Glorious autumnal weather provided the perfect backdrop as thousands descended on Ballinasloe yesterday for the oldest horse fair in Europe.
Over 80,000 people are expected in the east Co Galway town during the week and while the wellingtons will undoubtedly be required before the fair concludes next Sunday, the sun came out yesterday for the opening day.
The fair has had to endure some terrible weather down through the years, so for the likes of John Dooley from Feakle in Co Clare, who has been attending for half a century, yesterday’s conditions were more than welcome.
“I look forward to it every year and love coming back. It’s great to have a bit of good weather. You can meet people from anywhere here,” he said.
Irish and international buyers of horseflesh thronged the Fairgreen in Ballinasloe for the centuries-old Great October Fair.
Splash the cash
Hundreds of horses and ponies will change hands over the course of the week, with some of the biggest Irish horse dealers expecting to pick up 50-60 horses each.
It’s all in the hope of unearthing the next big showjumping star, with international buyers already lined up to splash the cash for quality stock.
"You can't beat Ballinasloe – it's a great horse fair. I'll be buying anything up to 60 horses, pretty much as I did last year," said Athlone-based dealer Jim Derwin.
Country music star Mike Denver officially launched the big fair at St Michael's Square, flanked by the 2015 Queen of the Fair, schoolteacher Rachel Walker.
But less happy were the dozens of Traveller families who travelled to Ballinasloe in the hope of racing their “sulkies”.
The high-speed events featuring the two-wheeled traps have long been a feature of the Great October Fair in the crowded Fairgreen in front of thousands of onlookers.
But health and safety issues allied to insurance liability concerns and the views of animal rights groups have led to a ban for the first time on sulky racing.
Galway County Council, which oversees the event on the council-owned property, has installed ramps to prevent the racing – it is known locally as flashing – from going ahead in its traditional venue in one section of the Fairgreen.
“I think it’s a bad call to ban it outright. The fear now is that they will simply move the racing away from the Fairgreen to another location which could be even more dangerous,” said Ballinasloe councillor
“I hope I’m proved wrong and that the ban will be accepted, because there are so many people who throng the Fairgreen that there are safety issues. For those taking part it’s more a bit of bravado than anything else,” Cllr Finnerty added.
There were some reports of sulky racing taking place on the outskirts of the town over the weekend.
Visitors will have a full week of action to keep them entertained by the time the event comes to a close next Sunday. The programme includes showjumping, a fireworks display, tug o’ war, soapbox derby, a traditional country fair, and music and dancing.