Photo; Chris Grayson


Listowel Races as they used to be

Vincent Carmody relives the race meetings and harvest festivals of the 1950s.

The arrival in town in the late 1950s of the well known English racing
tipster, Prince Monolulu caused quite a stir. People were taken by the
different outfits which he wore on the different days and by his personality.
Again. like the woman who gazed into her crystal ball, I am not sure if he gave
out too many winners. (this picture appeared in the Irish Examiner this week)

The Harvest Festival Committee, in order to generate interest for the
crowds remaining in the town after the day’s racing and to create some fun for
the locals, came up with some very interesting simple ideas, these included
the  Listowel Donkey Derby, the Munster and All Ireland Wren Boys
competition, the All Ireland churn rolling (milk tanks) competition, a walking
race from from Tarbert to Listowel and common bicycle race from Ballybunion to

Of these the All Ireland Wren Group competition still survives and the
finals are played out in The Square on the Friday night of race week,
always before a large and  receptive crowd.

For sheer thrill and great fun it was hard to beat the Donkey Derby,
which ran over two nights. The donkeys ran down the length of Church Street,
which used to be closed to traffic. Heats took place the first night with the
semi–finals and final on the following night. Both footpaths would be packed
with onlookers, with volunteers stewarding the final 50 yards on both sides.

 Many stories remain of the event,
two of which I can attribute to John B Keane. Once when he was asked to
describe the event, he described it as “a fantastic flight of asses down the
historic Church Street course ”  A friend, Thomas Ashe, once told me,
that John B, as chief steward, had appointed him as offical starter. On the
night of the heats, upwards of 100 donkeys had been brought before the start of
the heats to be entered. Thomas, who had only just come down from Dublin for
the week, was unaware of the format for running the heats, so he got on a
walkie talkie to John B who was positioned at the finish.

“John B.,” said Thomas,

“Yes, young Ashe, what’s wrong?” said John B.

 “We have upwards of 100
asses here. Do I run 5 heats of 10 asses, or 10 heats of 5 asses?” said

 There was a silence for about 10 seconds,
when John B came back on and said for a laugh  ” Let them all off
together and stampede down the street.” 

The asses came from far and near, but the best of all was a local one
named Listowel Factory. He was owned by Paddy Behane of Bunghara. As an extra
to the night’s racing there was a special race in which some of the jockeys
riding at the Island would take part.  This
race was commentated on by the legendary racing and football commentator,
Micheál O’Hehir.

When the crowd surged at the end of an exciting sprint down the street,
Micheál was knocked from the top of a tea chest, which he used as his
commentary box. That incident, along with one of the jockeys getting injured
falling from his ass, put paid to both Micheál and the jockeys taking part in
any further Donkey Derbys.

At one stage, someone had a vague idea of moving the Derby to Charles
Street.  When publican, Denis Guiney,
whose premises was located adjacent to the finishing line at the lower end of Church
Street, heard this rumour, he approached the then Chairman, Dr. Johnny Walsh
and said, in no uncertain terms, that he would withhold any further
contribution to their yearly collection.

That year, he had contributed one shilling and sixpence !!! 

(photos from North Kerry Camera)

Another great addition to the Listowel of those years was the setting up
of Radio Listowel, it was broadcast from a room in Michael Kennelly’s Travel
Agency in Market Street and was linked to loudspeakers in the different
streets. Used extensively at Race Week and Christmas time, it was also used by
the local Urban Council for any public announcements.

It would not be proper to finish without a mention of Listowel people’s
favourite food at Race-Time, that is, Mutton Meat Pies. These were served in
broth and sold in many a house in the town, many a stomach was filled and many
a sick head was cured by their consumption. O Connor’s public house in Upper
William Street, known as ‘Mike the Pies’ got its nick-name from the time that
Michael and Kate O’Connor came back from America in 1907, to open their public
house, Kate, formally Mulvihill from Ballylongford, realising that country men
who were in town all day for Market and Fairday’s needed wholesome nourishment,
so she came up with the idea of making and serving these famous pies. 

With the arrival of more and more Travelers and their caravans into the
town, especially in the 1950s, parking in the Market place became a premium. The
remainder then went to the only other available site, on the riverside. This
continued until the late 1950s. Then, the Market place was bought by the newly
formed Listowel Mart Company. The traditional camping side in the front market
gave way to the building of the new mart building and associated pens. From the
late 1950s and early 1960s the Travelers’ lifestyle was also evolving. Many
were been resettled and their traditional caravan and way of travel was becoming
obsolete. In many cases the hirse drawn caravan gave way to more more mobile
small pick up trucks. The Listowel riverside encampment of the 1950s is more
than likely the last actual image of a way of life that is now a distant memory.
This photograph could also be a mirror image of the early pioneers on the
American Sante Fe Trail well over 100 years before. (photo from North Kerry
Camera 1989).


More from Listowel Races on Saturday Sept 16 2017

Friends, Gillian McElligott and Cliona Cogan meet up on The Island.

 Local ladies enjoy watching the style.

Once a scamp, always a scamp. This man is always a great supporter of this event. He looked just as dapper as usual this year and, as usual, he was flirting with the ladies.

Some local vintage glamour

This Galway couple won Most Stylish Couple on Ladies Day. If there was a category for  stylish couples on Vintage Day they would have won hands down.

 Imelda and Liz were busy organising the event. They did a great job.

 There always seems to be a stag party on the island on the Saturday of race week. This year they brought “the bride”, Roberta, who was sporting a recycled wedding dress for reuse and recycle day.

This lady was last year’s winner. She is always beautifully styled . Her outfit this year was stunning.

A New York bought dress, a pair of gloves she dyed with beetroot to make them look old and the only hat in the house made up this eye-catching outfit. The judges loved this look and she was a finalist.


A sad telegram in the UCD archives

Much memorabilia related to the death of Thomas Ashe has been released to coincide with the centenary of his death. The below telegram from his parents to deValera must be among the most poignant. it is granting permission for him to be buried in the republican plot in Glasnevin rather than with his family in Kerry.