Galway Great Week
Artist, sportsman, and country gentleman. JAMES REYNOLDS is a painter of murals, an expert on Palladian architecture, and a connoisseur of Irish ghosts. His beautifully illustrated volume Ghosts in Irish Houses, which combines his two loves, has met with an enthusiastic reception in this country, as has his second volume, Gallery of Ghosts, which goes further abroad, to find its themes in India, Restoration England, and Maine. Mr. Reynolds‘s second novel, Maeve the Huntress, was published this spring, and Farrar, Straus & Young will bring out his illustrated autobiography, James Reynolds’ Ireland, this fall.
by JAMES REYNOLDS
A LONG about the first week in July of each year, the ancient, gray harbor-town of Galway seems to shake off a kind of lethargy, “a class ave halt athwart her shoulders,” as a pub lounger once told me, and him draining a third mug of porter, at my invitation. He continued, as a fourth mug was slid along the bar toward his widespread lingers: “That auld skelper Neptune treats us all to a month ave Atlantic Particulars, lashin’ thim causeways to splinters” — he motioned out towards the Spanish Quay.
“Neptune is washing the dunes at Salthill,” I replied, “and the length of the Marine Parade, sweeping all clean in readiness for your Great Week of Galway racing. Think of the money it saves the Town Council. After all, the breakwater is a great monster of stone. The damage is very little.”
The man agreed, but opined that if it were not for the excitement of Great Week each year, there wouldn’t be a young girl or boy left in the town, for they’d all hare away to Dublin or America. “It’s a dull life fer the young.” He took another great gulp of porter.
For the greater part of the year, the Galway man spends his time lounging on the humped-stone bridge arching the River Corrib, idly speculating on the poundage of the salmon which leap the weir. Suddenly, with the advent of sultry July, a vibration seems to pulse in the salty air, not only in and around Salthill and Galway but over all of Ireland. A stirring of interest, a susurrus of words and comments from every sport-inclined man or woman: “What sort of horse have you fancied lately that might win the Galway Silver Cup?”
That is how it begins. Each year renewed interest in horses that might win the Galway Cup, and a general pilgrimage from one to another of the wellknown, highly regarded breeding or training farms to look over the horses that will start in the three days of racing fixtures known far and wide as Galway Great Week. Only one other week during the year is comparable in the horse-conscious Irish mind. That is the Dublin Horse Show Week, which takes place about ten days or a fortnight after the Galway Races.
As the first day of Great Week draws nearer, excitement mounts and so does attendance at the stud farms scattered over most of the Irish counties. One constantly meets friends as well as strangers crisscrossing each other on the highroads and bohireens, those little back lanes leading to remote pasturage and stables.
Bingo Lacey, head stableboy at my Ballykilleen farm, nearly ran down a woman one day. She was walking in a heavily shaded cart track leading to the back entrance to Kildangan Stud in County Kildare. Roderick More s’Farrell breeds as fine a lot of horses here, year in, year out, as one will find in the Island. The woman let out a yelp, leaped to the side of the lane, gathered her wits, and turned a full-strength smile upon us. I stopped to see that she was all right. “ I am, and I shouldn’t be for my carelessness,’ she said. “I’m so absorbed in trying to pick a winner for the Cup from that lot of Kildangan horses I’ve just seen that I paid no heed that s’m walking in the middle of a public road.”
“And a dread, dark class ave one, madam,” Bingo said with sharpness albeit politely, “where the eternal pit ‘ud not be darker. Sure ye’d me heart crossed in me throat that I’d run ye down.” Then he returned her smile. “ But if ye’ll tell me the name of the horse ye fancy as winner I’ll forgive ye.”
For a moment the woman regarded a tiny red book she held in her hand. She turned her head towards Bingo. “Riskallion,” she said and quickly merged with the green shadows of the path.
Later we saw the horse she had named. I did not particularly like his looks. Not enough power, I thought, in his conformation to win so grueling a race as that over the heart-breaking walls and banks of Ihe Galway Course. As we were driving back I said to Bingo, who is a wizard at spoiling potentialities for greatness in a horse, “What did you think of Riskallion? Is the woman fey? Will he have a chance at Galway?”
Scorn rode the tones of his voice. “He will not. That animal’s a refuser be the book. Did ye heed his wild, adventurous eye and the sloppy lop ears ave ‘m? A sure sign ave a chancy refuser. As yerself well knows.” Then he let out a croak of laughter. “I know that woman. Shs’d not know one end ave a horse from the other. Not fer sure, that is. She’s Miss Annie Mulreagh, a schoolteacher from Banbodey ferninsl.” He flipped a hand to the right over the highway.
EACH morning invitations arrive at the breakfast table for all manner of balls, picnics, and parties. Hostesses of country houses, particularly in the environs of Galway, assert their renowned hospitality. Actually, Galway Race Week is mostly devoted to getting oneself accommodated at a hotel, a pub, or a big country house. Then the festivities attendant on any major sporting event in Ireland begin. Racing, as such, only occupies the afternoons of three days. The rest of the time is given to Bloodstock Sales. The vendors sell yearlings or twoand three-year-olds. Many a good seasoned hunter or champion chaser is sold by private sale, conducted mostly in shaded rooms with a tall cold drink to help bind the bargain.
I once bought a hunter during the last feverish days preceding Great Week. It was a day that on all counts I shall long remember. First, I was hailed by a maneen — what in Ireland we call a tiny scrap of male who just escapes being a dwarf, but is a giant among men in his own mind. As I was warily negotiating a hairpin turn in the road, the little fellow ran, light as a thistle tuft, alongside the car. “Would ye be a creature ave great heart as’ give me a lift to the gates ave Kiltytulla?” he called out in a high-pitched voice, accompanied by a facesplitting grin.
“I will indeed,” I called back, “for s’m bound there myself.” Seldom can I recall so entertaining, so disarming a companion. His name was Jeepsy Killarkin and he “ran the roads on errands for the gintry.” Not a tinker, he said, but “a class ave courier now nearly extinct in the land.” And I believed and fully agreed with him. His attire was out of fable. Bright kingfisher blue jacket; his short bandy legs spiraled in mustard yellow horsebandages; and a flat-crowned brown bowler set at a rakish angle on wispy gray hair. He resembled nothing so much as a raffish cock pheasant — which portrait his beady brown eyes and thin pointed nose, red and glazed at the (ip, bore out amazingly. He told me yarns about “his little adventures wid the gurls” rolling his r’s like thunder.
One story I remember with relish. “I once entered a pub in Downpatrick,” he said. “I carried the time ave day and a wink to the barmaid, a fine round yella woman. The kind ave female a man likes to cozzen along. So — I lifted me mug ave porter and toasted the gurl as the finest bit ave stuff I’d seen in many’s the long day ave traipsen. But she was a haughty piece an’ tossed her head replying acidly, ‘s’m sorry I can’t return the compliment.’ ‘Oh, well, gurl dear,’ I replied. ‘Couldn’t ye have done as I did? Couldn’t ye have told a lie?’”
Arriving at Kiltytulla Stud we found that all was confusion, for a busload of visitors from the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in Dublin had just arrived. I remember thinking what a lugubrious lot of individuals they looked in “hot black,” for the day was very warm. Little Jeepsy nudged me. “What a lot ave auld ravens croakis’ at the lovely horses,” he whispered. “Sure one look at thim black exclamation points ave woe, and any horse ‘d drop dead on the instant.” I stood on the side lines as the various horses were brought out into the yard and put through their paces.
No thought had so far entered my mind to become a purchaser. The gods knew, for a certainty, I owned enough horses and to spare. But I am a fool for grays. A “low boy” as we call a little lad, against a “high boy,” who is perhaps eighteen or twenty, walked quickly past me leading a big rangy gray hunter. The horse regarded me and nickered. It was love at first sight. Bantry Barricade was his name. I hunted Bantry for nine years and he won many cups and prizes in point-to-points and hunter chases, but had never quite ihe desired speed to make a classic steeplechaser. I have always believed that it was picking up Jeepsy the Courier that brought me the luck to acquire Bantry Barricade.
The first day of Great Week arrived, and soon after the first bit of saffron dawnlight slit the eastern sky above the Twelve Pins of Connemara, I set out for Galway. The groat annual trek towards Galway had begun with a vengeance. The world and his wife and all their children were on the move, on fool and in every kind of conveyance imaginable. Big lumbering limousines of ancient vintage. Raspy little Fords. Jaunting ears. Governess carts. Carry-alls and a few old musty cabs and “growlers” cadged by some inebriate, I was willing to bet, from in front of Westland Row Station in Dublin. Tinkers and itinerant minstrels were weaving among the crowd on foot, already well away with predicting fortunes at the coming races and singing ballads.
Just as I was maneuvering my car into Eyre Square, the hub of Galway Old Town, now packed with humanity and equipage by the thousands, I was hailed by my cousin, Terrance Darragh. “God’s luck to ye, Shamas,” he roared. “All Galway strums the like of a bard’s harp. Is’ll be a grand race today. Hermitswood, your long-time favorite, is the horse picked to win.”
Hermitswood did win the Galway Hay Steeplechase of the first day in raking style. And a jubilant crowd went wild, for it was a good omen that the horse picked as favorite won as it was intended he should by the excited punters.
The Thoroughbred Sales on the second day of the fixture were well attended by persons from far places beyond Ireland. Many fine horses changed hands and many a tageen of “mountain dew” (poteen) and dark, pungent John Jameson’s Best was downed to “good fortune on the courses.”
The usual tatarara was heard the length of the day. Far into the night, music, dancing, and dark couples slipping off to the shadows of Salthill sand dunes was the pattern, with little variation. There is nothing on earth quite like the fabric of Galway Great Week. So much more than trading in Thoroughbred horseflesh, or racing over heavy going to prove the ultimate qualities of a lepper. A phantasmagoria of laughter, shenanigans, dancing to bands you have to imagine, for it is next to impossible to hear the rhythm, and displaying whatever sartorial splendor one is able to afford.
Perhaps nowhere on earth will one find a crowd of race enthusiasts so articulate as the Irish. So the silence which follows the shouting at betting booths on a country course is all the more intense when the starter’s flag hovers uncertainly against the sky, ready to drop as soon as the field of horses are calmed and in line for the start. I remember the hush, after bedlam shouting, that swept like a curtain of night across Galway Course as twenty horses took off for the Galway Bay Silver Cup on the third day. It was what is termed a “bunched” start. No laggers. All shot forward as if from a catapult. Brandon Star took the lead, but not for long. As the second jump was negotiated with no fatalities, Hermitswood crept on apace to pass Cloister Abbey, Farrago, and Pride of Lissrea. Yelps of rising excitement began to shred the air. As the field came up to the torturous wall-and-water jump on the highest part of the course the runners took it flying. But once over, instantly there was a welter of flailing hoofs and sods of turf. An old diehard racegoer standing next to me grabbed my shoulder in his explosive distress at seeing Clanratty go down in the ruck. He cried out in a whine, a keening voice, “Holy Jehovah, there goes me month’s rent at that purgatorial jump. That horse is the definition ave catastrophe from here out.”
Then I watched one of those unexplainable occurrences which happen now and again on a race course. Gaunt, starveling class of horse that Pride of Lissrea was, he crept stealthily along, far outside of the groups of horses. I had thought this horse tired, damn near foundering, by his heavy breathing and his lathered hide. But no — a second chance was offered him by a clean-swept lane all the way to the finish post, with only one brush jump between. His rider, a youngster named Paddy Lawlor (who later became one of the outstanding steeplechase riders in Ireland), leaned forward and whispered or shouted, I couldn’t hear which, some magic words of encouragement into the flattenedback ears of his mount. The red bulk of Pride of Lissrea lengthened out until the horse was more bullet than animal. Like lightning he leaped the brush barrier as if it were not there and lay all out on the last flat stretch to win from Hermitswood by five lengths. The crowd went wild, for the horse and his young rider had given a game battle against crushing odds from horses who were old campaigners. The remarks I heard later at the betting windows would fill a book. One I recall, clearly was from Bingo, who opined, “I won a nice little packet ave cash, and it couldn’t have happened at a better time. Sure me pocket’s as empty as a Protestant’s promise.”
The gaiety at the hotels along Salthill is a bit too obstreperous for the general visitor to Galway during Race Week. And, oddly, only the Eyre Park Hotel in Galway is good. Delightful accommodations can be had at luxurious Ballynahinch Castle in Connemara a few miles away. This is the excellently run hotel that was once a shooting lodge of an Indian maharajah. Renvyle House at the sea end of a rocky headland in the part of County Mayo known as Joyce’s Country is another most agreeable hotel at which to stop. Once the country house of Oliver St. John Gogarty and run by him as a fishing club, it is now run by his son. Many persons choose to stop at the Twelve Pins (name given the range of spiky-peaked mountains which shut Connemara off from the North of Ireland seacoast) Hotel in Clifden a few miles inland. This hostelry is famous for its marvelously fresh sea food prepared by the hand of a fisherman who is also a cordon bleu, in massive white steeple hat.
The day of dispersal of crowds, after some big event, always interests me. The racing enthusiasts of all ages who litter the roads out of Galway Old City the day after the finish of Great Week are a show in themselves. One sees exhausted faces, sour because of heavy losses in the betting ring. Happy smiling faces, perhaps a bit flushed from imbibing many “Here’s to ye’s,” tell the tale of the lucky winner. Every kind of conveyance trundles along.
“What will you do now? Where are you off to?”
I call out to a friend lolling in extreme fatigue in a motorcar.
“To bed. Alone. Not a stir out of me until Dublin Horse Show Week. See you there.”