An Irish adage advises: Go East for a woman; go West for a horse.
When I was a girl I had a bicycle. I wanted a horse. That was not in the cards for this city child, so I named my bike Lightening and careened about the neighborhood, crouched racing-low over the handlebars, doing daring (so I thought) one-legged pedal stands, hair flying, pulse pounding, and imagining I was galloping over wide-open countryside.
My uncle owned a pair of ponies. Despite their slight height they looked darn big to me, and I thought my cousin was the luckiest boy in the world. Vivid memories center on the times I accompanied them to the boarding stable where my uncle pooh-poohed my mother’s protests and allowed me to feed his beauties carrots and apples. I can still feel their velvet noses nuzzling my palm, hear their hooves thunk and bridles clink as they trotted out from their stalls, and smell the musky mix of horse and hay.
I grew up hearing stories about ancestors whose lives intertwined with horses: my grandma’s beloved black mare and her cavalry vet father, my dad’s Hansom cabbie patter and famous jockey cousin. But my urban upbringing never permitted me to become the horsewoman I yearned to be. So I seize every opportunity that comes my way for even the briefest encounters of the equine kind.
Several years ago, while planning a trip to Ireland, I discovered that Europe’s longest-running horse fair occurs annually in Ballinasloe, County Galway and fortuitously coincided with my time on the island. It zoomed to the top of my Must Do list.
Lying just 40 miles east of Galway, I expected modern horsepower to reduce the one-day horseback trek to less than an hour. Ten miles outside town my zippy little compact was gridlocked in a sea of cars, trucks, and horse trailers. Dusk was settling in when I topped the stone bridge overlooking the Fair Green and gaped at the sight below. Seemingly shoulder-to-shoulder they stood. Huge Clydesdales and petite Connemara ponies. Jumpers, hunters, and thoroughbred racers. Darling docile donkeys. Shaggy massive black and white piebalds, the trademark horse of Ireland’s gypsy Travelers.
That Ballinasloe is a gathering spot is no accident. Beneath the region’s green fields an underpinning of shale left at the retreat of the last Ice Age affords safe passage through the boggy Midlands and easy crossing of the River Suck. For centuries the sure terrain was known as the ‘royal road’ between Connaught and Tara, seat of the Irish kings.
At most times the hamlet is a sleepy one-horse town, but during the Great October Fair the number swells to thousands. Millions of cattle, goats and sheep have traded hands since the event’s inception as a harvest celebration in 1757, but it is Ireland’s magnificent horses that steal the show. And no wonder. The history of the Irish and their horses stretches across centuries. It is a tale of friendships and working partners. It is a romance born of the land, nurtured by necessity, and fastened by ancient bonds. It is one of the oldest love stories on earth.
Horses arrived in Ireland long before it became an island. Millennia ago a land bridge connected Ireland to Scotland and another joined Britain to France. From the Asian steppes where the horse originated, herds migrated west. Diggings at Lough Gur, County Limerick and Newgrange, County Meath indicate the Irish had domesticated horses before 2000 B.C.
In the ancient Irish epic Táin Bó Cúailnge, the great warrior Cuchulainn rode a chariot pulled by two horses that were equal in size, beauty, and speed. One was grey, broad in the haunches, fleet and wild. The other was jet black, his head firmly knit, his feet broad-hoofed and slender. These steeds were so swift that even the best Ulster horses could not catch them.
A story about the goddess Rhiannon also concerns horses. While she was out riding her magical white mount, a prince tried to capture her. Every time he neared, she sped off and left him in her dust. Finally, the fellow thought maybe he should just ask her to wait. The polite request was exactly what Rhiannon had wanted to hear. When he trotted up beside her, she admonished, “It would have been far better for your horse had you asked long before this.”
More than just legend, horses count as one of Ireland’s most important industries. This vital economic resource centers on three breeds: the Connemara Pony, the Irish Draught, and the Thoroughbred.
The Connemara is the oldest pure Irish breed. Small native ponies called Breakers were crossed with two imports, Welsh Mountain ponies, which arrived with traders in the seventh century, and Spanish Andalusians brought in over a thousand years later. The Connemara’s size and sure-footed agility made them ideally suited for harvesting and hauling turf from the bogs of West Galway.
The Normans came to Ireland with large-boned Great Horses, which had been bred to carry armored knights. These behemoths crossed with another small native horse, the Hobby, produced an entirely new breed: the Irish Draught. This hefty workhorse is tough, agile, intelligent, and well-mannered. It was ideally suited to farm labor, and until tanks replaced cavalry it was the preferred horse of Europe’s cavalries. During the nineteenth century, as many as 6,000 Irish Draughts changed hands at Ballinasloe in a few days! The most famous steed bought was Marengo, Napoleon’s mount at Waterloo. Local wags boast the Emperor met his defeat because Wellington probably shopped the Fair first. Today the Irish Draught is prized as one of the world’s finest show jumpers.
The Connemara and the Irish Draught cut deep hoofprints in Irish history, but it is the Thoroughbred racehorse that became a multi-million-dollar business. Part of the reason is environmental. Calcium-rich grass grown in limestone-rich soil ensures rock-hard bone structure. The other half of the equation is simply that the Irish love a good horse race. With dozens of racetracks scattered about the island, there is a horse race somewhere nearly every day of the year. Sometimes a track isn’t even needed, as proven by the several times I ducked into doorways to avoid bareback riders dashing pell-mell in spontaneous races that erupted on Ballinasloe’s narrow streets.
For two blissful days I wandered Wellie-shod and awestruck through the Fair, rubbing shoulders with city and country folk, bluebloods, commoners, and hordes of horse-loving tourists. I noted the signs that warned “enter the Fair Green at your own risk,” threw my mother’s cautionary “never walk behind a horse” to the wind, remembered my grandma say “stepping in manure means good luck,” and dodged more horses’ rears than I’ll ever again see in life. I watched the judging of the Fair’s best cattle, sheep, and pigs, and fell madly in love with the exquisite winner of the Connemara Pony competition. I saw Traveler men seal deals on their gorgeous piebalds with palm spits and hand-slaps, succumbed to the lure of knowing my future via a palm-reading by one of the Traveler women, and was nearly trampled by perhaps the world’s biggest, blackest stallion ridden by a devilishly dashing Black Irish fellow.
In nearly three centuries, the Ballinasloe Great October Fair has remained much the same. Handlers still haggle endlessly over their equine prizes. Church bells, children’s squeals, and traditional music fill the air. Smoke plumes hover over the Traveler camps of chrome caravans and floral hand-crafted wagons. In the pubs, gallons of Guinness wash down thousands of sausage rolls and Bookmaker’s Sandwiches. One thing will certainly never change: whether you buy or not, it’s the show of shows for the horsey set.
Ballinasloe’s 2007 Great October Fair takes place September 29-October 7. For more information and photos visit: http://www.ballinasloe.com
The Bookmaker’s Sandwich
Note: Before automation, horserace bookmakers were so busy taking bets that they never took time to have a real meal.
1 long crusty loaf of bread, Vienna style
1-2 tablespoons butter
1 pound sirloin steak
salt and pepper
Slice the loaf in half lengthways and butter it well. Cut the steak in two lengthways, rub with butter, sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill the steak under high heat but do not over-cook. Put the meat strips straight away onto the buttered half loaves. Season with salt and pepper, and spread with mustard. Put the two halves of the sandwich together. Wrap tightly with foil, and put a weight on top. The steak juices will absorb into the bread and keep it moist. When cool, cut into fairly thick slices and serve. Makes 3-4 servings.
(Irish Traditional Food – Theodora Fitzgibbon) ♦