By Eugene Dunphy
It seems a shame to have to bracket the title of a great song with ‘anon’, but this must be done in the case of that roguish galloping gem, The Galway Races. Looking carefully at the lyrics, we can safely assume that the writer attended the inaugural meet on the 17th and 18th of August 1869, at Ballybrit racecourse, about three miles from Galway City.
The song reads like a potted history of those two days. Not only does ‘anon’ mention the date of the event, but his description of what happened at ‘the races’ matches Press reports of the time.
It’s also worth noting that he alludes to ‘Fenian prisoners’ being ‘brought home’ from ‘foreign nations’: in the weeks leading up to the races, mass demonstrations were held in Cork, Galway and Limerick, the speakers at which called for the liberation of Fenians from jails in England, Canada and Australia.
The end of July saw the release of thirty-four Fenians who had been transported from Ireland to a prison in Fremantle, Western Australia, and at the start of August, Fr. John McMahon was set free from a jail in Toronto, Canada – Fr. McMahon was incarcerated in 1866 for having taken part in the Fenian invasion of Fort Erie, Ontario.
The Galway Races as an event was largely due to the efforts of those gentry who had either direct or indirect connections to Galway, namely, Thomas St. Lawrence, MP; Viscount Burke, MP; Sir Rowland Blennerhassett, MP; Lord Clanmorris, and Marcus Lynch, High Sheriff of Galway.
The grounds for the Ballybrit track were acquired from Captain Wilson Lynch, and the layout of the course and design of the grandstand was undertaken by that lover of all things equestrian, Thomas G. (‘Tom’) Waters, from Kilpatrick, Monasterevin, County Kildare.
In his younger days, Waters studied medicine, then moved on to engineering, but his love of coursing and hunting drew him away from academic life. He founded the Kildare Harriers in 1858, and was known in ‘horsey circles’ for his meticulous attention to planning races and making good the ‘going’ ground at racecourses.
In June 1869, the Press announced that Waters had just completed the construction of the Ballybrit course, and that he was in the process of adding some ‘finishing touches’.
Not to miss a business opportunity, the Midland Great Western Railway laid on special trains to bring passengers and punters from Dublin, much to the delight of hotel and guesthouse owners, and by Saturday the 14th of August, Galway and Salthill were thronged with visitors from all over Ireland.