This blog is a personal take on Listowel, Co. Kerry. I am writing for anyone anywhere with a Listowel connection but especially for sons and daughters of Listowel who find themselves far from home. Contact me at

Category: Festivals Page 2 of 14

Donkey Derby

Vintage car enters The Square in July 2023


A Donkey Derby

(Newspaper research by David O’Sullivan)

In 1960 among the highlights of The Harvest Festival were a roller skating competition, a mothers’ race around the houses and a donkey derby.

Above is the poster from 1959 and below is Vincent Carmody’s account of Harvest Festivals in his youth.

The two main off course attractions  during raceweek in Listowel were undoubtedly the Donkey Derby  and The All Ireland Wren Boys competition. The late John B. Keane described Listowel Donkey Derby as “A fantastic flight of asses down the historic Church St. course.”

The heyday of the donkey derby coincided with the emergence of one of the best known racing asses called Listowel Factory. This donkey was owned by Paddy Behan of Bunaghara and many of my age will remember his terrific duels with Finuge Lass.

The course for the donkey derby ran from the boy’s school to  Guiney’s in Lower Church St. now Mamma Mia. For health and safety reasons consideration was given at one stage to moving  the derby to Charles St. This would give a straighter course and safer viewing for spectators. At the meeting to discuss this proposal, Mr. Denis Guiney, publican, asked to address the meeting as he heard that they were considering moving the event. He threatened to withdraw his financial support of this event if this happened. The records show that this support amounted to the grand sum of one shilling and six pence.

Another donkey derby memory is that on one race night the well known commentator, Michael O’Hehir was standing on a tea chest giving a live commentary on the action. The same night the excitement of the crowd at the finishing line caused them to surge forward and topple him from his commentary box.

 In a conversation later with Thomas Ashe who was on the original festival committee, he told me that he had been appointed to organize the start of the race. The official starter was none other than Prince Monolulu. The first night over 80 asses turned up at the start. Thomas was wondering whether to hold 10 heats of 8 or 8 heats of 10. When he got in touch by walkie talkie with John B., who was running the event, John B. jokingly suggested that they run all 80 off together.

The Wren Boy competition was started by the festival committee in the fifties. Dr. Johnnie Walsh was the first chairman and John B. was the first M.C. The first competitions were mainly made up of local groups, Killocrim, Ennismore, Dirrah East and Dirrah West. Two of the original “kings” were Jimmy Hennessey and Sonny Canavan.

One memory of mine is of working in a bar in London in the early 1960s and Dr. Johnny accompanied by Jimmy Hennessey in full Wren boy regalia entered the bar. The bar in question was The Devonshire Arms which was popular with film and TV celebrities. One of these, Sir Bruce Seton exclaimed when he saw the goat-skin clad Hennessey beating his bodhran “Good gracious, They’re coming in from the jungle.”

I don’t remember children in the river chanting “Throw me down something”, and I am sure that this tradition only started in the 1970’s.

Nowadays  no horses are stabled in town. There are close to 200 stables at the racecourse.

 The following week it was back to school and life in Listowel resumed as normal. We were left only with memories, which happily we can still recall today.

Listowel Donkey Derby 1959 by Jet Stack

The weather being fine, being fifty nine and the races drawing nigh

To win the donkey derby sure our hopes were very high.

So we called on all the donkeys that might win cup or bowl

And we started preparations for the derby in Listowel.

The donkeys came in dozens, some were fast and some were slow,

But sure that’s the way you’ll find them no matter where you go

But we put them through their paces and we raced them past the pole

And twas all in preparation for the derby in Listowel.

We had Nixes grey and Driscolls bay, she showed a little blemish

John Joe brought our camera in case of a photo finish

When Lady Barney won the second race, Dan Riordan scratched his pole

And t’was all in preparation for the derby in Listowel.

Nedeen Buckley came with Sad Dust and Nellies Morning Dew

This was a kind of challenge race and t’was left between the two

Then Margaret came on Forge Road Lad, He’s the sire of a foal

And t’was all in preparation for the derby in Listowel.

When Shanahan’s Stamps came winning home, the crowd they gave a roar

They heard it back in Coolagown and down through Ennismore

Bob Stack got so excited, he ran up the winning pole

And t’was all in preparation for the derby in Listowel.

Scortlea’s Hope when going well, won many a thrilling race

He ran his best to half a length and that was no disgrace

But when Casey down from Dromerin,  said he couldn’t run with goats

Sure his feeding was substandard, it was small Kilarda oats.

When Phil arrived on Gurtinard Lad,  Sean’s donkey gave a wink

He started like a bullet and gave him no time to think

Our jockeys rode like professionals both fearless and bold

And there’s one thing I can vouch for; a race was never sold.

The crowd grew larger every night, they came from far and near

Elsey , Kit and Minnie came the winners home to cheer

We had Bertha , Paul and Bridie, sure they played their usual role

And t’was all in preparation for the derby in Listowel.

Eileen came with Kathleen and Bridge came running fast

Sure Mary nearly broke her neck in case she might be last

Ginette was there from London oh my heart she nearly stole

And t’was all in preparation for the Derby in Listowel.

So then when the fun was over and we picked our chosen few

We raced them down Church Street where we met our Waterloo

But such is life, there is always strife in trying to reach your goal

Still our hopes are high for another try at the derby in Listowel.


Galvin’s new Colour Scheme


A Couple of Limericks


Art and Books

Back Lane behind Church Street in Summer 2023


Dancing Down the Years

Photo and text from Fleadh Cheoil na Mumhan


The dance tradition of North Kerry has extended its influence far beyond its borders, to different places around Ireland, across Europe, and over the Atlantic to America.

Dance has been part of the culture in this region for centuries, passed down through the generations by the Dance Masters, like O’Ceirín in the 1700’s to Mooreen, Ned Batt Walsh, and to the great Geramiah Molyneaux, affectionally known as Munnix, who passed on the dance, to the young girls and boys, of the area.

The Dance masters travelled, often on foot, from town to town, village to village, 

such was their love of, and desire to pass on their art to the younger generation.

Munnix pupils like Jack Lyons, Jerry Nolan, Sheila Bowler, Liam Dineen, Liam Tarrant, Paddy White, Phil Cahill and many more would perform the old steps with great pride.

Long live the dancers! Long live the dance! 

Featuring Dance Master Jimmy Hickey, Musician Greta Curtin.

Devised and choreographed by Jonathan Kelliher, Artistic Director, Siamsa Tíre, The National Folk Theatre of Ireland.


Celtic Artist, Tony O’Callaghan

When your grandad is an artist, you are lucky enough to have some marvellous bespoke piece of his work made especially for you and celebrating your name.

Few nameplates are as beautiful as these pieces that Miriam brought to share with the audience on July 6 2023.

Tony O’Callaghan, among many of the prestigious commissions he did, designed the logo for Listowel Writers’ Week.

This information comes to us from Wolfgang Mertens’ 1974 LWW memorabilia.



My latest summer visitor, Aoife McKenna, from Kildare loves, loves, loves Listowel library.


A Smile from the Internet


Today and Yesterday

Garden of Europe July 2023


Writers’ Week 1974

This is a long shot but worth having a go.

Wolfgang Mertens kept the list of participants who attended Bryan MacMahon’s short story writing workshop at Writers Week 1974.

Does anyone know any one on this list? I’d love to hear any memories or stories from that time.

Short Story Workshop, Writers’ Week, Listowel 1974

Director; Bryan MacMahon

Workshop Committee:

Mrs. Peggy Walsh, Mrs Eileen Fitzgibbon, Miss Oonagh O’Shea


Mrs. Eileen Kissane, Lisselton, Co. Kerry

Mr. M.F. OHolohan,  Drumcondra, Co. Dublin

Mr. Tim Cronin, Roscommon

Mrs. Sheila Gleeson, Limerick

Mr. Thomas Gormley,  Foxrock, Dublin

Mr. John Phelan, Fountainstown, Co. Cork

Miss Nora O’Sullivan, Brighton, England

Mr. J.J. King, Virginia, Co. Cavan

Miss Mary O’Sullivan, Ranelagh, Co. Dublin

Mrs. Joan McEvoy, Kiliney, Co. Dublin

Mr. Patrick W. Smyth, Tralee, Co. Kerry

Mrs Anita Mertens, West Germany

Mr. Wolfgang Mertens, West Germany

Mrs. Madeleine J. Beckett, Dundreum, Dublin

Mr. Walter Hayes, Droghedas Co. Louth

Mrs. M. Coffey, Newbridge, Co. Kildare

Mrs. Susan Poole McGraw, New York


Listowel Fuchsia Centre

Some more photos from the official opening of the Fuchsia Centre on Friday July 7 2023.

Brenda O’Halloran with local ladies including Mary Pierse, Marie Moriarty and Beatrice Hayes

Denis O’Rourke and Robert Bunyan

John Kelliher and Church of Ireland Canon Joe Hardy

Helen Moylan and Mike Laffan

Robert and Olive Pierse

Micheál Martin, Norma Foley, Tom Pierse and Mike Kennelly

Helen Moylan, Mary Lynch and Mary Cogan


A Dog and a Photograph

Upper William Street on July 8 2023

Listowel Tidy Towns have planted a beautiful display of flowers atop this wall.

Look at Molly doing everything to get in the picture.


A Date for the Diary


A Fact

The word mortgage comes from the French. It means death contract.


My, My, My July

Lisselton grotto in July 2023…Photo; David Kissane


A Family Souvenir

Eleanor Belcher sent us this story;

“As you probably know Eamon Kelly was a wood work teacher at the Listowel tech before he went on to his  famous  role of seanachai  and actor. My father was setting up as a GP and Eamon made his doctor’s   plate.

Over 20 years ago I came over to Listowel and found that a funeral of an O’Sullivan had occurred  ( Eamon’s wife was an O’Sullivan of Upper William Street) .  I saw Eamon in the Listowel Arms and told him about Dad’s plate. He said that he had just passed what had been our house and that it was missing. I told him I had it and he told me in his sonorous Kerry accent that ‘it was a fine bit of mahongany wood! ‘. “


A Poem

Lorraine Carey shared this on Facebook


Writers’ Week 1974

Wolfgang and Anita Mertens in Listowel in May 2023

Wolfgang and Anita first visited Listowel in 1974 for a Writers’ Week short story writing workshop directed by Bryan MacMahon.

Wolfgang kept a folder of memorabilia from that visit. He promised to share it with us when he got back home. Here is the first look at his stuff.


A Request for Help

My family is going to visit Listowel in August. We’re visiting Ireland for the first time to see where my husband’s dad was born out on the farm and visit the area where he lived until he was about 35. 

A cousin told us Jeremiah Walsh has the farm and his daughter is Helen Nolan. My husband’s father was also a Jeremiah Walsh. 

Would you know Helen (Walsh) Nolan?  

Thanks so much

Sue Walsh  


Early Summer 2023

1916 centenary remembrance garden, June 2023


Listowel Writers Week 2023

The Kildare branch of the family made it.

Home from Colorado, Alan Groarke joined his mother Madge and his sister, Rachel, for the festival.

My friend, Bridget, grabbed a chance to be photographed with a film star. We all loved Seamus O’Hara in the Oscar winning short film, The Irish Goodbye. He was really down to earth in real life and he made a huge contribution to the year’s festival.


A Sorry Sight

The River Feale on June 17 2023. Fishermen tell me they have never seen the river so dry.

Not for long! the drought is over for now. We have had monsoon like weather this week with the heaviest rainfall in living memory.


Collecting for Nano Eagle School

I met these lovely people out fundraising for their great school on Saturday last.


Bonfire Night

Tomorrow, June 23, is St. John’s Eve. Traditionally fires were lit to celebrate midsummer. I don’t know is it will happen this year, but in the past this tradition was carried on in places around Listowel.

The feast of St. John, Midsummer is a Quarter Day.

Before we had the Gregorian calendar in 1752 we had the Regency calendar. Ordinary people didn’t have calendars so all they worried about were the seasons. The seasons were marked by quarter days. The year began on the first of these quarter days, Lady Day, on March 25. The other quarters were based on religious feast days making it easy for the peasants to remember. These were, Midsummer Day, Michaelmas Day and Christmas Day. All rents and other debts fell due on these quarter days.


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