Photo; Sheila Horgan, Blackwater Photographic Society
Every Sunday in the 1980s
John Hannon’s great photo of Lofty Kelliher on a Sunday morning
Murhur , Late 1980s
I found the following essay on Athea and District News 2019
By Domhnall de Barra
It is Listowel Races time again and there is hardly a word about it. At one time it was one of the major events in our calendar and the highlight of many people’s year. Back in those days there were just three days racing but there was a week long festival in Listowel that attracted great crowds from Kerry and all the neighbouring counties. It was called the Harvest Festival as it coincided with the end of the harvest and an opportunity for farmers, who had toiled hard in meadow, garden and bog all the summer, to take a well earned break.
Farming was very labour intensive in those days with very little machinery to help out. Most of the work was done with pikes, spades and sleáns and of course it all depended on the weather. We must have had better summers back then because there was no silage to fall back on so. Although it took much longer to do, the hay was almost always saved. There must have been bad years as well but I suppose we look back with rose tinted glasses so we only remember the good ones.
Anyway, the hay saved and drawn in, the turf home from the bog and the spuds dug so now it was time for the races. At school we looked forward to them for weeks. We always got a day off and some of us even sneaked the other two. We would discuss how we would get there and what we would do then.
It had nothing to do with the actual horse racing, oh no we had no interest in them, we just wanted to see the wonderful displays in the shop windows and sample all the joys of the fun fair in the Marked Yard. This yard was filled with all kinds of entertaining things like swinging boats, chairoplanes, bumpers and stalls that rewarded you with a prize if you could throw a ring over an object on display. There was what seemed like circus music playing in the background and there was a constant buzz of conversation mixed with the screams of those who were riding high on the swinging boats or crashing into each other in the bumpers. There was also a special smell about the place that I can’t describe but it lingers in the memory forever.
Of course all these rides cost money and that was our biggest problem. Money was in very short supply in those days so there was no point in depending on what you got at home. You might get a certain amount all right but that wouldn’t last too long so other ways of financing our trip had to be found. For us it was the picking of blackberries. There was a factory in Brosna that made fruit juices. The best known of these was a drink called “Pep Apple” which was mostly exported to the US. They also made blackberry juice so they bought blackberries that were collected in local shops.
Peggy Leahy, who had a shop near Cratloe Creamery, bought blackberries for the factory and paid us by weight so, as soon as the berries were ripe, we were out with our gallons along the hedgerows picking away. Now, picking blackberries might seem easy but it was far from it. On the first day we ate more berries than we put into the gallons until we got sick of them. It took what seemed like forever to fill a gallon and it came at a price. No matter how hard you tried it was nearly impossible to avoid the thorns that surrounded the bushes so that our hands finished up a mixture of black from the berries and blood from the thorns. But, we persevered and walked with our gallons full to the shop to collect roughly a shilling for our labour. The scratches soon healed and we had enough money for the races.
Most of the people from this neck of the woods went for at least one day. Very few actually crossed the bridge to the island where the real racing took place but they had a great time strolling the streets, meeting the neighbours and taking the odd libation in the welcoming hostelries.
At that time the train ran through Abbeyfeale to Listowel and would be full on race days. Many is the man who caught the train in Abbeyfeale or Kilmorna, got off in Listowel, went into the nearest pub, Mike the Pie’s, and didn’t leave until the train was going back again but they were “at the races”.
My father was a racing man and went to most of the race meetings in the country. He had a lorry at the time so I had no problem getting to Listowel. As we passed each corner and side road, people would climb into the back of the lorry. No health and safety in those days!!
Eventually, as I got a little older, I went with him across the bridge to the course for my first taste of horse racing. The first thing that interested me was the buskers who lined the lane down to the bridge playing accordions, banjos and fiddles with caps thrown in front of them to receive the few pence from the passers by. It was a lovely sound that could be heard from the Square all the way to the course.
My first impression was the array of colour to be seen, especially on the jockeys who were bedecked in every colour of the rainbow. Then there was the hustle and bustle of the betting ring where punters jostled with each other to get the best odds which were bawled out by the bookies who stood up on a little platform. Then there was the parade ring where jockeys mounted after getting instructions from the various trainers who stood in little groups with owners and close connections. The racing itself was exciting with cheers and moans from the crowd as a favourite won or a horse, well backed, fell at a fence.
The sights and sounds lingered in my head for days. Yes, there was magic in the air in Listowel, something I fear is sadly lacking in our modern society with all it’s technology and advances. There are times when I am really glad to have been born when I was and got so much joy from the simple things in life.
When meeting Famous People was an Everyday thing
Before Covid we used to have festivals galore. Meeting famous people was just accepted as a perk of living in North Kerry. Here are a few reminders.
Your blogger with Graham Norton at Writers’ Week
Jerry Hannon with Dáithí ÓSé at Listowel Races
Colm Tóibín and Brendan Kennelly at Writers’ Week
Fergal Keane and Éamon ÓMurchú at Writers’ Week
Liz Dunn and Éilís Wren with Caitríona Perry at Women in Media
Me with Miriam O’Callaghan and Katie Hannon at Women in Media