A week when sensible souls lose their marbles and lucre

Studying the form: Two 'steady' punters take it all in. A lovely shot from the Galway Races back in the 1980s. PHOTO: JOE O'SHAUGHNESSY.
Studying the form: Two 'steady' punters take it all in. A lovely shot from the Galway Races back in the 1980s. PHOTO: JOE O'SHAUGHNESSY.

Country Living with Francis Farragher

It’s been going on for the past 148 years at Ballybrit – since August 17, 1869 – and while horses are sent out to run and jump, the Galway Races will continue to be part of the Irish way of life, a week when normally sensible men and women lose that quality of being sensible.

For the past couple of months that talk has been that: “We won’t feel now until The Races,” and sure enough as night follows day, the great holiday climax of the west is upon us with all its frolics, tomfoolery and an absolute sense of determination that the week is going to be enjoyed.

The Races are thought to have their root in Loughrea back in the late 1700s when a five-day meeting was held but all was to change back in the late Summer of 1879 when the first day of racing was held in Ballybrit and a crowd of 40,000 (how that was estimated I don’t know) turned up for day one, of a two-day meeting.

It seems as if Galway got into the spirit of the occasion right from the very off with the green area of Eyre Square used as a camping site for the crowds that couldn’t be accommodated in the city’s hotels. Whether there was any damage done to the grass area in those days, we will never know, but you imagine if there was a wet Summer what conditions would have been like there.

The first Chairman of the Stewards (a fine title) was Lord St. Lawrence, an MP for Galway, who was involved in the setting up of the Punchestown course. Eight races in total, split evenly between the two days, made up the first meeting with the winner of the Galway Plate picking up a prize of 100 sovereigns (gold coins at the time worth one-pound sterling but now an awful lot more).

Two of the fences jumped at that first meeting were reputed to be genuine Galway stonewalls, so if a horse mis-timed his jump, then the consequences for the fetlocks could be serious enough but through the latter part of the 1800s major improvements were made to the fences and course that pushed it into a major racing event by the turn of the century.

A ‘raider’ from the Premier County, appropriately named Tipperary Boy, is credited by racing historians as the greatest steeplechaser ever to gallop in Ballybrit winning the Galway Plate on three separate occasions in 1899, 1901 and 1902.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.