worker. Michael Joe used to see her passing his house outside the village unattended. Sonny would walk behind smoking his pipe or chatting with someone. The pony knew her way home.
The Stud Book
The Connemara pony, with its distinctive strong and sturdy body, its short back and generally mild temperament, is sought as an ideal riding pony by horse lovers in Europe and America. Its breed was built up by a group of enthusiasts in the 1930s who tracked down the best sires and dams, and recorded them, and their offspring in the famous Connemara Pony Stud Book**. It was initially a struggle to get breeders to see the value of the Stud Book. The first pony to gain entry was Cannon Ball, the most famous racing pony of his day. As well as racing, Cannon Ball, owned by Henry Toole, worked on his farm at Leam, four miles west of Oughterard. He was born in 1904, and known all over Connemara for his speed and strength. Even though he was well past his best days when the inspectors asked to have him recorded in the Stud Book, it was a great coup for them. Many breeders were reluctant at first to have their ponies recorded, but Cannon Ball led the way. Cannon ball was reputed to have outrun the Galway- Clifden train. This feat did not impress Pat Mannion of Coolaghy, whose older brother John lived as a young boy with Henry Toole at Leam. He’d ride Cannon Ball bareback around the farm as they worked together. He told his brother “T’was easy beat that train. Sure I’d beat that train myself.”
Nevertheless Cannon Ball is remembered in song and verse:
They’ll talk about Nijinsky and Arkle and Dundrum,
Boomerang, Danoli and the brilliant mare Dawn Run,
But everywhere there’s ponytalk and stories to enthral,
They’ll talk about the gallant deeds of the fabled Cannon Ball .
And how his public loved him and savoured all his wins,
From Galway out to Clifden, in the Maamturks and Twelve Pins.
His life was their adventure, his exploits did amaze,
He gave them cause to celebrate and brighten up their days.
He started off the Stud Book, installed as number one,
Followed on by Rebel who was his famous son.
His dynasty of champions include Bridge Boy and Kim,
Gil and Carna Bobby, Tooreen Ross and Rebel Wind...
(And so on for 14 verses ).
NOTES: * The Moycullen Ponymen, from Working Ponies to International Stars, by Tom Mac Lochlainn, published by Ashbrook, 2010, on sale €20.
**The Stud Book is a register of all births of Connemara Ponies through the 32 counties. It is a continuous record since 1923, and is now a formidable 21 volumes.
The famous Connemara Pony Show takes place in Clifden August 18 - 19.