Saturday 10 December 2016

A love affair with Galway

Published 22/07/2011 | 05:00

This will be RTE commentator Tracy Piggott's 22nd year going to the Galway races. She explores what makes it one of her favourite race meets to cover and the reason the western capital holds such special memories

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I have been going to the Galway races every year since 1989, and even before moving to Ireland I recall hearing stories about this amazing racing festival in the mystical West of Ireland where everybody lets their hair down for the week, hardly ever go to bed, and revel in what is a totally unique racing experience at Ballybrit.

It did not disappoint, and to this day I look forward to the week with relish.

For me it has never lacked that certain 'Je ne sais pas', and is always full of surprises and, above all, fun.

So many people have asked me over those years what I think it is that makes Galway so different from other racing festivals, and I still don't know the answer. Sometimes these things just are, and we can never fathom why.

Galway itself is a magnificent city. I go as often as I can, and I always find myself totally relaxing as I turn the corner at the port and park in my usual spot. Even on off season it still holds a special magic. The people are wonderful, easy going and friendly and the shops are quirky and great to explore. There's always a lovely cafe to sit down in and watch the world go by over really good coffee, and there's usually someone to get chatting to.

And at night there are loads of fabulous restaurants and bars, most of which I have tried!

During race week, the city really comes alive, and literally never goes to sleep for the entire seven days. I always find it unusual that Galway is called a city, as it has that intimate feel of a small town. Maybe that is part of its secret.

Even though the week for me is mainly about work, I always manage to enjoy the social side of it too. Life is too short to miss out on craic to be had, and over the years I can honestly say that I have had more craic in Galway than anywhere else.

I used to travel down on the Saturday before racing started to get 'settled' in for the weekend, but now with my little girl to mind, and the fact that my stamina in my 40s is not quite what it was, I drive down on the Monday morning. I would usually check into my hotel first, then freshen up and head for the track.

For the last few years I have been staying in The Twelve, which I love. Barna is a little away from the madness, but near enough that you can dip in and out of when the mood takes you, or enjoy the fun to be had and eat in my most favourite of the restaurants, O'Gradys on the Pier. I have already booked my table for three nights! That's how much I love the place, and it's perfect for catching up with friends that I have not seen for ages, whilst eating the best fish around and looking out across the bay to Clare as the waves crash on the shore. Usually with a very nice glass of red in my hand.

The place is always buzzing, and invariably there will be some singing. You never know who you might meet in there.

Galway Bay itself is extremely special to me as I swam across it in 1998 on the Tuesday of the meeting.

It took me seven and a half hours underwater, across nearly nine nautical miles. I will never forget the welcome I received when I reached the other side, and again when I finally made it to the races that night, exhausted but delighted with the achievement, seaweed still stuck in my hair.

The weeks preceding that swim were spent visiting every hotel and bar and cafe and restaurant putting up my posters to get some sponsorship from whomever I could, to help raise as much as possible for the John Durkan Leukaemia Foundation.

I cannot describe the generosity, kindness and warmth that I received during that time. I am sure this has contributed to the affection I have for Galway and the sense of familiarity and ease that I feel when I am there.

I have great friends who live in the area, many of whom were part of a group that cycled across America in 2000. I have trained many a mile around Oughterard and Moycullen, Maam Cross and up some excrutiatingly long hills. It's great to meet up again and relive the memories.

Favourite watering holes like the Front Door, the Roisin Dubh and Neachtains are perfect places to do just that and the Guinness is always spot on.

Weather and what to wear are always big problems for me. It can be blazing one day and torrential rain and wind the next. So I tend to bring everything for every climate with me.

I lorry it all into the car and hope for the best. Invariably I will get to pick up a few bits on the Tuesday morning as I wander around Quay Street.

The fact that the first two days are evening meetings is handy if I have forgotten something, or just want to browse around. Monday and Tuesday, are always more informal and relaxed before we get to The Plate and Hurdle days and of course the glamathon that is Ladies Day. Looking back over two decades of covering the Galway festival , it has something for everyone, young or old.

There is beautiful Connemara just down the road, wonderful mussels and oysters to eat, especially in that legendary establishment Morans on The Weir. There's music, no shortage of romance, and an opportunity to forget your woes and just immerse yourself in the magical mayhem that is the Galway Festival.

Irish Independent Supplement

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