The biggest of all flapper races in Ireland, Dingle attracts the best horses from all over the country, and a variety of jockeys, some as young as eleven.
And they’re off! Bachelor brothers Stevie and Timmy Kelliher saunter up Heartbreak Hill, balancing buckets of paint and brushes as they go. Joe Ryle, self-styled “chief cook and bottle washer,” trots off to repair railings at Beenbawn Corner. Mike Sayers mills around the grandstand, supervising an army of volunteers preparing for the annual onslaught of horse-mad punters. We’re on the home stretch. It’s almost time for the Dingle Races. This event has been held in Ballintaggart – a stunning seaside setting by the blue waters of Dingle Bay – for more than one hundred years and they are the highlight of Ireland’s “flapping” calendar. What’s flapping? I call in to see the Kelliher brothers who have played no small part in the success of the Dingle Races – to find out. A visit to the Kelliher household is an experience in itself. An old Irish farmhouse, it’s of a style that is fast becoming extinct. Its earthen floor, ancient Stanley stove and pictures of the brothers’ favorite horses adorning the walls are a testament to bygone times. Timmy, the bashful brother and one-time jockey, lifts the latch to let me in. He summons the more talkative Stevie by banging a sweeping brush on the smoke-blackened ceiling. Stevie is soon reminiscing enthusiastically. “I’ve worked with the race committee for over 50 years. I’m the longest serving member,” he says, his chest swelling with pride. He was first drafted onto the committee because he was one of the few people in the area with a car. “I drove a hackney and they needed to cart things around. I was their man and I’ve been their odd job man ever since,” says Stevie. As well as serving on the committee, he and Timmy also raced horses in Dingle. “We trained them together and Timmy rode them,” explains Stevie. “We had some great wins. We’re too old for horses now though. It’s no fun if you can’t train them yourself.” Despite his fervor, Stevie’s explanation of flapping is vague. “We don’t race ‘under rules.’ We have our own rules, Dingle rules,” he says mysteriously. Seeking clarity, I speak to Mike Sayers, a local builder and the committee’s chairman for the past 25 years. “Under rules racing is sanctioned by the Turf Club [the governing body for horse racing],” he says. “Flapper racing operates outside of those rules.” Joe Ryle, the chief race judge, suggests roguery has a part to play. “I don’t know if that’s the right word,” he adds cautiously. “But with flapping, you never know the horses you’re up against. Maybe they’ve raced under a different name. Maybe they’ve never raced before. There’s an element of doubt, a bit of mystery, and that makes it exciting.” Tom McCarthy, publican and treasurer of the race committee, agrees. “You can never tell what’s going to happen or who’s going to run,” he says. “That’s the magic of Dingle.” As you’ve gathered, flapping is less rigidly controlled than “under rules” racing. The Turf Club doesn’t approve of flapping. They penalize licensed trainers and jockeys who are caught doing it and ban horses from racing “under rules” if they have been “flapped.” For the Turf Club, flapping is rife with skulduggery and sharp practices. It’s the illegitimate sibling of sanctioned thoroughbred racing. Flappers don’t care what the Turf Club thinks. Unlike the thoroughbred elite, these are ordinary people who happen to have an extraordinary interest in horses. They meet every weekend from April to October in locations as diverse as Glenbeigh, Lisdoonvarna and Dingle. The Dingle Races are the highlight of their year, attracting the best horses from all over Ireland. “Dingle is the Cheltenham of flappers,” says Joe Ryle. “If you win in Dingle, it’s something to boast about.” He ought to know. In 1999, his horse Keep the Peace won in Dingle. “It had been some time since a local horse had been able to compete with the best and win,” he says with a blushing smile. “I was so proud and I’m pleased to say I’ve had an awful lot of luck with her since.” Katie O’Brien is another flapping fanatic. She is 13 years old and already a veteran of the flapping circuit. This year will be her third year racing in Dingle and she can’t wait. “I race all over Munster but the Dingle Races are the best,” she says. “There’s always a fantastic buzz.” You may be surprised that Katie is so young. But this is not unusual in flapping circles. Jockeys of all ages are allowed to take part in the races and young jockeys are especially welcome. They are small, they are light and most importantly, they are fearless. Like many flappers, Katie’s involvement with the races is a family affair. Her father trains horses and is a member of the Dingle Race Committee. Her brother raced in Dingle before her. And her little sister hopes to race in Dingle in the future. Such widespread popularity seems to ensure the future of the races but this wasn’t always the case. They have seen many changes in their long history. The oldest record of the races can be traced back to 1746 when the then Knight of Kerry held a house party for his guests during the week of the races. Many close calls, false starts, devastating defeats and triumphant victories later, the races were still a popular local event when Fr. Jackie McKenna, a Dingle native who is now in his eighties, had his first flutter. “The races were the big occasion in our lives back then,” he remembers. “The horses would arrive by train. There would be thirty or forty of them and we’d rush to the railway station [which has long since closed down] to see them.” On the day of the races, with “a few bob” in his pocket, he’d make his way to Ballintaggart. “I like the races but I love the fun of the fair,” says Fr. Jackie, “so I’d search for the fortune tellers and the Bully Maggie [a man who pops out of a barrel so you can throw wet sponges at him].” He recalls the swinging boats, the roulette tables, the toy stalls and the wheel of fortune. “There were hurdy gurdies of all kinds,” he says, “everything from card sharks and gambling tables to pet rabbits and Wellington boots.” Makeshift tents were set up to sell refreshments. “They were ramshackle affairs,” says Fr. Jackie. “A simple timber frame with the sail of a boat draped over them. Inside, you could get tea, pórtar [Guinness] and the famous Dingle mutton pies. Boy, did we relish them. “Everybody had horses in those days and my father would enter our pony,” he says. “He never won but he held his own.” He still attends the races every year. “It’s a great treat,” he says, although he misses the stalls and the traveling entertainers, many of whom have died away. Despite the continued popularity of the races, the race committee doesn’t take success for granted. “There’s more to compete with today, so many other alternatives,” says Chairman Mike Sayers. “But you can’t beat us for atmosphere.” Brothers Timmy and Stevie are worried the young are losing interest. “In our day it was all that mattered,” says Timmy. “Today, there isn’t as much enthusiasm. Times have changed.” They perk up when I mention Katie O’Brien and her Dingle successes. “It’s true, the die-hards are there and Dingle is still a training ground for jockeys,” admits Stevie. Some of the top jockeys have served their time in Dingle. “Adrian McGuire, Paul and Nina Carberry, Barry Geraghty – they’ve all raced in Dingle,” says Stevie. “Flapping is good training for them. By the age of 16, they’re veterans – just like Katie.” This year, the committee expects approximately 160 horses to come from Donegal, Galway, Kildare, Limerick, Cork, Tyrone, Tipperary and (of course) Kerry. Local punters are already excited at the prospect of a day at the races. “There’s a lot of local pride in the races,” says Father Jackie. “It’s a day for the people.” That’s the value of flapping. Everybody is welcome. The Dingle Races – with their ancient traditions and local, rural roots – are for everyone. Joe Ryle believes flapping “is in the blood.” His father served with the Dingle committee and it’s now his turn. “It’s been interesting,” he says, “especially when my horse won her races. She’s getting old but I’ve got another to replace her. She’s young yet but give her another couple of years.” That’s the indomitable Dingle spirit for you. Tom McCarthy thinks the value of the races is in their community spirit: “The people of the town support them in every way. So much voluntary work goes into them. The community works together to create something for the community.” Flapping has a long tradition in Dingle, a tradition that has passed from one generation to the next. What brings people back year after year is the unexpected nature of the races. It’s all about taking a chance and enjoying the sheer unpredictability of events. As Stevie Kelliher says, “You never quite know what you’re letting yourself in for.” Now, where did I put that betting slip?