Fifty years a growing
This year the Ballyheigue Races mark their fiftieth anniversary. Stephen Fernane takes a look back at half a century of racing at one of the country's best loved local meetings
The tide governs the races, but we have one hell of a meeting when it's out...'
The first recorded race meeting in Ballyheigue can be traced back to the 1800s when local landlords the Crosbies erected hurdles and fences on the beach. These meetings were often fractious affairs due a lack of rules and regulations.
In 1968 a group of locals met in Kirby's Bar to arrange the first race meeting under rules in Ballyheigue. Teddy Healy suggested they should come under the umbrella of the newly formed Horse and Pony Race Association (HPRA).
Local horse owners were approached and it was John O'Connor who set up the first meeting between HPRA and Ballyheigue Race Committee. Affiliation followed soon after and the races were run under proper rules with stewards, starters and proper course layout in the winter of 1968.
Current PRO of Ballyheigue Race Committee, Tom Lawlor was a member of the 1968 committee. Tom is the voice you hear over the tannoy every year calling the runners and riders home in his own unique style.
He informs me with a wry smile that Ballyheigue and Dubai are the only racetracks in the world where you can drive in and view the racing!
"The most difficult thing starting out in 1968 was financing the races," Tom said.
"Our first meeting consisted of just four races with prize money totalling £100 that was divided between each race. The horses came from all over and we were lucky that the promenade along the beach front was under construction at the time. Even today this serves as a great viewing stand for the races as it allows people to look onto the course."
Since 1968 the Ballyheigue Races have gone from strength to strength. The standard of racing has also improved and today Ballyheigue is one of the most hotly contested flapper meetings in Ireland.
It has also served as a conveyor belt for some of the sports top riders: Norman Williamson, Adrian Maguire, Bryan Cooper, Chris Hayes, Paul Townend and Jack Kennedy all started their careers on the sands of Ballyheigue.
To celebrate the committee's 10th anniversary in 1979 the famous writer Christy Browne and his wife Mary attended the races where Christy made a presentation. Christy even wrote a poem in homage to the races, which was published in the 1979 racecard.
"The crowds have increased through the years and "I'll meet you at Ballyheigue Races" has become the catchphrase for people home for Christmas.
"The tide governs the races but we have one hell of a meeting when it's out. Many great people involved in getting us to where we are today have since passed away, but the fact the races are still going strong is the best way of honouring their memory," Tom said.
The waves that sing and the wind that braces.
Heralds once more the Ballyheigue Races.
And whether the sun smiles or there are clouds.
It won't dampen the merriment of the crowds.
Who come to share our day of pleasure -
Even if they don't go home with treasure!
From neighbouring parishes they converge.
Upon our lovely strand and merge.
With the local friendly population.
With gaiety and fond anticipation
Of maybe backing a winner or two.
Before the festivities are through.
But despite inflation and slim resources.
They really come to admire the horses.
As they gallop along the shore.
Amid loud hurrahs and colours galore.
The plodder as well as the equine rocket.
To gladden the eye if not the pocket.
So thank the Lord and all the graces -
It's time once more for the Ballyheigue Races.
Christy Browne, January, 1979.
'We're proud of it and the commitment put in by everyone is outstanding..."
Michael Leane is current Chairman of Ballyheigue Race Committee and this year marks a significant milestone in more ways than one as his late father, Donal B Leane, was the founding Chairman back in 1968.
It's a measure of the continuity and generational links that are forged through Ballyheigue Races.
"The races are great for our exiles and it's often the only time in the year that people get to meet each other," Michael said.
"I recall in the earlier years when the Ballyheigue Race Dance was held in Doyle's Hall. All the horse owners used to stay there and it was a great atmosphere. We're very proud of it and people will always ask this time of year 'when are the races on?'"
Some of the surviving members of the 1968 committee include Teddy Healy, Diarmuid Lawlor and Fr Paddy Godley. There is even a strong Chicago link with the races as many moons ago the late John Joe O'Sullivan was sent to the US to raise money to help keep the meeting going.
Michael Leane said John Joe returned from his trip stateside with a few bob for the races and a massive cup - The Chicago Exiles' Cup - which was presented at the races until it went missing a few years ago (any information on its whereabouts would be welcome).
Liam O'Mahony is Joint Secretary of Ballyheigue Race Committee and he is involved since 1979. "The races have gained in strength over the years," he said.
"The people enjoy it and we do our level best every year to run the races between Christmas Day and News Year's Day when people are home. But as you know, tide, time and weather determine the outcome.
"I recall one year when the weather was so bad that every race meeting in Ireland was cancelled, except for Ballyheigue. The crowds that year were unreal, and they have remained strong ever since. We're very proud of it and the commitment put in by everyone is outstanding," said Liam.