Roddy L’Estrange: Vinny’s mark of respect pays off in spades

Decision to back number eight at Fairyhouse in memory of Ashbourne dead proves lucky

The invite was half-expected by Vinny Fitzpatrick. His presence was requested at Ashbourne on Easter Monday for a re-enactment of the attack on the RIC barracks in the County Meath village.

On this commemorative day, Vinny would represent “Goggles” Gavigan, formerly of the Fingal Volunteers, who fought under the command of Thomas Ashe that fateful Easter Week.

Goggles was his late mam’s uncle, a bachelor farmer who lived a long life, yet rarely spoke about the bloody events that April day which left eight policemen and two rebels dead.

He did, however, confide to his wide-eyed grandnephew one summer’s evening by Rath Cross, just outside Ashbourne, near where Goggles lived.

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“Son,” he said to the enthralled 10-year-old, “this was where it all happened.”

Sweeping a bony hand across the Meath countryside, Goggles rasped: “This was where we fought for Irish freedom. I played my part, I pulled my trigger, I saw men fall.

“Many were Irishmen, which tore my heart, but it was my duty.”

Goggles, so named because of his milk bottle glasses, painted a vivid story of an extraordinary time in the Easter Rising, of guerrilla warfare across Fingal from Donabate, Swords, Garristown and finally Ashbourne.

Unlike the Rising in Dublin where rebels commandeered buildings and waited for the British troops and police to react, Ashe operated a ‘Flying Column’ style of warfare.

His men struck, took what they could, moved on and struck again, with Goggles Gavigan at the hub of it all.

“Ashe split us into groups of four, which gave the illusion there were more of us than there actually were. That Friday, there were two fierce fights, at Rath Cross and in the nearby barracks, which was put under siege.

“When it was over, we had captured 80 men and felt euphoric. Ashe made a speech at the crossroads and explained to the RIC that their uniform had made them a target for their fellow countrymen.

“He said they were pardoned in the name of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic but warned that if they were ever seen in arms against the Republic again they would be shot.

“It was powerful stuff. Yet, the next day we were told by Pearse we had to surrender. We won a battle but lost a war.”

Goggles Gavigan spent six months in Frongoch Camp in Wales before returning home where he lived quietly with his pigs for almost 60 years.

Vinny was taken by his Ma to see Goggles every year on April 28th, the anniversary of the Battle of Ashbourne, and it was poignant that Goggles, pushing 90, should gasp his last on that date in 1976.

Unusually, for the time, he requested his ashes be scattered by the monument in Rath Cross, a task which Vinny, then 17, was entrusted to do. ‘Ashes for Ashe,’ he had written down.

Some 40 years later, Vinny trod the path taken by Goggles, Ashe and other Fingal Volunteers.

Scarily authentic

The centenary re-enactment was scarily authentic as shouts, shots and gunsmoke thickened the Ashbourne air. Afterwards, there was a speech and Vinny was heartened that the eight fallen RIC officers were not forgotten.

As The Last Post carried mournfully across the breeze, Vinny glanced at his watch; it was almost 2pm.

Even allowing for race traffic, Vinny reckoned he could get to Fairyhouse in time for the first race at 2.40pm. It was Irish Grand National Day and Vinny never missed the Dubs’ day out.

He was relatively flush after his Cheltenham coups but had been punting long enough to know luck balanced out.

Usually, Vinny studied the formbook inside out before betting but today, on the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, he decided his wagering practice would be symbolic rather than rational.

He thought he might back the horses numbered 19 and 16, then swiftly reckoned there wouldn’t be enough runners to cover more than a race or two.

“What about number seven, in honour of the signatories of the Proclamation?” he thought. “Nah, too obvious.”

He needed a number with a twist. And then, it hit him. He recalled Goggles Gavigan’s sadness at the death of eight RIC officers that fateful April day 100 years ago.

As a mark of respect, he’d back number eight in the first race, and stick with it for the day. He’d put €20 a head and leave it at that.

What unfolded over the next couple of hours was scary. One by one, the horse with the eight on his saddle cloth, took flight.

First, Slowmotion won at 2/1, then Sutton Place at 13/8, followed by Just In Cause (16/1) and Value At Risk (11/4).

When Rogue Angel (16/1) claimed the Irish National, Vinny was up more than 800 nicker.

Penultimate race

He invested his final €20 in the penultimate race with a weather-beaten rails bookie.

“A score on number eight,” he said with confidence.

“Give me a break,’ said the weary layer.”

At that, Vinny took mild umbrage. “I beg your pardon? If my bet goes belly up would you give me a break? Not on your Nellie,” he said.

The bookie squinted down at Vinny from his perch.

“No offence, pal. That’s the name of the horse,” he quipped as he whipped the 20 quid out of Vinny’s hand muttering about how novices should stick to the tote.

A red-faced Vinny was 20 paces away before he realised he had neglected to take his docket in his hurry to escape the sneering bookie. He touched his padded wallet. He was up enough on the day and would let it go. Every sucker, including needy bookies, could use a break.