There was a curious sequel to the story of poor Michael Kelly of Mirehall, Headford, whom I mentioned last week. Kelly, a substantial farmer and horse breeder, won the ‘gentleman’s race’ at Galway in 1884. However the stewards refused to give him the trophy claiming he was not a gentleman. Kelly sued, and won his case.
Two years later, at the genteel Stewards Summer Picnic, a fierce row erupted which led to physical violence. Among the happy crowd was a family named Commons (an unfortunate name in the circumstances ), but in between the cucumber sandwiches, some of the guests objected to sharing a meal with certain people who were not ‘sufficiently select’. The objectors had a quiet word with Henry Concannon, a member of one of the oldest families in the county, and one of the barristers employed by the stewards against ‘squireen’ Kelly.
Concannon expressed surprise that the Commons were invited at all. Speaking out loud he declared that he had never met the Commons’ family previously, and had no knowledge of them whatsoever.
Mr Commons, who considered himself a gentleman, was furious when he heard Concannon’s remarks. He got up, grabbed a horse whip, and whipped Concannon till he howled. When the two men were pulled apart, Commons challenged him to a duel. Concannon, thought better of it, and did not take up the challenge.
“Family pride in Ireland rose high in the big country houses,” the Irish dramatist, poet and theatre producer Lennox Robinson had reflected while reviewing the history of the Coopers of Markree in Sligo, “and rose higher as family fortunes declined.”
Anyway the Kellys were always reaching above their station. Dorothea Herbert never forgot how at the Loughrea races in 1787, a Kelly lady made her servant jostle the Herbert’s carriage as they passed on the road. Sure you could never be up to those Kellys!
The Galway Races eventually came to Galway via Loughrea, (where it was held for years “ until attendances fell off’ ), the Gurranes course near Tuam (until fever frightened it away ), and finally to Galway when the sheriff and gentry subscribed £40 towards the Silver Plate trophy, in 1743. Patrick Melvin* tells us that it was the leadership of Clanricarde, Martin J Blake and other sporting gentry, who assured everyone that the aristocracy had its control over racing. Ostensibly it was to encourage ‘a good breed of horses’; but the Connaught Journal of the day stressed its economic benefits. “Every shopkeeper and man of business in Galway has an interest in supporting such a race, and we trust they will.”
In 1828 the races attracted crowds of up to 20,000 consisting of “ All ranks and classes, not alone of our dense population of Galway, but of persons from Dublin, and the most distant parts of Ireland.”
The town, Salthill, and the village of Renville, became thronged with “respectable visitors”. The regattas and theatricals which accompanied the races “ would attract the gentry of the county, and induce them to prefer Galway to other watering places.”
‘A half-civilized people’
One colourful visitor to the Galway Races in August 1828 was Prince Hermann Ludwig Heinrich von Puckler-Muskau. A notorious philanderer and duellist, who dressed in outrageous clothes, and who was the gossip of Berlin society for arriving at his favourite café in a carriage drawn by four stags. To send love notes to any women that caught his fancy, he employed the faster sprinter in Berlin; who would rush back with a reply, so the prince could quickly begin his seduction tactics, and not waste time if there was no interest.
But his lavish lifestyle cost far more than what was in the family coffers. He vowed that he would tour the British isles, and return with a wealthy wife. The fact that he was already married did not seem to matter. He and the wife agreed to divorce; but she would remain on in his schloss enjoying the fruits of the new wealthy wife when she came.
The prince’s sojourn in London was not a success in the marriage stakes. He delighted the foppish Prince of Wales, who immediately adopted his rectangular monocle, which instantly became a must have item of fashion among British gentlemen. But perhaps his true reception can be gleaned from when he was introduced to Charles Dickens. The famous novelist delighted in his broken English, and ridiculed him in his novel Pickwick Papers.**
Hoping for better things in Ireland, the Prince arrived in Galway on race day, and had his carriage drive him out to the course, no doubt to inspect the ladies.... “We arrived very late at the racecourse, and did not see much of it today. However, the sight of how the local people live was most curious. In many respects this nation is comparable to savages. The common man’s ubiquitous lack of decent clothing even on festive days like today; their total incapacity to resist totenwasser (spirits ) as long as they have a penny in their pocket to procure it; their wild mêlées that break out any minute and the regular indigenous battles with the shillelagh, a murderous bludgeon that everyone keeps concealed under his rags, in which at any given moment hundreds take part until several of them are left wounded or dead on the battlefield; the blood-curdling war cry that they raise on such occasions; the vindictiveness with which an insult is harboured and passed on for years by whole communities...”
“ (But ) on the otherhand the spontaneous and cheerful carefreenesss that never thinks of the next day; their artless merriness that forgets all want; the good natured hospitality that has them share their last morsel without a thought....all these are characteristics of an only half-civilized people.”
“ Hundreds of drunkards accompanied our carriage as we drove from the racecourse to the town, and more than ten times brawls broke out among them. With the amount of guests in the town it was with great trouble that we found a miserable lodging, but also a good and very plentiful meal.”
* Estates and Landed Society in Galway, by Patrick Melvin, published by Edmund Burke, Dublin, on sale at Kenny’s, Liosban.
** I am taking this from Dr Eoin Bourke’s Poor Green Érin - German traveller writers’ narratives on Ireland published 2011 and on sale at Charlie Byrne’s. Prince Puckler-Muskau was not such a fool afterall as he kept an observant diary on the people and events that he saw and met during his tour. Charles Dickens found his broken English hilarious. He introduced him as a character, Count Smorltork, to the polite Mr Pickwick by Mrs Leo Hunter:
‘Ah Pig Vig or Big Wig?
‘“No No count, said the lady “Pick-wick.”
“ Ah I see,” replied the count. “Peek, Christian name; Weeks - surname; good, ver good. Peek Weeks. How do you do Weeks?”
And so on in a most amusing way. Puckler-Muskau published Tour of a German Prince in 1831 which was a huge success in Germany, and a best seller in Britain when it was translated into English.
He was, however, not successful in his quest for a wealthy wife; but returned to his schloss and the ex-wife quite cheerfully. He led a most colourful life, which I will tell a little more of next week.