Horse trainer Jim Bolger's picturesque 300-acre stud farm at Glebe House in Coolcullen, Co Kilkenny, is less than two hours away from the often troubled streets of Moyross in Limerick.
For 17-year-old Darragh O'Keeffe, however, Coolcullen has been a new world.
“I was going down a bad road in Moyross. I was doing stupid things that I shouldn’t have been doing,” says O’Keeffe, who kept two horses in Moyross for a time, before they were impounded by the council. “I was being an eejit, to be honest, but then, after going to Jim Bolger’s yard, I woke up.”
Bolger is one of a number of senior racing figures now offering work experience to young people from the Limerick estate. Leopardstown Racecourse, too, is on board, and a group will help out there during the upcoming Christmas meeting.
The genesis of the idea came after Pat Keogh, Leopardstown's chief executive, heard Moyross parish priest Fr Tony O'Riordan talking on radio about the challenges facing his community.
"The parish was desperate for help after losing funding for a teaching post in their school," says Keogh, who was at the time a member of the parish council in Dalkey, one of the country's wealthiest districts,
The Dalkey parishioners made a contribution to help save the Moyross teaching job.
“It was a case of one parish helping out another in its hour of need,” Keogh says.
Later, Keogh and others visited Moyross, where Fr O’Riordan explained his efforts to get work experience for local youths.
“A lot of them have a love of horses, so I thought the natural thing was to invite some of them to Leopardstown,” Keogh says
Arrivals at Coolcullen
Three years ago, Keogh introduced Fr O'Riordan to Jim Bolger, who quickly accepted arrivals at Coolcullen.
“We’ve had no adverse experience. If we can do anything to help, we’re happy to do it, [though] obviously [the work] is not going to be everybody’s cup of tea,” says Bolger, who adds that O’Keeffe is one of six to come to Coolcullen who “looks like staying the course. That’s a good outcome.”
“Darragh is a lovely lad. We’ll teach him all we can, and he seems happy at the moment, so we’ll look after him well,” Bolger says. “The others all got something out of it.”
Teenagers come from other places, too.
“It’s amazing the improvement that’s in them when they come back to us for a second year, in comparison to what they were in year one,” Bolger says.
“I stuck it out,” says O’Keeffe proudly, “I’m up at 6.30am and start work at quarter to seven. After breakfast, I go and muck out the stables . . . There are geldings and yearlings, colts and fillies to feed and prepare.”
O’Keeffe is currently on his third tour with Bolger .
“I stay in a bungalow just beside the yard,” he says. “In the summer there [were] at least 12 people in and out of the house. At the moment there are three lads.”
Nineteen-year-old Moyross student Martin Stokes is one of those currently working at Leopardstown, helping to prepare for the four-day Christmas racing festival beginning on St Stephen's Day.
“I was fortunate to get to Leopardstown. I don’t go near horses, it’s all maintenance work,” he says. “I’ve realised from working here that I love working outdoors, and everyone up here is really easy to get along with.”
Back in Kilkenny, O’Keeffe is grateful to Fr O’Riordan and Bolger and the others who have helped him.
“I asked Fr Tony to help me get myself up on my feet and out of Moyross. With his help, I haven’t looked back,” he says.
Next year, he hopes to finishes his Leaving Certificate.
“Before, I was waking up in Moyross and I wasn’t doing much with myself,” he says. “I like waking up in the morning now, going to work, watching the races, and having a bit of banter.
“My goal is to get somewhere in life, and get a job, and get on my own two feet. I’m going to work with horses for a couple of years; that’s the plan. The future is bright, for now anyway.”
A horse training academy is planned for Moyross in 2017, aiming to offer students work placements in racing yards, stud farms and racecourses around the country.
Paying tribute to Fr O’Riordan, Bolger says: “He’s a wonderful man and he is doing great work in Moyross, and he deserves all the support he can get. I’ll do anything I can to help him, and we need more like him.”
Calling on other employers, he says, jokingly: “If there are any other employers out there in an industry that might suit any of these city chaps better than the horses, I’d like if they could get in touch with Fr O’Riordan. It can work, and it does work. I’ve one particular city man who came to me in 1976, and he’s still with us, so he obviously likes the country air. It is possible to have city folk adapt to country life.”