I’d sit with the men, the women of God / There by the lake of beer / We’d be drinking good health forever / And every drop would be a prayer —St. Brigid’s Prayer
Up and down the round, green-quilted hillsides near Listowel in north Kerry in Ireland, the seven sisters of the Lynch family once tended their sheep. They worked in the summer sun and in the soft rain of the spring and the fall, and in the harder, snow-mixed sleet of midwinter. And every autumn, right around when the harvest came in, they would drive their sheep up the hillsides and down, and straight into Listowel, where their flock would join cows and goats and chickens and ducks, and the sheep of a hundred other families, all milling around with each other and filling the town square with an amazing cacophony of lowing, bleating, squawking, and quacking that nearly, but not quite, drowned out the increasingly lubricated haggling of the farmers and craftsmen and merchants who had come to sell enough of what they’d raised and grown and manufactured to get them through the hard winter to come, with a little left over to spend in the pubs on William Street, or to bet on the horses out at the track tucked into the bend of the river. The sisters never went to the races. Only the men went to the races. The sisters stayed in town and listened to the fiddlers and the people who played the pipes, and they danced with each other after the day’s business was done.
Listowel was a farm town, a market town. It was a little less polished than Tralee to the west and the south, or Limerick to the north and east. It was louder. It was rougher. One of the Lynch sisters, Mary Ellen, would talk in her later years of a rally in support of Charles Stewart Parnell at the time of the split in the Irish Party over Parnell’s affair with Kitty O’Shea. The rally turned into an all-out brawl, the clack of hurleys on skulls ringing louder than the oratory. Called “faction fights,” these were come-all-ye bloodlettings, exhibitions of what the Irish called the bataireacht, a form of stick-fighting that rose to an art. These would erupt at weddings or at funerals, or at virtually any public occasion at which a longstanding grievance might detonate at the smallest provocation.
For example, ever since the beginning of the 19th century, there had been an annual harvest festival at Ballyeigh, near Ballybunion, north of Listowel. In 1834, on the day of the Ballyeigh Races, a spectacular faction fight erupted pitting two families — the Lawlors and the Mulvihills — against a third, the Cooleens. Crossing the River Feale under cover of darkness, the Cooleens fell upon the Lawlor-Mulvihill faction while the latter was at the whiskey. It is estimated that 3,200 people took part in the battle in which the Lawlor-Mulvihill forces eventually drove the Cooleens back into the river. At the end of it, 20 people were dead and the organizers were looking for another place to hold their festival. Thus, after about two decades, were the Listowel Races born.
The festival grew over the years. The violence faded away. It added days until it grew to a full week. It added a Ladies Day. The purses grew to several hundred thousand pounds, and then to several hundred thousand euros. Horses came from all over Ireland, from Galway and from the Curragh and from the deep, beauty-haunted hollows of the Wicklow Mountains. Gradually, as the economy changed and the farmers died and their children went across the water, the “harvest” part of the harvest festival dropped into the past.
All of this was the future, though. For their part, the Lynch sisters knew the past. They had heard the old stories around the fire. That was part of why they stayed in town and away from the races. After a while, five of them came to America. Mary Ellen took a boat to Boston and, eventually, found her way to Worcester, in central Massachusetts, where she met and married Patrick Pierce, who’d come to America from a town on the other side of Listowel, and who was a sergeant in the Worcester Police Department. They had five children. One of them, John, became a schoolteacher in Worcester, and he had a son who would sit at his grandmother’s feet and listen to talk about the hills and the rain, and the great faction fight between the Lawlors-Mulvihills and the Cooleens, and how the town square would fill with sound and the sharp autumn light every fall, when the sheep would come to market and the men would go off to the races while she and her sisters listened to the musicians battling to be heard over the lowing, bleating, squawking, and quacking. And the boy learned how to tell stories from her. One day not long ago, the boy, grown now and a teller of stories himself, walked along the banks of the River Feale, off toward the white-roofed grandstand of the racetrack in Listowel. The mist on the hillsides was lifting, and everything was becoming bright and clear and as familiar as a heartbeat.
The Listowel Races, held each year in September, are now the oldest race meeting in Ireland. The fields are massive; it is not unusual to have more than 20 horses running in a single race. The races themselves, equally divided between the flat track and the hurdles, but all of them run on the lush green turf, are long. Some of them run two or three miles around the track, which measures just over a mile. It takes at least a day or so of watching before you realize that, when the horses hit the one-mile mark, the race may not yet be half over. There is a kind of learned patience that abides in you as the horses pound past the slant of the grandstand for the first time.
“It’s a lot of conditioning work,” said P.D. Deegan. His horse, Shining Emerald, had just won the Jet O’ Carroll Memorial European Breeders Fund Maiden, a seven-furlong race over the “flat” course. Nine horses — a thin field for Listowel — went to the post in the race. Shining Emerald marked the early leader, Homeric Hymn, until shortly before the long, winding final turn. Jockey Chris Hayes let his horse run then, and Shining Emerald pushed easily past the rest of the field in 1:37.21.
“A lot of it is getting their minds right, getting them to relax and settle so they can get used to all these conditions,” he said. “[Shining Emerald], today, he ran twice on sound surface. The first day, he got away with it. The second day, he didn’t. This guy likes slow ground. He tends to like a bit of juice in the ground. That’s one of his strengths.
“I mean, they can either run or they can’t, right? You can’t make them faster than they are, but you can make them more confident, I suppose. Usually, when they work, they work in bunches of three and four. The odd one wouldn’t be overly fond of it, but, as a whole, they’re a herd animal, they like it. It’s natural to them.”
The Galway Races are said to have more panache, but the races in Listowel seem more strongly anchored in history, more firmly rooted in a sense of place. Galway is for snobs now, the people in Listowel will tell you, sounding very much like Aqueduct lifers grousing about Saratoga. Despite all the Guinness paraphernalia, and the sponsorship banners advertising everything from farm equipment to bookies, you can still feel the energy of the old harvest festival at Listowel. Even with the grinding recession, and with the empty-house bones of the Celtic Tiger scattered around even this most rural of landscapes, the races here are very much still a farmer’s party.
“My generation, most of my friends, are sort of interested in horses, so they might come down here for a night or two,” said Deegan, who was enjoying a club soda in a small bar near the racing secretary’s office where the entire entourage of a winning horse is treated to a celebratory drink or two. His friends and backers, who are not drinking club soda, crowded around him in the tiny bar. “It’s very different here. You know, a lot of people like Galway, but I much prefer this. It’s much more relaxed, much nicer. It’s the real racing crowd. Galway’s got too, I don’t know, cosmopolitan, almost.”
In America, in most of our racing, the horses run on a flat dirt track. All our perceptions at the tracks here are based on speed. Races are rarely longer than a mile and an eighth, and it is an unusual race that has as many as 12 horses leaving the starting gate. However, in Listowel, as is the case in most European racing, watching a horse race is like entering another world, in which all your comfortable perceptions are thrown into disarray. The racing here even sounds different; the thunder of the hooves is muffled by the deep embrace of the turf. There’s something organic about it, something more natural than the frantic scrambles on the American dirt. This is the way horses would run if we left them to themselves and gambled simply on their hearts and souls, without the interference of any human agency. They sound when they run like things at play on the land. They sound when they run like a farm would sound.
“It was a cheeky treble, audacious in fact. It could only happen in the National Hunt season and it could only happen to Willie Smiley. He picked three horses. I wouldn’t have picked them; neither would anybody who has the least interest in horse racing.”
—John B. Keane, The Bodhran Makers
Listowel is a market town. It is also a writer’s town, a storyteller’s town. Every June, there is a writer’s festival held here at the same time as the town’s other annual race meeting. Central to both of them, and to the larger festival in the fall, the crowded, musical repository of both halves of Listowel’s soul, is John B. Keane’s place on William Street, just up and around the corner from the town square, on the general route that will bring you to the racetrack. During the fall race week, you can get into John B.’s, but getting out again can be a problem, albeit a fine problem to have.
It is a one-story pub with a small, open-air beer garden out in the back. There is no television set, no jukebox. There are no video games. At any moment, any song — from “The Fields of Athenry,” to “To Ramona,” to “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” — can break out from any corner of the place. The conversation, blessed craic, flows on regardless. Who won that day and who lost? The prospects for that Sunday’s GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship between Mayo and the hated team from Dublin were earnestly debated. (Kerry has won the All-Ireland Football Championship more than any other county has, but they lost to the Dubs in the semifinals this September. This was also discussed at length.) The place danced with words, which was as it should be.
John Brendan Keane was a poet, a novelist, a playwright, an essayist, and a pubkeeper. (One of his plays, The Field, was made into a movie that got Richard Harris an Academy Award nomination.) He spent his entire life in Listowel, and he died there in 2002. Half the county turned out for the funeral. The first time I ever went to Listowel, I sat at the bar and ordered a pint from Mr. Keane. He asked me what I did for a living. He then pulled me another pint free of charge. “Take this,” he said. “You’re a writer. You have no money.”
The family still runs the place. Billy Keane, John B.’s son, a novelist and a sportswriter, was trying to stay ahead of his biggest week of the year. “This is such a part of the history of the town,” he said. “It’s a part of the town’s identity.”
I was at John B.’s on my first night in town when I met P.K. O’Shaughnessy, who splits time between Listowel and Amesbury, in Massachusetts, and claimed to have read columns that I wrote about the races here back when I was with the Boston Herald. He also claimed once to have tried to get in touch with me back in the day.
I explained to O’Shaughnessy how I’d come to know about the races through the stories my grandmother told me. “That is the best way to teach things,” he’d said. He told me to meet him the next day at bookmaker Eric Browne’s stand. He had a horse he wanted to talk to me about.
All around Listowel, there are lost traces of the Celtic Tiger. Luxury houses built on the old farmland, all of them vacant now, and the farmland reclaiming itself, one plot at a time, the transitory economic boom fading into the land itself once again. Small economies of scale do survive in places like this, though. What is left is a tangled, sprawling root system of families. Billy Keane runs his father’s pub, his nieces and nephews pulling pints beside him. Businesses — including, quite literally, butchers and bakers, but not candlestick makers — are handed down like heirloom watches. Out at the track, a son will ride his father’s horses, the way his father once rode the horses trained by his own. The economic boom and bust is the surface. What abides is the land, and the lives people have made on it, farmers and trainers, one generation at a time.
“My family’s always been involved in horses,” said Pat Cooper, of just down the road in Tralee, who’d been coming to Listowel in one capacity or another for more than 40 years. He brought 20 horses to race this year. “My father brought horses here as long as I can remember.”
Bryan Cooper rides his father’s horses. Pat puts him up and sends him off to race twice a day in fields that, at the start, look like three-wide duels under the lights at Bristol and don’t usually get less cluttered until the top of the homestretch, two miles later, or more. Bryan already had broken his leg this year in a collision and spill back in May. He’d come back and ridden three winners at a subsequent festival, and he has come to race in Listowel because his father had good horses running here. He had a winner right off the crack, in the second race of the second day.
“You’re going out there, and you’re doing your job, and you know that part of it is racing in the crowd,” he said. “Some races are five or six, and then you’ll have races with 20 or 21, and then you have to give yourself a bit more room.
“My grandfather was a trainer, and my father was, too, and I’ve been riding horses since before I could walk.”
In front of the grandstand at the racetrack, there is a wide expanse of asphalt. It is where the bookmakers set up their stalls. There are regular cashier’s windows all over the complex, but there are also the independent bookies ringing the asphalt. They stand on crates beneath umbrellas, each with their own electrified tote boards showing the odds on the upcoming race, a technological step up from the old blackboards on which they would follow the changing odds by hand. Each of them has a steel-reinforced briefcase hanging down open beneath his umbrella. The briefcase and the umbrella both have the name of the firm on them.
Independent bookmakers have been around as long as there has been racing in Ireland. The firms are handed down, father to child and, often, the firm will still carry the name of a long-dead patriarch just to maintain brand loyalty. Eric Browne’s stall is at stage left of the grandstand, looking dead down the homestretch of the track. He has someone who shills for him, bawling the odds out across the wide expanse, and another gentleman tucked away in back who takes the bets and prints out the tickets. But the money still comes and goes out of the briefcase that looks as though it might once have carried gold half-crowns.
Browne is a third-generation bookmaker. There is, naturally, a story behind this and, naturally, there is a story to tell before he tells his own. It is something of a nativity tale. Eric points at an elderly gentleman who is studying the day’s form in the Racing Post like a monk illuminating a manuscript. “Your man here,” Eric said. “He’s a matchmaker, and a fine one. But the first match he made, anyway, he told a girl he had a man for her, so she said, ‘Where we will go?’ And the only place they could go was down to the hotel. And they weren’t a bit happy at the hotel because they wouldn’t serve the woman, but he introduced them anyway, and they went into the back of a Morris Minor and they made up. But nine months to the day after, a big ball of a baby boy they had. That was his first match. That’s a true story.
“My great-grandfather was Paddy, back before the 1880s. Back before then, I think, because my grandfather was betting from 1903 to 1953, when he died. My grandfather was Paddy, too. Four Paddys. I was the fourth, but my name was changed because I had a sister Patsy, and I had an uncle Paddy, and they said if they had a fourth Paddy in the family, that my grandfather would die. So my name was changed from Patrick to Eric, so that’s why I was called Eric. My son, Burkie, works for the firm now. I named him after my father, who also was called Burkie. And they didn’t want to christen him because there was no Saint Burkie. My father was called Burkie after the boxer, Kid Burke. He died when I was 14. So I called my son Burkie, but the priest said there was no Saint Burkie, so I said, ‘Leave him alone. So I won’t baptize him at all.’ They gave in to me. So I got to call him Burkie. I beat the priest.” And some pretty long odds, too, I told him.
“That is also true,” he said.
The Brownes have been working the Listowel Races for more than 100 years, through good times and bad. “I remember when I was a boy, you would see the farmers come down,” Eric said. “They would sell what they had and then they would bring the money to the races here. You would have the money you earned, and then you’d have a little hooky money that you got here.” The collapse of the Irish economic boom in 2008 affected them not at all. “People still came,” Eric said. “They had to have a little of the hooky money in their back pockets.”
Eventually, P.J. and his friends showed up and convinced me to bet on an American horse called Diplomat in the John Fletcher Memorial Novice Hurdle, a two-mile race for 4-year-olds and up. It seemed like a good play, Diplomat having won once recently at Galway, and having finished in the money in his previous three starts. I put 10 euros down on him both ways — the equivalent of betting a horse across the board — and my money went down into the recesses of the briefcase. It never came out again.
Diplomat competed without ever seriously challenging for the lead, pushing his way past the field over the last few jumps. Watching a race over the hurdles scrambles your perceptions ever further. Every time the field reaches a jump, the race seems to pause and turn into entirely another sport. You can hear a great catching of breath from across the grandstand, and then the racing starts again and everyone exhales. Diplomat was game over the first mile, but he never really either got clear of the field or close to the eventual winner, Massini’s Trap, who probably won the race over the second-to-last hurdle. I made no money at the Listowel Races, and that didn’t matter at all.
There are two huge days at the annual fall races, when the grandstands fill up and the race course is bursting with between 30,000 and 40,000 people. The first is the Guinness Kerry National Handicap Steeplechase, a three-mile grinder that’s run on Wednesday, the midway point of the meeting. It was won this year by White Star Line, a nine-year-old long shot who broke free over the last half-mile and won by five lengths. The horse nearly never made the race. He’d won only once in his previous 20 starts and he was listed at the beginning of the day as the third “reserve” in an 18-horse field. His jockey, Andrew Lynch, got the ride only after the horse he was supposed to be on scratched. Leaving the post at 16-1, White Star Line stayed at the front of the general cavalry charge over the first two miles and then kicked into a remarkable gear that surprised even the jockey riding him.
“I couldn’t believe how well he was going down the back straight,” said Lynch. “I decided not to disappoint him and let him go. He jumped for fun.”
The other big day is Friday, Ladies Day, a fairly new event at the races at Listowel, but an instantly popular one. (The talk in John B. Keane’s was that Ladies Day had surpassed Kerry National Day as the festival’s most popular event. This occasioned spirited debate among some of the traditionalists on hand.) Racing is only marginally relevant. It’s a day for finery, a little touch of Keeneland on the hillsides of north Kerry, and a day for wearing alarmingly feathered hats. Standing by the paddock in a blue suit, Jimmy Deenihan took in the whole spectacle.
“Back then, when I was young,” he said, “the girls and their mothers would go to the market for the amusements and the boys would come here to the races with their fathers.”
Deenihan is more than a celebrity here. Born in Finuge, not far from where my grandmother grew up, he became a legendary Irish footballer, captaining Kerry. In fact, with Deenihan anchoring its defense, Kerry won four All-Irelands in a row between 1978 and 1981. This led to a career in politics. Deenihan is a member of the Dail Eireann for the area, as well as the minister for the arts, heritage, and Gaeltacht. Mick Jagger’s father taught him how to swim. His has been a rich, full life. He’s been coming here for more than 50 years.
“It is the most successful in the country,” he said. “In fact, today is the second-biggest racing day in Ireland. There’s a group of friends of mine here all the way from San Diego. I’ve been coming here since 1958. In fact, I remember seeing the 1959 All-Ireland here. They were showing that. I remember seeing that with my father. They were showing it on film, in the square, out in the open air. It was massive.”
As Jimmy wandered off to do the politician’s work at the races, I browsed the card for the day and became quite a sucker. In the fifth race, the Guinness Handicap, there was a seven-year-old going who was named Barack and another horse named Capitol Hill. I was intrigued to find a horse here named after the president, so I tracked down the owner, John Malone, in the paddock, where he was giving some last-minute advice to Ben Curtis, a jockey who appeared to be about the same age as the horse on which he would run. “My wife named him,” Malone said. “She named him in 2006, so she was on the ball.” This was a good call, naming a horse after a freshly elected senator who was not yet even a long shot to become president. It is through moments like these that the local economy continues to thrive. I plunged on Barack, and bet a little on Capitol Hill, because he was longer odds. Barack stumbled a bit at the start, but recovered enough to win me some place money back out of Eric Browne’s satchel. Capitol Hill started fast but faded in the stretch. There’s a lesson there somewhere, but I’m damned if I can find it. The racing ended for the day, but the ladies stayed, sipping their pints discreetly and dancing to two fellas, a guitarist, and a conga drummer, cranking out old Creedence favorites and Steve Earle’s “Galway Girl.” There were hats with feathers on every small table.
I am of this place, because my grandmother was of this place, and she told me about it, and so it became part of what I am. I talked a little about this with Pat Healy, an energetic photographer who acts rather as the maître d’ of the races, and who’d been my guide for the week here. We talked about what had struck me the deepest about coming back to these races — the organic sense of the place, that, unlike so many of our games, the Listowel Races had not been dropped here by foreign, unaccountable money, that they were part of the land itself.
“When you come right down to it,” Pat told me, “running a racetrack is like running a farm. That’s why the races here have survived. It was the last thing the farmers had for the year. Once the races ended, there was only the long, cold winter.”
What are sports, anyway, at their best, but stories played out in real time? Each of them has a distant beginning, a middle, and an end, all three connected by the slender, powerful tendrils of memories recited. They are part of the collective memory of the tribe. They are how we explain ourselves to each other, down through the generations. Once upon a time, there were five sisters on the hills around Listowel, and one of them had a son, who gave her a grandson. From her, I had imagined hearing the muffled power of the hooves pounding into the turf. I had imagined the soft-running river. I never had been to the Listowel Races, but I had been there all my life.
Every night after the racing was through, I would walk back down toward the town square in Listowel. The skies were dark and muscled with clouds that made the moon dance, but there was giddy cheering from the carnival near the river, and from the giant Ferris wheel that towered incongruously above the entire town. When the breeze stirred, you could smell the peat burning in a dozen fireplaces. I’d turn onto William Street and into John B. Keane’s. There would be a great welcoming commotion. Somebody would begin to sing.