A mad time of year in Galway

A fierce faction fight at Mám Éan, Connemara, to celebrate Garlic Sunday (the last Sunday in July), with all its pagan echoes of Lughnasa.

A fierce faction fight at Mám Éan, Connemara, to celebrate Garlic Sunday (the last Sunday in July), with all its pagan echoes of Lughnasa.

I do not think that it is a coincidence that the famous Galway Races coincide with the ancient festival of Lughnasa, celebrated on Garlic (Garland? ) Sunday or, in the west, on the last Sunday in July. Máire Mac Neill, in her epic and scholarly study*, tells us that the date marked the most important farming benchmark of the year, the harvest, and it was robustly honoured. There were many Lughnasa gatherings throughout Ireland. Perhaps the most famous one in Connemara was at Mám Éan in the Maamturk mountains. People would camp out for days, musicians and hawkers would entertain the crowds; but the main event was a massive faction fight often resulting in serious injury or death.

It was mainly the Joyce tribe versus the rest. Crazed with poitín, large crowds of men would charge with cudgels, stones, shovels and spades, and beat the lard out of each other. The battle was watched and cheered on by their women. Even children would get involved biting an opponent’s leg, or jumping on to his back till a blow knocked him senseless.

The Christian church wisely sought to redirect that energy, and declared that there was no better way to celebrate the harvest than to climb Croagh Partick, which looms over Clew Bay. It has all the mystique of a holy mountain, and the two or three hour climb is a challenging penitential rite. Next Sunday thousands of good men and women will climb it. Some even in bare feet.

But also next Sunday many thousands will be planning their time at Ballybrit. There, among gamblers and hawkers, the hurdy-gurdy and the tick-tack men, people enjoy a full week of fun, great style and merriment. Is it all lunacy? Sometimes it might be close to it, but it has been like this since the Galway Races were established as far back as the mid 18th century.

Racing tiffs

Even among the most respectable classes something about horse racing brings the male testosterone to the boil. I read in Patrick Melvin’s Estates and Landed Society in Galway** that even the most respectable and cultured Sir William Gregory of Coole ‘knocked down a gentleman at the Turf Club in Arlington Club Street, London in 1851’ following an argument about racing. *** Captain Blake-Forster and John Stratford Kirwan got themselves into such a tizzy over a bet, they actually challenged each other to a duel. For their own safety they were put in prison to cool off.

The MacDonoghs of Wilmount, Portumna, were famous for their stud, and success on the race course. One of them (described rather condescendingly by Sir William Gregory as a ‘ kind of squireen’ ), killed a man and a spectator in a duel in Tipperary, arising from a race dispute . The ‘squireen’ must have been glad of his fast horse on that occasion. He just managed to escape with his life as he fled across the Shannon chased by a Tipperary lynch mob.

Gentleman Kelly

But there are fewer examples of racing snobbery and lunacy than the case of poor Michael Kelly who in March 1844, sued the stewards at Galway Races. Although he rode his own horse, and won the race for ‘gentlemen’, they refused to give him the trophy. They claimed Kelly was not a gentleman. Although not from any significant family; and was neither a magistrate nor grand juror, Michael Kelly was a large farmer at Mirehill, Headford, who also bred and raced his own horses

Kelly’s counsel, James Henry Monahan QC, argued that Kelly was a gentleman within the meaning of the word as defined by Blackstone in his commentaries on the laws of England which states that “ any man who could live idly and without manual labour, and will bear the port, charge and countenance of a gentleman, shall be called ‘master’, and accounted for a gentleman...”

Patrick Melvin explains that many of the old tribal families were touchy about matters of class, even if they were on the way down in economic terms. Edward Blake of Castlegrove dined with Kelly at the races, but would not reciprocate social visits.

James Skerrett of Carnacrow had the court in fits of laughter when he claimed that Sir Edward Sugden, distinguished property lawyer, and lord chancellor successively of Ireland and England, was not a gentleman because his father was a London wig-maker and hairdresser. A gentleman, according to Skerrett, must above all be a gentleman through his father and mother. The rule applied equally to judges and jockeys.

However, even in the pre-Famine era, times they were a -changing. The jury members, who were mainly drawn from smaller gentry proprietors, and seemed more in tune with changing ideas than their landed ‘superiors’, decided unanimously in favour of Kelly. He subsequently was awarded his prize.

The democratically minded Galway Vindicator particularly criticised the top ladies of the county, headed by Lady Clanricarde, for not accepting the Kellys socially. The paper commented that “ a more ridiculous case, or one less justified by either law or the rules of society, never was tried in this court before.”

More racy stories next week

NOTES: * The Festival of Lughnasa - A study of the survival of the Celtic festival of the beginning of the harvest, by Máire Mac Neill, originally published by Oxford 1962, reprinted, and on sale at Charlie Byrne’s, Middle Street.

** Written by Patrick Melvin, published by Edmund Burke, Dublin, 2012. On sale Kenny’s, Líosban Estate.

*** Sir William Gregory was an insatiable gambler. It is said that he and Sir Thomas Burke of Marble Hill once won £50,000 at the Derby in 1853. Yet later, Gregory had to sell two-thirds of his Coole estate mainly because of bad racing bets.


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