Galway races, but not as we know them


The bets may not be of the proportions seen at Ballybrit, but tensions can run high in the final race against the tide at Omey island’s annual meeting

BOB DYLAN tossed his head, forever young, stamping impatient hooves. The sound of rhythmic pounding, the spray of sand and sea, was just too tempting, and this handsome animal wanted out, even as a haphazard queue of humankind wanted in.

For an empty horsebox, or a portaloo, or the canopy of a “gig rig”, is a handy shelter during an August bank holiday shower.

“Lads, lads, come on, come on!” came Dingle Tom’s urgent tones over the public address system. “This race has to be run off pretty quickly, ’cos the tide is coming !”

No arguing with that. Even funerals to the island graveyard have to bow to the lunar cycle at Omey, and so the annual horse and pony festival on the mile long strand separating the island from Claddaghduff is a tightly scheduled affair.

This year, high spring tides would make it even more challenging for racecourse manager, organiser and host Feicín Mulkerrin and his committee of many. Mulkerrin, who was instrumental in reviving the festival in 2001 with Triona Sweeney, Tom Delap and Malachy King, needs a cool head for several days before.

“We use a digger to put down the fencing stakes, but you can’t lay the course too soon,” he explained. “Sometimes the stakes won’t go down that easy, and they pop up when the tide fills again.”

“So then I’m out in the boat that evening, picking them up, and putting them back in again on the morning ebb . . . ”

The programme is another ordeal – although such words are not part of Mulkerrin’s softly-spoken vocabulary. “We raise the sponsorship locally, so I have enough information for the sponsors, the amount of money in each race and the distance – but that’s all”.

When the horse lorries and boxes and bookies and the Midland Horse and Pony Association officials arrive, everything falls seamlessly into place.

Sponging down one of his horses with a bucket of seawater, Joe McNamara was hoping for a good day. Roundstone-born and living six miles away from Claddaghduff, he first came to Omey when he was eight.

It wasn’t long before he was in the saddle himself. His daughters Kate and Emer are third-generation trainers.

“We always had working horses and ponies on the farm, and it was Connemara ponies that were raced here originally,” McNamara recalled. “Before pony shows and football took off, the racing was so much a part of everyone’s life.”

Back then, the festival involved a bicycle race around the track, and currach contests just off the shoreline. McNamara ponies won three years on the trot – or gallop – at Omey, and a horse named Renaldo, now grazing in the field nearby, was Joe’s first thoroughbred to win.

“There were no bookies in those days,” McNamara explained. “We had a long bar made from a beam of wood laid on two barrels, where the men drank bottles of stout and we had orange and lemonade, and the only gambling was when we threw pennies onto chequered lino for the laugh.”

Tom, or “Dingle Tom”, O’Callaghan, who has been compere since 2001, was calling everyone to order again as the bookies cleaned whiteboards or typed on keyboards the runners for the next race.

Entries hailed from as far apart as Donegal and Tipperary, with some staying on for Ballyconneely the following day, but many saving themselves for Dingle’s meeting next weekend.

As the horses with their featherweight “pilots” lined up for the €1,200 Omey Plate, Willie Creighton had his back to the wind, and clouds. Barely straining his ear and hardly glancing at the course, he could tell the winner – Neon Tiger – as it crossed the line, followed by Swagger Jagger.

Bets are not of Ballybrit proportions out here, he said. “You’ll have people putting on €2, maybe five, and the odd €50 for fun.”

“It’s always good here as it attracts a crowd, but the weather and the recession has had a big impact on other meetings, and some have even been cancelled this year,” he said, shaking his head.

Galway city arts officer James Harrold was observing form with his spaniel, Oscar, as horses rode down into the sea to cool off, and Yogie was announced as the best turned out steed of the day.

Harrold conjured up images of sea god Manannán MacLir as he spoke of the cultural significance of the event. Where the island, with its Christian settlement founded by St Feichín, had inspired poet Richard Murphy, the races had been recorded on canvas by artist Maurice MacGonigal.

The tension was building for the final race of the day – but it wasn’t the Clifden Plate listed as last in the programme. “Just watch for the dash,” Mulkerrin had warned us.

As the Atlantic broached the course, horse boxes and lorries were heading for Claddaghduff, but James Loftus, owner of the bouncy castle and “Jungle Run”, wasn’t quite so fortunate.

He made one attempt with his truck, turned back, left his vehicle on the island and waded across the sound to Sweeney’s Bar. He would have to wait till another ebb late that night to return . . .

Connemara to London and back

ONE HUNDRED years ago, Rosmuc resident Michael O’Malley and neighbour Joe Walsh rode two Connemara ponies to Maam Cross on the first stage of a long journey to London.

That trek is due to be marked today by the Connemara Pony Breeders’ Society when it unveils a plaque to a “remarkable man” who introduced the Connemara pony to the wider world.

As O’Malley’s grandson Tomás recalls, the pair “got on the Clifden-Galway train, changed trains to Dublin, and took the boat to Liverpool”.

“They then rode the horses across Liverpool to take a train to London, and did the same journey back again,” he says.

On his return from London’s Olympia exhibition centre, O’Malley wrote to the Irish Farming World, warning of the threat to the breed posed by “unsuitable sires”.

His letter sparked off a debate in the publication, and the first society was eventually formed in December 1923, with O’Malley as its first secretary and Fr CJ White as its first president.

The plaque unveiling in O’Malley’s native Rosmuc today marks the opening of the annual Connemara Pony Festival in Clifden, and the 89th show will take place on Wednesday and Thursday.

A full programme of events is on the website