Sinead Kissane: 'Time and tide wait for no-one, but tradition lives on in Ballyheigue Races'
Picture it. A village on the coast of north Kerry on the weekend between Christmas and New Year's Eve. The beach has been transformed into a race-track, a 6.5-furlong course which is shaped like an athletics track with bends that require quick re-engagement with your wits after the Christmas go-slow.
On one side of the track is the promenade which is the gathering place for onlookers.
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Unlike the dressy affair in Leopardstown that week, the Ballyheigue Strand Races isn't the place to wear delicate head-pieces for fear of any head-winds. Because on the opposite side of the makeshift racecourse is the wide Atlantic Ocean.
The Ballyheigue Strand Races has been running for 50 years and the golden jubilee was marked by a two-day race meeting last weekend instead of the usual one-day card. You see things in Ballyheigue you may not see anywhere else. Last Saturday I sized up a horse by its name and put €5 on She's Our Warrior to win the Ballyheigue Plate.
If horses can make fools of the uneducated then ponies are of a different intelligentsia again. When it came to the first gallop down by the Atlantic, She's Our Warrior decided she'd had enough and took a detour into the sea to feel the water against her ankles.
"But the Christmas Day swim was four days ago," I didn't shout from the promenade. Expecting the unexpected is normal fare here, it seems.
"It wouldn't be unusual for a horse to go and arrive up at the sand dunes. It wouldn't be unusual for the horse to go onto the next beach which is Banna beach," says Tom Lawlor, one of the founders of the Ballyheigue Races in 1968 and who's been the man on the microphone at every race-day there since.
The wonder of watching horse-racing on the beach lies in the fact that humans must play by nature's laws. The tide is the natural ruler here. When the AGM for the Ballyheigue Strand Races takes place on the first Wednesday of October every year, the first matter to be nailed down is the date which is decided by the moon which controls the tide. They can look up a tide book which is used by fishermen or work it out themselves.
"If you've a new moon around the 20th of December, or a day around that, the tide is full. You can knock a half an hour off that then every day as the tide in Ballyheigue is usually 45 to 50 minutes later going out every day," Liam O'Mahony, secretary of the Race committee, points out.
But there's more, as Lawlor adds: "We usually go for a going tide because a going tide actually give us 200 or 300 acres of a course whereas a coming tide is too risky as it's coming in too quickly for you."
Around two hours before the first race last Saturday and Sunday the business of turning a beach into a race track got under way. But drawing a line in the sand is never as easy as it sounds.
"You could be picking and choosing where you're going to put down the course. The further up the beach you go, the less strand you have. Last year we had a problem with the seaweed. When the heavy seaweed is there we usually cut a track through it with the help of the farm machinery," O'Mahony says.
"There can be hassle with the horse-owners about the course - some would be saying that it's too long, more of them say it's too wide.
"We designate two or three people with members of the HPRA (Horse and Pony Racing Association under whose rules the Ballyheigue Strand Races operate) and the safety officer to the best part of the beach where it can be run.
"When the races are over, that course is taken up because the tide would be going in and out twice. It's the only racecourse that gets flooded twice a day."
There were 102 runners across two cards last weekend. "They'd be going up to 50kph coming down the straight," O'Mahony says before adding the pony races are the first taste some of Kerry's top jockeys have of racing.
"Jack Kennedy and Bryan Cooper, that's where they all start; they start with the pony racing around eight years of age.
"Jack Kennedy ran below here two years ago. And Cooper. That's why we run the small pony races for the small kids."
O'Mahony feared for the future of the races during the recession. It survived but, like all local events, it remains hugely dependent on the generosity and goodwill of the community.
A novel way of tying in the races with the locals is "each horse is nominated by a local person and that creates its own interest," Lawlor says.
The winning nominator would get €50, for example, of the winnings and a plug for their business over the microphone from Lawlor. Maybe it's no surprise that the person credited with the origin of the term 'entrepreneur' - Richard Cantillon - was born near Ballyheigue in the 17th century.
It's said locally that there is a tradition for races in Ballyheigue going back to the 15th century when landlords organised races on the beach with bushes for hurdles.
The races also brought out a bit of mischief. As Lawlor recalls it, a race which was confined to Ballyheigue horses in the late 1950s ended in chaos when a horse from the neighbouring village of Causeway was polished all in black to disguise it and ran - against the 'rules' - in the closed race.
"The rain came down in buckets and it washed the polish off the pony. It caused mayhem naturally when the ponies came in, everyone knew that the pony wasn't from Ballyheigue and that finished the race for a few years," Lawlor remembers.
"It also wouldn't be unusual for some fella to come out into the crowd with a few pints on him and maybe throw a coat at a winning horse and the jockey would fall off and that would create mayhem as well. There was no rules and regulations."
That all changed in 1968 when a group, including Lawlor, gathered in Kirby's Bar to put order on the event and restart it.
The overall prize-money back then was around £50. The pot last weekend was €8,000 overall. Trainers and owners won't make their fortune here but its priceless in many ways.
"The first thing people who come home for Christmas from England, America and Australia ask is, 'What day are the races on?'" O'Mahony says.
Among the crowd of 700-800 last Saturday and around 1,000 last Sunday was a local by the name of Paddy Gentleman who's in his mid-90s but age doesn't stop him from getting out and going to this annual event.
"It's the only place there's a name called Gentleman is in Ballyheigue, I'd say," O'Mahony smiles.
"I was speaking to him yesterday, he with there with his walking-stick and he didn't even have a top-coat on him. He looks forward to this every year."
When artist and writer Christy Brown - whose work includes his memoir 'My Left Foot' - moved to Ballyheigue for a few years he wrote a poem about the local races in 1979 and also became vice-chairperson of the Race committee.
"The waves that sing and the wind that braces, heralds once more the Ballyheigue races" is how the poem starts. Time and tide wait for no-one but tradition lives on with the Ballyheigue Strand Races.