Can-cans and bunting welcome Listowel’s latest hero warriors
It was September 1861 and Paddy the Gosk was the talk of the town. Paddy trained and rode Maid Of Gurteen to win the big race at Listowel Races. Paddy Fitzgerald's nickname was well deserved.
The Gosk is a shortened version of the Irish word gaiscioch or hero-warrior. Paddy was fearless on and off the track. He rode a mad horse around the rim of the Castle Green in Ballybunion for a bet. The drop to the Atlantic was sheer and a slip meant certain death. Paddy collected his wager.
My father walked the edge a hundred years after Paddy's daredevil ride. Back then he wrote a weekly article for 'The Limerick Leader'.
He casually mentioned, in jest, that Kerry County Council had to use a fleet of wheelbarrows to collect the discarded knickers from the Castle Green on the morning after Listowel Races. There was uproar from the custodians of all that was good and holy. Dad enjoyed every minute of it.
Yes, it's that time of year. Listowel Races time. The green and gold buntings cross the sky over every street. The festival lights are dancing Can-Cans in the autumn winds. Gold Medals for a Tidy Town dangle. Houses are painted in bright colours. Birds Amusements are about to nest.
Our bunk beds used to overlook the street leading to the funfair. In the first days back at school we woke at dawn to see if Birds were here yet. My father always invented a scare.
His Christmas one was Santa lost the keys of the igloo and couldn't get our presents out. For the races it was Birds had been forced to circle the merry-go-round wagons outside Askeaton by the Abbeyfeale Cherokee.
But Mick Mulally always rode to the rescue. Mick was the hero in all the stories.
He peed on the frozen hinges of the igloo and the door fell off. Mick told the Cherokee there was a herd of fat buffalo seen grazing in Foynes. And off went they went, mad for meat.
And to think the Rugby World Cup organisers had the cheek to fix their festival at the same time as ours.
HRI, the body in charge of racing in Ireland, allowed The Curragh to hold a fixture on the same day as our first day. Listowel is the second biggest meeting in the land. There is no way a rival meeting would have been allowed when Galway opened up, or Punchestown.
The HRI will say The Curragh attracts the East Coast market. Maybe it does but with the new motorway you can get from the racing heartlands to our course in around two hours. Many would have travelled on Saturday and made a weekend out of it.
Our small town hosts the biggest race meeting to be held anywhere in the world on this week. And I'll bet Listowel will win the battle of the Sunday turnstiles by a distance.
HRI have done a lot of excellent work but this decision, and it has happened before, is infuriating.
Over 30,000 people will cross the river on two of our seven days. The Dubs are among our best customers. Much-loved Jimmy Keaveney is a regular. I marked him at a charity game for GOAL in Listowel Sportsfield.
Keaveney was famous for slipping his marker but I was determined to follow him wherever he went. We spent the second half in Tim and Nuala Kennelly's famous bar.
This Tuesday night coming, we are reffing a match between Listowel and the Jockeys and Trainers. All proceeds go to the Injured Jockeys Fund. There could well be a red card for overuse of the whip.
We will tell Jimmy how bad we are and he will tell us how great they are. It's a cultural thing. By the time we're finished with the psychological warfare, Pat Gilroy will be wondering if Kerry will bother to send up a team.
Our dear friend Pat Cunningham from Louth is a gentle man in every sense. Pat joined us for 50 or more races in a row. He is too ill to travel this year. Pat and people like him, who keep coming back to support us, are an important part of our modern history.
I borrowed most of the old history in this column from John O'Flaherty's book 'Listowel Races'. John was our teacher and he's still teaching us.
John writes of faction fights with the loss of 18 lives when the races were held in Ballyea, a collapsed bridge, a burned stand and a massive riot during the first Troubles, but the most dramatic incident of all took place at the 1908 renewal.
A local businessman owned a stud horse by the name of The Rover, the very valuable sire of an Epsom Derby winner. The owner was bankrupt and his creditors took possession of the horse. The Rover was all but beheaded in his box during Listowel Races. The creditors were thwarted.
Whodunnit? The Godfather?
A lot of water has flown under the racecourse bridges on the Silver River Feale since then.
But even Mick Mulally couldn't save Paddy the Gosk. He died penniless and was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave just outside the town alongside 2,000 famine victims and uncounted, unbaptised babies.
Mass was celebrated at Teampaill Ban cemetery yesterday for Paddy and his neighbours. And Listowel Race Company will honour Paddy's memory at the races next week, 150 years on from his famous win on Maid Of Gurteen.