Pony Show in Connemara

pleasures and places


Often when you are motoring across the broad bog of that distinct part of Ireland called Connemara, one of the final European fingers pointing to the long Atlantic miles Americaward, you see what look like horses standing about. These are not the kind of horses that poke their heads through the windows of your car. They keep themselves to themselves. Nor are they horses at all, but ponies, Connemara ponies, free but not wild, that live out on the lovely land of their birth. They are carefully bred and among ponymen have a rising international reputation.

Against the soggy green of the Irish west, they mark delicate colors: dark yellow, tweedy gray, burnt pink. There are occasional albinos, white with white-lashed pale eyes, like old ladies far gone in the drink. Color is, in any case, one of the Connemara particulars. This mountainous country, with its brilliant estuaries curling miles inland, has little of the brilliant emerald green of the east of Ireland. The green of the west is mistier, and it creeps everywhere, like baize cloth, right up to the tops of the mountains and even flatly down vertical cliff facades; you feel you are living on an old, torn, and humped billiard table, with a cloth that has been left to weather in the sun and the rain. Against such a soft green, whose quality changes with every magical slant and flash of Atlantic-borne light, all isolated colors stand out sharply. Golden-yellow stretches of seaweed line the Prussian-green waters of an estuary miles inland; the crimson bells of the tall wild fuchsia bush dangle everywhere, lining the lanes as though a giant and bloody hand had dripped a bright indication of the path; the mountains may lose their green and in certain lights haze to pale blue or violet, or flower at sunset to a deep blood-red — and all these colors have the inner brightness of plush. Then there is an abundancy of black about: the boats are black; the women’s shawls are black; and the mounds of black peat and the black rocks and the black cattle all spatter the country with charcoal emphasis. Even the ubiquitous drink, the porter, is black. If ever a martini drifted so far west, the olive would surely be a black one.

But back to the ponies and a black day in this writer’s life, the day of the Connemara Pony Show. This is an annual event that takes place in the westerly small capital of Clifden, an up-and-down slip of a town with a half dozen streets and about a million bars. The purpose of the show is to bring together the best of the pony breed for prizes and for sale, together with other less important local produce, from sheep to sheep’s-wool sweaters, from chickens to baked breads, from woven reed whips to the pointed toes of a Gaelic step-dance competition. But the ponies are the mainstay; it is the ponies, each with four hoofs and flying feet, that take up all the room on the muddy, sloping field where the great affair takes place.

Let me state now that I am neither a pony nor horse lover and know little about them, so the following few lines shall be free of words like “withers” and “gaskins,” “hands” and “hackney” (from the French haquenée, an ambling horse, if this should maybe raise your spirits). The only kinds of things I do know about the horse are such as the length of its fearsome yellow teeth and the force behind the hoof and the mad roll — like that of a jazz drummer deep in the groove — of the eye.

So, on a morning of rain and shine, we bought our tickets and slid muddily into the show. Rain and shine are the normal weather: one minute the sun streams in magic rays from momentous Atlantic cloudscapes; the next, down come the momentous inescapable clouds themselves. The apocalyptic elemental feeling of such godlike weather must, I think, have a large hand in the Gaelic belief in fairies. But there were no fairies at the bottom of our pony field — only mud, viscous gallons of it, down into which the pointed end of my shooting stick vanished at an alarming speed, leaving me seated two feet off the ground, like a cooperative but uncertain uncle in a kiddy car.

From this mildly unelevated position I was perhaps the better equipped to view the goings on and the goers. Previously, being blind to the complex virtues of the ponies themselves, I had been in a position to drink in more of the general atmosphere than others, with their eyes screwed on a fetlock here, a muzzle there; the blessed position of the man who writes of Salzburg without Mozart, or Rome without ruins; and now, here on my low stick, nature had blessed me with another new angle.

I could note the coarse and curiously shaped faces of the copers, the tremendous Irish life in them, cheeks as red as their own fuchsia hedges and eyes under black lashes shining with a Siamese sapphiric blue; and how a wildly handsome young man, strong and fresh and muscular, might open his mouth to show a sudden old row of brown and broken teeth; and his blue-eyed dreamy visionary princess of a colleen raise the red gnarled hand of an old woman to the milk skin of her face, for she has worked hard in a poor country, once sucked dry by my English compatriots and now, somehow, despite the vigilancies of other governments, caught in the habit of apathy. Not that these people today are too poorly off, but they are not by nature builders with an eye to the future; they live, rather, for the day and let tomorrow, and the old turf shed at the back of the house, go to rot. Yet is this really apathy? Is it perhaps not a dream way, nearArabic, of valuing the moment for its worth? In dripping wet weather, you will be greeted by a local with “Lovely day now!” And this may not be so mad as it sounds; it may, instead, be a way of expressing simply a delight in life, in there being a day at all, whatever its superficial dressing. And on asking the way somewhere and the time it takes, you will be given the answer you want, a short way and a short time, in the Eastern manner of giving pleasure at all costs — the cost of mere material truth and shoe leather included. Thus, the most occidental of European peoples are the true orientals, if I might employ a kind of Irishism.

When an industrialist I know proved to an educated Irishman that, by doing this and that and enforcing this or that slightly unpleasant sacrifice, his country could be made as rich as Holland, the reply, wise with many a pint of porter, was both agreement and disavowal, with a final “Och, what do we want with wealth, anyhow?” A key phrase.

So there we were among the ponies. And I didn’t stay on my shooting stick for long. To those not only content with living for the day but also surviving it, it was vital to keep on the move and away from the passing hoofs. Mares and their foals strode and staggered hither and thither all the time, arguing, whinnying, kicking, prancing. For the unvalorous discreet, the field was soon turned into a kind of mud lake for an inelegant skater’s waltz, as one skidded one’s way around a back leg here, a long yellow tooth there, a mountainous muscular haunch to the left, or to the right a forehoof stamping like a bull’s.

Not long, indeed, before the awful extent of a horrid truth was forced upon me. Here on this hill of a field, three or four acres bounded by a stream and a few houses and fences, there were enclosed what amounted to about a hundred naked mothers and their children, most of them as yet not properly introduced.

A hundred suspicious females corralled together in one small area! And their young with them! With their protective instincts raised to abnormal levels, and each battlehappy mother and neurotically thoroughbred infant equipped with four hefty hoofs and a score of lip-curling teeth!

By now the whinnying, a frightful sound in solo, had become, in unison, appalling. There was no band, and no wonder; no one could have heard it. Here and there, above the heaving sea of rumps and halters, rose a momentary equestrian statue, forefeet tapping the air and anything else about. As this fell back, so a hindquarter would flash up, fling out its shoes with a horrid whack onto a neighboring mother’s glossy beige coat, and decline. The children were no better than the grownups. It says much for the phlegm of the excitable Irish that nobody seemed to be the least troubled by any of it. With elevated Hibernian calm, as if they themselves were not there at all, they led their snorting matrons to and from the judges, only pausing to exchange the time of day with a passing friend in a cluck of Gaelic or a brogue of English that sounded about the same.

Perhaps they were dreaming of big money. For it is true that, in three years, and largely owing to American buying, prices of the Connemara breed have risen from nearly nothing to a fairly sharp something. Or had they half their minds on seaweed? For fifty miles off, in Galway, a seaweed symposium was being held. International colloid experts were discussing how best to process the great seaweed crop of these coasts, and new money is in the offing here, too. Strange new prosperities loom over the forgotten land. Perhaps it is wealth they want, after all. But wealth the way they want it, if you see what I mean.

A sudden shower gleamed like a spider’s-web curtain down over all: over tweedy gentry, fustian farmers, village youth in its blue Sunday suit; over matrons who still bake their own bread; over their daughters half in love with home, half with dreams of emigration; over ponies, chickens, judges, sheep. And no one turned a hair. No scuttling. It was Irish rain, as much to be expected as not, and was in a few minutes over. Everyone was wetter; no one had noticed. Except, it seemed, one old ram.

This old ram, a heavy, haughty beast, chose the moment to smash its pen. As the sun came out, so did the ram, a true battering ram, head down and flying into the ironshod feet of the horse life heaving above it. Never so many upset mothers, never so startled a pack of children! The whinnying rose, the whole pony race began to undulate dangerously. Now, whole groups of equestrian statues reared high, as, like a cannon ball of wool and horn, the ram bashed its way through a startled forest of legs beneath and was, in turn, battered and flicked about like a woolly football, in the course of a new-found liberty. For a few seconds it looked as if the whole field might go inad and stampede. The ram would loose its grip on the mud and slither a few yards like a fleece-bound Eskimo on a banana skin, then gather its pin legs together and turn, and batter off head down at another fence of horn-shod footballers. You could mark its course from above by the undulation of brownish-colored flanks, as if a tidal wave ran erratically through a heaving brown sea. It looked like the end to me, but not to the phlegmatic excitable Irish. In a matter of a few minutes, cool hands had been laid on the ram, its horns held hard, a rope thrown around. And back, battered, the batterer was led to the safety of his old wood gaol.

After this, mouse-heart in mouth, I left. Anything, I fancied, could happen, including, perhaps, six weeks in hospital.

Out I walked into the gray stone town, deserted but for the bright, near-Mediterranean color washes — pink, blue, green — which occasional houses here wear. Past a humble chemist called a Medical Hall, past shops full of Aran sweaters of white bleached wool, past the groceries that are also bars. Deep below in a ravine lay the dark-green waters of the estuary; high above rolled Atlantic clouds arriving from the Americas.

Peace, peace — and blessed silence.

The danger past, courage returned, and with it a mite of objectivity. Possibly no one was kicked or bitten the whole day through, down there among the ponies and the brave Irish. Possibly my fears were only those of a decadent Saxon townsman. Possibly about it all, I should keep my pony trap shut.