Galway's golden years: Race week has never been a buttoned-down affair in the style of Ascot
As helicopter bookings and hotel rates soar for Race Week once again, our reporter looks back at the Celtic Tiger days of flash cars and champagne tents
'We're going to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs," one Galway B&B owner told me. Showing genuine concern, he elaborated: "I've had the Dutch saying it. I've had the Italians saying it. I've had the English saying it. We've priced ourselves out of their holiday plans for Race Week and the weeks either side of it."
The B&B owner was not speaking this week, when it was reported that some Galway hotels are charging up to €700 for a room for a single night. He was expressing those fears of killing the golden goose 15 years ago, in 2002, when the city's B&Bs were charging what now seems a restrained €35 per person per night.
And yet the crowds kept flooding into Galway every Race Week through the middle years of the 2000s until the global credit crunch brought a halt to the gallop of the festival and the nation. Ireland's nouveau riche arrived in their droves, and they arrived weighed down with bling. Lesser mortals would gather to gaze at the parked supercars of the super-rich, like Ferrari's sleek Enzo (0-60mph in 3.5 seconds for €800,000) or the Bugatti Veyron (0-60 in 3 seconds getting four miles to the gallon, for €1.1m). Such was the demand for these boy-toys that even if you had the ready money, you'd often have to join a waiting list.
Surveying with pride a vehicle he'd sold a few months earlier and now parked at the Ballybrit racetrack, one car dealer in 2002 said of these "half-ornaments-half-road-vehicles" which were selling like hot-cakes: "The buyers are 90pc males, mostly aged 35-50. Some would be from the world of entertainment, but most are from property development and construction.
"Usually they'd drive a Range Rover on weekdays, saving the Enzo or Veyron for weekends or special events like the Galway Races. Some owners won't even take them out in the rain."
It rains a lot in Galway, which perhaps partly explained why so many high rollers and politicians preferred to make a grand entrance by helicopter, and a decade ago the helipads at Ballybrit were in operation 24/7 for the duration of the festival. This week the helipads are expected to be at their busiest in 10 years.
The helicopter was one of the status symbols of Celtic Tiger living it large. In 2001 Tanaiste Mary Harney landed in hot water when it emerged that she'd used an official fisheries surveillance aircraft to fly to Leitrim to cut the ribbon on a friend's off-licence.
Of course she wasn't really in hot water, in a period when the so-called 'feel-good factor' had taken a manic grip on the national psyche and squandermania appeared to be official government policy. And while the nation basked blissfully in what promised to be an endless summer of conspicuous consumption, the epicentre of it all was Ballybrit. The tales of excess from when the boom was at its boomiest (to paraphrase Bertie Ahern) are legion. One bigshot at a €300-a-plate dinner, for instance, on finding he had no napkin, wiped his mouth with a €50 note.
This year the owner of the Michelin-starred Aniar restaurant, JP McMahon, is concerned that a revival in the fortunes of the Galway Races will translate into a revival of rowdy behaviour best left behind in the last decade. Announcing that he'll be closing the doors of his establishment for the duration of the jamboree, McMahon denounced it as a "rag week for adults". He explained that he found it "beyond embarrassing" to be serving food to cultured tourists while rowdy revellers threw up outside his front window.
But the fact is that Galway Race Week has never been a buttoned-down affair in the style of Royal Ascot, and has never wanted to be. Ladies Day on the Thursday has always admirably filled the elegance and glamour quota, leaving the rest of the fest roughly portioned out between those who come for the horses and those there for the social networking.
Thirty years ago the off-track activity was mostly concerned with all-night poker marathons, all-day drinking sessions, and catching up with old buddies. But the nature of the social networking took on an entirely new focus after Bertie Ahern became Taoiseach in 1997. Des Richardson, one of Ahern's inner circle known as 'The Drumcondra Mafia', told the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry two years ago that it was his idea to erect a Fianna Fáil tent at Ballybrit for the purposes of fundraising.
For 10 years in the 90s and 2000s, the Fianna Fáil tent at the Galway Races was a symbol of wheeler-dealing and golden circles. For the party of government it was a rip-roaring success. Fianna Fáil annually raised some €100,000 by selling 500 seats at 48 tables on each of the four days of the event, with a table for 10 ranging from €2,500 to €3,500. The whirlybirds were operating on overtime as developers and business figures clamoured to support the democratic process.
Other shrines to conspicuous consumption came and went, including the National Aquatic Centre and Dublin's Spire. But the Fianna Fáil tent came to be known as the government project that just kept on giving.
Indeed, the Galway Races became so intertwined with the popularity of the Ahern government, that when rumours flared up in 2002 that Bertie's relationship with Celia Larkin was on the rocks, the couple chose the festival to present a united front that quelled the gossip for a few months.
Those glory days when Ballybrit was the real capital of Ireland for a week each summer ended in 2008 when incoming Taoiseach Brian Cowen swapped the Armani for sackcloth and kicked down the tentpoles. With the credit crunch crushing the life out of Ireland, Cowen deemed it "inappropriate" to be associated with gaudy bling, fountains of pink champagne, and endless unseemly back-slapping and back-scratching between politicians and their new best friends.
A year later, in 2009, the recession hit fully and attendances were well down. Happily, this year the festival organisers are looking forward with some confidence to having their best year in almost a decade.
Things will never be quite the same again, of course. Fundraising tents have acquired something of a bad reputation, as have cars that do four miles to the gallon. And security measures will be in place this year that would have been unthinkable a decade ago, with punters facing body-searches and a ban on backpacks.
Maybe there's no harm in getting a reminder that our security is something we can't take for granted in this post-crash world. After all, as we partied like it was just past 1999, it was in part a sense of our own unbreachable financial security that led us galloping over the cliff.