A festival fit for a Prince?
An Irishman’s Diary about the Galway Races, then and now
‘Sartorial standards have greatly improved since 1828, especially on Ladies Day. Yet in one respect, the prince’s comments hold good. The modern imperative to dress up at Galway applies exclusively to one gender.’ Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Prince Hermann Ludwig Heinrich von Puckler-Muskau – a very colourful German nobleman of the 19th century – has previously featured in this column on foot of his run-in with a notorious Irish drink called Scalteen.
Scalteen, you might recall, was a piping-hot concoction of whiskey, eggs, butter, and strained beef broth. It was as much food dish as beverage, perhaps. Or maybe not. In any case, touring Ireland in the 1820s – and more specifically after a day’s hunting in Tipperary – Prince Hermann Ludwig Etc was served this delicacy between dinner courses.
He apparently mistook it for something to sober him up. Whereas, instead, it had the opposite effect. We learn that, while at dinner, he slid under the table, failing to re-emerge until, as Diarmaid Ó Muirithe puts it in his book, Words We Don’t Use (Much Anymore), “he was licked awake in the morning by some foxhounds”.
That wasn’t the only adventure the prince had in Ireland, however. We also know that he visited the Galway Races. And his vivid descriptions of the event, amusing in their own right, make for fascinating comparisons with the modern festival.
Like many attenders before and since, the prince may have been primarily interested in something other than horses. He was an infamous philanderer who, in a 19th-century version of texting, used to employ the services of one of Germany’s fastest runners to carry amorous messages to ladies and relay their replies, with maximum urgency.
His visits to England and Ireland between 1826 and 1828 were with the stated aim of finding a new wife (he had just divorced the incumbent), preferably a wealthy one who could fund his lifestyle. In the event, he returned bride-less, although not before becoming a celebrity in London, and the model for Count Smorltalk, the foreigner hilariously struggling to speak English in Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers.
The Galway Races, as the prince found in 1828, were a world apart from the English capital. Like most travel writers of that era, he was shocked by Ireland’s poverty, noting that the natives in general lived like “savages”. In Galway, he particularly remarked “the common man’s ubiquitous lack of decent clothing even on festive days like today”.
And then there was the drink. Not scalteen, in this case: the word he used was “totenwasser” (hard liquor, probably poitín), of abstention from which the locals appeared incapable, “as long as they have a penny to procure it”.
In direct consequence of the totenwasser, there was much violence. The prince marvelled at “the 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 . . . hundreds take part until several of them are left wounded or dead”.
This somewhat grim picture is alleviated, slightly, when he praises the spontaneity and cheerfulness of the people, “their artless merriness that forgets all want; the good-natured hospitality that has them share their last morsel without a thought”. All these, he added, in dubious compliment, “are characteristics of an only half-civilised people”.
Would Prince Hermann recognise the modern Galway Races? In some respects, he might. He did also, after all, complain about difficulty finding a hotel, what with the enormous crowds in town, and of having to settle finally for “a miserable lodging”.
Accommodation has improved much since then, but it’s still scarce during race week. And if he were staying for the full festival now, the prince would definitely need a wealthy wife.
Sartorial standards have also greatly improved since 1828, especially on Ladies Day. Yet in one respect, the prince’s comments hold good. The modern imperative to dress up at Galway applies exclusively to one gender. Dandy that he was, Prince Hermann could still lament the “common man’s ubiquitous lack of decent clothing, even on festive days”.
Totenwasser remains a big feature of the festival, albeit not in the form of poitín. The centre of Galway’s Latin Quarter is designated a “glass-free zone” for race week, but this should not be confused with teetotalism. On the contrary, it just means that the thousands drinking outdoors every night have to use plastic cups.
So drunkenness hasn’t declined much since 1828. But mercifully, the fashion for carrying shillelaghs has. And the threat of violence seems to have disappeared with it.
An English visitor to the Latin Quarter during the week expressed surprise that, as well as being glass-free, the streets were police-free too. In fact, gardaí were not far away, around the corner. But the man’s point was that, at a similar mass-inebriation event in England, there would be police – mounted police at that – on obvious duty, watching carefully and waiting for the inevitable trouble.