EUROPEAN policy-makers, bent on stimulating more communal involvement, have designated 2011 as the Year of Volunteering. Ireland is blessed to have such a dynamic ethic at work enriching everyday life, and thankfully, the concept was alive and healthy in the Ballinrobe of 1921.
There was a tradition of racing in Ballinrobe, as far as one can ascertain, for generations, but unsuitable locations were hampering progress.
Civic-minded residents, in the persons of Dr Peter Daly, Thomas Fitzpatrick, Patrick S Daly, JB Staunton, Edward Fitzgerald and Bernard Joyce, approached the local landlord, Knox, with a view to acquiring a better venue.
Knox assented to lease the lands, 102 acres, for 900 years, and the requisite money was raised by voluntary subscription, in amounts of £25, £50 and £100. The approximate 60 subscribers were largely local, and in 1961 the rent payable annually to the Knox estate was bought out, and the property is now held in fee simple.
A spacious field, situated one mile from the town on the Castlebar Road, is a positive reminder of the foresight of the men who engaged with Knox 90 years ago. No other Mayo town can lay claim to such an amenity and recent improvements have enhanced its national rating significantly.
National schools in the area closed on days of racing in Ballinrobe, thereby facilitating regular childhood visits by this writer. Impressionable young eyes gaped at the wonder of it all. Memories, human and equine, still linger.
Wildly excited punters roared home winning favourites, grim-faced bookmakers remained silent and scratched their heads. Roles were reversed at times too – bookies smiled as they surveyed bulging satchels, and disgruntled backers lambasted jockeys when expectations were not realised.
In a less exposed setting, an eagle-eyed individual, with a hat tilted precariously on his head, placed cards on a table. Onlookers were invited to ‘find the lady’.
Accomplices deftly demonstrated how easy it was to do so. Bets were placed by the credulous. The lady proved to be elusive. Puzzled looks, angry words, time to move onto a less hostile setting, and away from the menacing threat of an approaching custodian of the law.
Assorted stalls tempted young and old. Years later, in an English Leaving Certificate English class, an anonymous balladeer stirred one’s memory of carefree afternoons in a Mayo field, with the Partry mountains standing like sentinels in the background:
“It’s there you’ll see confectioners with sugar sticks and dainties, The lozenges and oranges, lemonade and the raisins; The gingerbread and spices to accommodate the ladies, And a big crubeen for threepence to be picking while you’re able”.
Famous names from yesteryear
NAMES familiar from the racing page of the Irish Press were given flesh and blood, as people like Tom Dreaper, Barney Nugent, Tim Hyde, Harry Ussher, Charlie Rogers, Martin Maloney and Aubrey Brabazon made last-minute preparations in the parade ring for the upcoming race. Hopeful punters scrutinised every more, in the expectation – however forlorn – that some indicator might be the source of profitable betting consequences.
Redoubtable Martin Maloney, from the fertile fields of Limerick, was the Ruby Walsh of his day. Curiosity tugged this young race-goer on one occasion to the railing adjacent to the start. While awaiting the action to begin, receptive ears caught the fatherly voice of Maloney addressing a fellow rider: “This is your first day out, young man, take care of yourself.”
A sobering expression of concern in a ruthlessly competitive activity, and an acknowledgement that the human factor should never be divorced from sporting interaction! Shaking hands with an opponent afterwards never demeaned anybody!
Names of noted horses also jog the memory. Allegations of a Mayo prejudice hopefully will not be cited if Lough Conn is chosen for primary mention.
Owned by Mrs M Rowe, Ballina, and diminutive in size, Lough Conn first displayed his capacity to jump fences in Ballinrobe, and later finished second in the 1947 Aintree Grand National, at 10/1 and 11 years of age, to 100/1 outsider Caughoo.
Monksfield is another equine stalwart with Ballinrobe associations for this writer. Remaining on one evening after racing to watch the schooling of horses, Monksfield was put through his paces as part of a rehabilitation routine after sustaining an injury.
The Ballinrobe environment must have stimulated him, as he went on to win the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham in 1978 and 1979, and was second in 1977 and 1980. Dr Mick Mangan, a native of Dunmore, Co Galway – and no mean exponent of handling a rugby ball – was his owner, while Des McDonagh attended to the training chores.
The versatile Doran’s Pride, successful over jumps and on the flat, and owned by Mayo native Tom Doran, registered his first victory in a 1993 Ballinrobe bumper.
How times have changed
THE economic climate has changed substantially over the years. A race-card cost six pence in 1946, as opposed to the present charge of £3, but the content was not at all as informative as the modern counterpart, which details the recent form of the runners. Admission charges to the stand – 7s-6d, gentlemen, and 5s-0d, ladies – would hardly find favour in contemporary society, very aware of equality. Children were charged 2s-6d and the prize-money amounted to 700 sovereigns.
A race night dance in the Town Hall rounded off the day’s activities. Noted band leaders of the day – such as Stephen Garvey, Castlebar, or Ballinrobe’s Jack Power – provided the music, and the dancing hours stretched from 9pm to 4am. Production levels in the local workplace were hardly in keeping with the national average the following day!
Talk of centralising Irish racing and confining the action to the premier tracks evoked considerable controversy 17 years ago. Thankfully, more balanced counsels prevailed, and one can still enjoy racing in Ballinrobe, Sligo and Roscommon.
Conscious of the necessity to cater for contemporary needs, the Ballinrobe Committee, augmented by sympathetic associates from other centres in the region, has effected a substantial improvement in facilities. Race-goer comfort has become paramount and the reaction from all sectors has been glowing appreciative.
Sustaining something for 90 years is no mean accomplishment, a stirring testimony of wholehearted commitment to a cause.
Men like Bernard Daly RIP, Dermot O’Connor, John Staunton (Chairman), Ken Murphy, John Daly, Frank Fitzgerald, Joe Daly, all upholding a family tradition; Jimmy Tierney RIP, a former secretary of passionate zeal, Michael Flannery, Donal Downes, Peter Costello and JJ Gannon all merit a deserved salute.
Ballinrobe’s racing future is secure in the progressive hands of John Flannelly, the current manager.
What constitutes a sense of place? Responses vary.
Mine is thrilling to a Michael Flannery horse, I have backed, prevailing in a photo finish, in that special field, along the Castlebar Road.
Billy Horan is a Trustee of Ballinrobe Racecourse. He has been attending meetings at his local track for longer than he cares to remember.