Galway Races: ‘The main thing this year was to get the races going’

Crowds at Ballybrit limited to 1,000 as hotels feel the pinch of lower numbers

For Connor and Elaine Counihan, the Galway Races at Ballybrit have marked the story of their married lives, from a place for family holidays with their children in years past, to a getaway for two today.

This year, the couple did not expect to be in Ballybrit: “We were able to get tickets which is great. We registered, and then they notified me when the tickets were on sale, I didn’t think we had a chance.”

“It’s very different, the atmosphere is totally different, but there are positive things like the fact that we don’t have to queue anywhere. Yes, it’s great to be here,” said Elaine, with a laugh.

The couple have travelled to the Galway festival for more than 25 years: “We came when our kids were younger, it was our family holiday, but now they’re grown up so it’s just us,” she went on.

You just have to be very careful. You try to stop any interaction. No intimate conversation that you would have any other year, sitting and relaxing

Henry and Anne Gallagher are Galway first-timers, drawn to Ballybrit by owning the Henry de Bromhead-trained, Annie G: "We lived in England for 10 years so now that we have a horse running, we're here today," said Anne.

The horse won comfortably, under jockey Dara O’Keeffe.

John Beattie, the manager of the Eyre Square Hotel, talked this week with a guest who remembers coming to the races in the 1950s: "People used to camp in Eyre Square because there wasn't many hotels or B&Bs back then."

Things are different in 2021 with Covid public health restrictions limiting the crowd to 1,000 spectators, he said: “However, I think the main thing this year was to get the races going. Hopefully, if we get beyond the current situation we will get the numbers back.”

The pandemic has impacted on hotel booking numbers: “We were still selling rooms for this week up to two weeks ago. In previous years that wouldn’t have happened at all. It would have been booked out months in advance,” he said.

For Christine Ulmsehneider, the front office manager at the Menlo Park Hotel on Headford Road, race week is still important for the city, even as bars, hotels and restaurants get used to the new hospitality rules.

Everything has changed this year: “We had a lot of last-minute cancellation of people who couldn’t get tickets; they booked hoping to get tickets but then they couldn’t get tickets, but there is still demand.

“We have a few people coming every year for the races. They are still coming even if they can’t go to the races, but they still enjoy the atmosphere, so they’re watching on a TV in a pub, or going to town,” she said.

The city's hotels are enjoying the lion's share of the bookings that are there, says Coranne McCarthy, who manages of the Ashford Manor guesthouse.

“Our business is way down. Some of our guests who have been coming for 20 or 30 years have cancelled. And guests prefer to stay in hotels because they can eat and drink in hotels, my guests have to queue up to get in a restaurant.”

Patricia Flynn, who runs the Lynfield Lodge guesthouse on College Road agrees, saying the fact that hotel restaurants are open is giving them a huge advantage.

“A lot of my customers have been coming year on year on year, but not this year. Because my dining room is such a small room, I can’t do meals, so I have cut prices and [am] just offering a room,” she said.

The restrictions have made business difficult: “You just have to be very careful. You try to stop any interaction. No intimate conversation that you would have any other year, sitting and relaxing.

“I can’t go out having a proper conversation. I cut communication which is very alien for a B&B and the Irish hospitality is not there,” she said.