Ireland’s long-lasting love affair with racing festivals

Ireland’s long-lasting love affair with racing festivals
AMONGST WOMEN: RTÉ racing broadcaster Robert Hall strikes a pose with the crowd during Ladies Day at the Galway Festival yesterday. For manypeople, the races are, first and foremost, a vast popular carnival, writes Paul Rouse. Picture: Ray Ryan

From Galway to Listowel, these are weeks filled by racing festivals.

It is all about the horses — and, of course, not about the horses at all.

Indeed, for many people, the races are, first and foremost, a vast popular carnival.

And this idea of racing as both sport and spectacle is rooted in centuries of play and pleasure in a way that strips truth from the assertion that people have fundamentally changed in this new millennium.

The fun around the track, the fun in the town, the anticipation of the day out, the memories of past excursions – this is a wine rebottled generation after generation.

In the 1600s, for example, there was horseracing on Carrickfergus Strand in 1622, and in Belfast in 1668. On The Curragh in Co. Kildare Lord Digby and the Earl of Ormond raced horses against each other over four miles in 1634, a race — surely like most others — attended by gambling. The Curragh was by then becoming the most noted venue in Ireland for horseracing.

Then, during the 1700s, there was a big increase in the number of horse race meetings taking place across Ireland.

Increasingly, such meetings could extend across five or six days of a racing festival. This expanding world of horseracing was documented in Irish newspapers from the 1710s onwards, with increasing space devoted to advertising meetings and reporting results.

Who was establishing these meetings?

Often they were organised on commonage or on strands in tandem with pattern days and with local fairs.

Patronage came from the gentry and from local tavern owners.

In north Dublin alone, race meetings in the 1700s were held in Clontarf, Finglas, Garristown, Glasnevin, Luttrellstown, Malahide, Rush and Swords.

Similar races were held in Celbridge in Co. Kildare and Bellewstown in Co. Meath.

But this was not a phenomenon reserved for the capital city and its surrounding counties; instead, it encompassed places as disparate as Loughrea in Co. Galway, Belfast and, of course, The Curragh.

At Belturbet in Co. Cavan, the local town council sponsored and organised its own races by 1704 and similar occurred in Kilkenny and Thurles in the 1730s.

And one day was not enough. In Tuam, Co. Galway, for example, there was six-day race meeting at Garrauns racecourse on the Dunmore Road in 1767; another six-day meeting took place at Mallow in 1777.

There was much about horseracing that borrowed from the old traditions of the fair in Ireland. There is plentiful evidence that various Fair Days across Ireland had a magnificent wildness to them before 1800. The ale tents and whiskeys sellers facilitated drunkenness on an epic scale.

And they were perfect locations for organised fighting. Donnybrook Fair, for example, was used by rival factions in Dublin as the backdrop for riot: in 1737, the Dublin Daily Post and General Advertiser reported the great glee which such fighting brought: “Yesterday there was a great battle at Donnybrook Fair by the Mob, who fought for the pleasure of fighting, in which many were wounded, some of whom their lives are despair’d of.”

This was a tradition kept alive at race tracks after fair days changed in nature in the 19th century.

At the Listowel Races of 1834, for example, the day ended in a sensational faction fight between two local groups who had fought each other for years.

A fierce battle ended in great tragedy as a retreating body of men were forced into the sea and reports suggest at least 20 died.

Annual races held at Crumlin, then a village on the edge of Dublin city, were also in the great tradition of popular recreation.

There were bullock races, cockfights, athletics, cudgel- playing, hurling matches, wrestling and grinning competitions (where the one who pulled the ugliest face was deemed winner).

As the editor of the Freeman’s Journal noted, this was an event where “dissipation, club-law and tumult” reigned, resulting in “horrible riots, fractured skulls and broken limbs”.

Allowing for the exaggerations of the press, it is clear that such wildness was commonplace at Irish race meetings.

On the eve of the Great Famine, in 1844, this wildness was brilliantly captured by the great German travel writer, Johann Georg Kohl, in a way that has not been bettered, in his 1844 book, Travels in Ireland.

Kohl described arriving in Kilkenny on the night before an annual race meeting and seeing a great crowd of people “standing, sauntering, singing, and performing music in the streets.” 

Ballad-singers strolled up and down the gutters singing songs, while “crowds of poor people, beggars and rabble, perseveringly swarm around them, follow them step by step, and listen to them with a degree of eagerness, which may partly be attributed to the fact that the singers proclaim their own misfortunes, which they have turned into verse.”

All around “bagpipes were snuffling, violins squeaking, melancholy flutes blowing, and ragged Paddies dancing; in a word, with the universal revelry was mingled a mass of misfortune, misery, and mourning, such as in any other country can very seldom be seen united.”

The racing took place the following day at a course three miles from Kilkenny city. Kohl described the fame of the jockeys (and the manner in which they starved themselves to make the appropriate weight), the manner in which the stewards on the course were drawn from the local gentry and the great shouts of excitement when the horses arrived onto the course: 

“The entire field was covered with thousands of spectators; the grandstand was crowded from top to bottom, as well as two other temporary buildings, erected for the occasion; but the greater number had placed themselves in their equipages, which, like a crowded city of carriages, were drawn up at the edge of the course, first an endless file of carts, in which every place was hired, and behind these the stage-coaches and the carriages of the gentry.

“On the other parts of the ground, and on every little height and hillock, groups were collected to behold the spectacle; whilst hundreds of horsemen, and crowds galloped or drove about in the space between, now here now there, where anything excited their curiosity.”

And as for the racing itself: “Like all Irish sports, it has something especially wild in its character.” 

But, for all the excitement of the race, there were many for whom the day was not about sport at all. Kohl wrote of those who had no interest in the horses or in betting on them, but who were there to eat and drink and dance: 

“At a short distance from the course, behind a hill, a city of tents was erected, where every earthly desire an Irishman could form might be gratified. These tents were all long and large, and all constructed in the same manner – an alehouse in front, a large room with benches and tables behind, and in the middle a dancing-floor.”

He continued: “This dancing-floor generally consisted of a door, or planks fastened together like a door, and placed over a hole in the ground so as to render it more elastic under the feet of the dancers, who were usually four in number, and jumped about to their heart’s content. This scene was enacting in at least 50 tents.”

Further along again, wrote Kohl, “in some of the huge wagons were to be found a collection of wild beasts; in others a puppet-show, or some similar wonder of the day. There can be no doubt that half the inhabitants of Kilkenny came out merely for the sake of the dancing-booths and the travelling exhibitions, and scarcely deigned to honour the hard-working racers with the slightest attention.”

The story of Kilkenny was replicated in race courses in country towns around Ireland; it is an intimate part of Irish social history. As the history of the country was changed by new inventions, horse racing adapted and thrived.

For example, the spread of the railways in Ireland had a hugely positive impact. The potential of a mutually beneficial relationship was apparent from the outset.

In June 1844 the Dublin and Drogheda Rail Company sponsored a race at the Bellewstown meeting and a month later the same happened at Lusk; this was a process repeated all around the country.

Putting money into a race was easily recaptured through receipts of people travelling to meetings.

On Tuesday, 13 October 1846, the first-ever Irish ‘Racing Special’ excursion train was run from Kingsbridge Station in Dublin to the newly-built Curragh Railway Station.

It was not an immediate success: that first train was only half-full as no third-class tickets were sold. This was righted by the time of the June 1847 meeting when a cheap third-class return was offered: the train was filled with 1,000 racegoers.

The expanding rail network provided organised racing with the means to become a truly national sport. Rail companies gave free passage to horses travelling to-and-from racetracks and also gave free passage to the increasing number of journalists who began to report the sport.

As Fergus D’Arcy has written in his history of horse racing in Ireland, trains connected Dublin with Carlow by 1846; with Thurles and Limerick Junction by 1848; with Mallow, Cork and Dundalk by 1851; with Galway by 1851; with Killarney by 1853; with Roscommon, Claremorris and Sligo by the 1860s. As D’Arcy wrote: “The roll-call of

railway stations was like a roll-call of contemporary racecourses.”

It was one more example of people finding new ways of doing the same thing.

- Paul Rouse is associate professor of history at University College Dublin

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