Easter in Ireland is a time to reflect on renewal, resurrection, family and horses. Yes, I did say horses. Easter Monday is a national holiday and a great day for horse racing in Ireland.
As a child we took our annual trip to Fairyhouse Race Course in Co. Meath on Easter Monday. As much as I looked forward to Easter Sunday and the promise of Easter eggs, I really couldn’t wait for Easter Monday and all the excitement it promised.
Throughout the six, long, candy-free weeks of Lent my heart fluttered in anticipation of race day, a wonderful celebration of spring. My school days were passed dreaming of brightly colored stalls, bustling activity, amusements and the raw human and equine energy soon to seize the Fairyhouse Race Course.
Horse racing is one sport at which Ireland excels. A day at the races is an amazing social occasion and an integral part of Irish life.
Rain, hail or shine we packed our picnic early on Easter Monday morning and joined the traffic jams through the small village of Ratoath, waiting patiently to stream into the designated parking areas. On rainy days we wore our hooded waterproofs with wellies (rain boots). On sunny days our hearts sang, glad to leave our umbrellas behind in the car.
Before the days racing began we chased each other to the amusements dotted throughout the field. Swing boats and chair-o-plane rides were such a highlight for children of the seventies.
No 3D animated action thrills for us! No! Just rope burns from pulling so hard on our ever so rough and basic swing boat controllers.
“Sit down before ye break yer necks!”
I still remember the shouts of swing-boat operators warning us not to stand up in a vain attempt to increase the force of our pulls and thrills.
That’s what my aunt used to call the helter skelter rides of our youth.
With our stomachs somersaulting we munched on picnic sandwiches before the start of serious racing. ‘Twas then the betting began. Adults examined race programs carefully, floating between bookie stands in search of the best odds for their favorites.
How do you pick a winner?
How do you know a good horse when you see one?
What do all these “weights” and “distances” mean?
Don’t ask me! I don’ t have a clue!
I picked horses based on how much I liked the sound of a name and the colors the jockey planned to wear. I especially liked chestnut brown or gray horses. I never took a very scientific approach.
Bets were placed at the tote or with bookies. Fans predicted a top 3 placing or a win. A precious piece of paper was handed over to mark the bet. I remember carefully stuffing my 50 pence betting docket into my pocket. By the time the race was over, it was ever so grubby. I just couldn’t resist pulling it out every five minutes to check it was still there.
Our day at the races meant far more to us than our meager fifty pence bets. I remember racing to the fence to watch the horses trot towards the starting gates. We watched with baited breath, patiently awaiting the starter’s signal.
Seeing these incredible animals jump hurdles, then accelerate to top speed filled me with awe. I clearly remember feeling a sense of pride in the presence of Ireland’s elite race horses.
Easter Monday racing encouraged family camaraderie, as we commented on the apparent prowess of our chosen steeds. Hoping for a win we rooted our gallant jockeys on.
Our fervor peaked as the horses raced passed us. We were never in the “good seats” in the stands, with a clear view of the finish line.
Listening to the radio, we clung to the fence on the outskirts of the field, our hearts pumping in anticipation of our favorite crossing the finish line first. We were disappointed more often than not, but this never detracted from the sheer enjoyment we experienced.
I hold dear to my magical Easter memories of horses thundering towards the finish line, and the joy of sharing in the excitement of all the race attendees. I knew then that no other sport could ever make me feel that way. Perhaps that is why I now live in Kentucky – the home of the famous Kentucky Derby.
I love horse racing and the sheer thrill and spectacle of it all. And to tell you the truth, the fun is just beginning in Kentucky as we prepare for the great Kentucky race in early May. Here’s to celebrating the amazing horses of my new home state and to sharing a “little slice of Kentucky life” over the next few weeks.
Slán agus beannacht leat!
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom