Going as good as ever at Omey Island races

Connemara event an alternative Galway races for those who prefer sandals to stilettos

Keep it Real ridden by Rossa Ryan, Fiddles Bridge ridden by  Mark Crehan, and Handy Sandy ridden by Daragh Maher, during the Cleggan Derby at the Omey Races today. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Keep it Real ridden by Rossa Ryan, Fiddles Bridge ridden by Mark Crehan, and Handy Sandy ridden by Daragh Maher, during the Cleggan Derby at the Omey Races today. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Sun, Aug 3, 2014, 19:22

Liam Gilligan had a tummy bug for the last few days, but neither wild nor highly trained horses would drag him away today from north Connemara. In fact, one particular steed would have been very upset if he hadn’t shown up.

And while his younger siblings headed off for a swim at Omey Island, Gilligan was heading down to the shoreline for very different reasons. The 13-year-old from Craughwell has been a jockey for the last couple of years, and he was booked to ride in the annual Omey races for local owner Joe McNamara.

“It’s Buddy Holly and I’ve competed on him before,” Gilligan said, explaining how he loves the coastal circuit, with its splash and spray of sea on sand as flashing hooves chase the elusive horizon.

Lunar cycles dictate the timing of the Omey event, held on the tidal strand between the island and Claddaghduff. Since its revival after a break in 2001 it has become an alternative Galway races for those who prefer sandals to stilettos or simple picnics to pink champagne.

“We had an awful lot of inquiries before the event this year, far more than usual,” master of ceremonies Féichin Mulkerrin noted.

“Prize funds at other meetings have dropped considerably, except for Dingle, but ours has stayed the same, and we get wonderful support from people who have holiday homes,” he said. “Some homes have been rented out for the event over a year in advance.”

Mulkerrin regularly compares Norwegian and Irish weather forecasts in the lead-up to the event, when stakes have to be laid, and sometimes retrieved by boat, just the night before.

The going is always “good”, though, and Manannan MacLir and his gods must favour the occasion, for Mulkerrin never remembers anything more than a light shower.

The ten-race card attracted several thousand spectators to study the form of competition from all compass points - with one of most closely run contests being that between horseboxes, dashing off the strand before the evening’s incoming tide.