I was about 8 years of age. The various stalls in the field next to the racecourse were doing a roaring trade. A bit bored, curious, I wandered around to the back of a tent and pushed back a flap to peak in. Immediately there was a stinging slap across my earhole and a mouthful of unintelligible words from the gypsy woman. Crying, I ran to tell my Dad. ‘Well, you must have deserved it so,’ was his comment.
The Ballabuidhe (Bal-a-bwee) Races have been held from at least 1615 when King James I granted a charter to Randal Og Hurley to hold Ballabuidhe Fair in Dunmanway, west Cork in Ireland. The 414th edition has just ended and the pubs are counting their takings. For in every fair and festival to be held in Ireland during the summer, horses and drinking are the main distinguishing features. By day there is music, dancing, beauty competitions. Then there is horse trading, especially among the travelling community. Exiles from all over the world come back for the Gathering. And the bars serve non-stop with no one appearing to bother with licence restrictions and all that. No need even for the traditional ‘lock-in’ when the Gardai cruise past after closing time to make sure that the pubs ‘appear’ closed.
After Ballabuidhe the travellers and their horses might head westwards to Killorglin and Puck Fair. Their charter dates from 1613. There the only difference is that a wild goat is crowned King Puck and presides over the messy festivities.
And all over Ireland there are horse racing festivals held once a year. Tralee, Dingle, Galway. The travellers will happily follow the crowds. Maam Cross in wild Connemara mixes horse trading with that of sheep and cattle all year round.
Ireland may be a more prosperous and outward looking nation these days but you don’t have to look hard to find life as it has been lived over the centuries.