The Galway Races: posh social outing or depraved adult disco?

Niamh Towey: It’s possible to indulge in its festivities without disgracing yourself in the process

The Galway Races are decadent and depraved. Or is that the Kentucky Derby?

Either way, as you read this, I'm there – probably trying to "pace myself" with bottles of Coors Light and keep the high heels on for longer than 40 minutes.

In your head, the races are a classy affair, right? All fascinators and fancy up-dos, well applied tan and dry-cleaned dresses.

The men are wearing tweed suits and quirky socks, chatting about stocks and shares and the latest Brexit fiasco.


In your head, it’s an upper-class social outing – slightly stiff and pompous, a place for business people to rub shoulders and where social climbers shine.

Yet every race day I’ve ever been to has proven the opposite. My experience of them is that they are like teenage discos for adults.

Hunter S Thompson called the races a "vicious, drunken nightmare" in his 1970 report The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.

He described "thousands of people fainting, crying, copulating, trampling each other and fighting with broken whiskey bottles" at the Churchill Downs infield area.

Reading his piece now, 48 years after it was published, I cannot help but foresee some similarities.

‘A nightmare’

I asked a friend what came to mind when they thought about the races.

“In one word, it’s a nightmare. A bunch of lads and lassies dressed up to the nines in a depraved, drunken nightmare.

“It’s probably great craic, though.”

I’m here for the last part, though I can’t help but think the nightmare bit goes hand-in-hand.

Another person, who is from Galway, told me it ruined their native city and reminded them of “sloppy old men in brown suits drinking pints of Harp”.

I can imagine it now.

Stilettos covered in clumps of mucky grass. Tissues stuffed into the handbag for a sneaky pee behind the stand.

Shawls which were supposed to cover the shoulders from a breeze are now soaked from torrential downpours.

Fake tan stains under the armpits. Puking in the Portaloos at 4pm. Buying rounds of €12 vodka lemonades on the credit card.

Sweat trickling down your neck as you queue at the bar of the clubhouse that is so wedged with people there is sweaty condensation fogging up the mirrors.

Sloppy auld men dribbling out incoherent chat-up lines at women young enough to be their daughters.

Covered in sludge

Herds of feral young fellas clinking crumpling plastic glasses of Jagermeister together in a testosterone-and-Red-Bull-fuelled frenzy.

Once pretty painted toenails now bloodied and covered in sludge from being stood on by clumsy, big-footed men at the bar.

Ketchup globs out of greasy burgers which are eaten at such haste they seem to be inhaled, not chewed.

Claustrophobic, debauched, drunken and debased.

Wild, feral and unbound. Loose. Like the rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem, ready to wreak havoc on the people of Galway.

So why am I going, you might ask? If it’s as bad as you make it sound, why not stay at home?

If only it were that simple. There is part of all of us that sees an opportunity in the wildness of it.

Where rules and regulations fall asunder a kind of mob rule can assume power; in this case dictating only mayhem and high jinks.

But a riot isn’t always a bad thing. Hedonism can often leave us with no choice but to embrace the moment, to live in the present and set aside our preconceived ideas of what a good time is supposed to look like.


For all the debauchery I’ve witnessed at race days before, I’ve always taken joy from its revelry.

You can enjoy the circus of it without putting your head into the lion’s mouth. It is possible to indulge in its festivities without disgracing yourself in the process.

And anyways, so what if you got a little ketchup on your white shirt? And who cares if you’ve resorted to flip-flops instead of heels before the last race?

I joked about the Galway races being decadent and depraved. How would I know – I’ve never been before.

Even if they are, grace and good manners sound far less fun than rapture and exultation.

If the reference to Hunter S Thompson’s essay gave you cold feet about the event, it is worth noting that this was a man reported to have fuelled his writing with a diet of cocaine, acid and Chivas Regal.

Perhaps, then, his description of race day is more than a little exaggerated.

Maybe my grim prophecy is too – or maybe I’m remembering it all wrong.

In any case, I'll see you at Ballybrit. But remember, don't lose the run of yourself.