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[Essay] Two Grand Irish National Races by Ken Hogarty

Updated: Feb 2

May the road rise up to meet you.

May the wind be always at your back.

May the sun shine warm upon your face,

the rains fall soft upon your fields,

and until we meet again,

may God hold you in the palm of His hand.


Thinking of the Irish blessing, often sung or spoken at funerals, as the old sod’s roads rose up to meet our van, gave me pause the first day or two of jet-lagged driving in Ireland. Maneuvering on the “wrong side” of roads, racing through roundabouts, and working our rental’s gearshift, also on my left, I feared I might be inviting not just my own funeral but also my passengers’ funerals.

 Jim, a more confident driver and my fellow San Francsico Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep teacher, demonstrated no problem rising up a country road berm on two wheels to avoid a lorry or tractor. He proved an adept van jockey on all three of our sojourns chaperoning small groups of students to the Emerald Isle. That played out dramatically during a later trip when we got halted in the middle of the road by troops with weapons drawn near a border between the Republic and Northen Ireland.

During Easter vacation 1992, on the first of our three jaunts, we were chaperoning a small group of students as they explored our ancestral land’s culture. After flying into Shannon, we had planned stops at Galway, Blarney Castle, Cahir (staying at the Butler Castle B&B, a mini-version of Cahir Castle, location site of the movie Excalibur), the Rock of Cashel, Waterford, Kilkenny, Dublin (including a mind-boggling visit to the nearby Newgrange Neolithic monument after getting a peak at the Book of Kells in Trinity College), and across the North, past the Giant’s Causeway to Donegal and the Republic’s beguilingly rugged West Coast.

Two juniors and three seniors accompanied Jim and me on our first of that decade’s excursions. Grant, a junior, knew Jim better than me. I knew John, the other 11th grader, well. His father Mike had been a classmate. John would follow Mike’s footsteps and win an ice hockey scholarship to a Midwest college, something virtually unheard of in San Francisco. Garrett and Melanie, seniors, were both in the Scholar Program I directed. Our third senior, Erin (who would, years later, teach for me when I became principal), was the one who beseeched Jim and me to deviate from what would be our usual routine. She had taken it upon herself to arrange participation in an international Irish Dancing Championship in Limerick two days after our arrival.

Shopkeepers and innkeepers with whom we interacted from Limerick to Waterford, winding our way across the island with me gradually getting used to piloting the van, chatted us up about the upcoming Irish Grand National.

The Irish Grand National, run every year since 1870, is a three and 5/8th mile (three miles and five furlongs) steeplechase for five-year-old-plus mounts that differs markedly from America’s Kentucky Derby. Older horses run in the Irish Grand National than in the Kentucky Derby, which limits entrants to three-year olds. The Irish race, with 24 jumps, is also three times longer.

Each springtime spectacle, however, is its country’s signature race. The in-person gathering at both features a well-quaffed and millinery-resplendent grandstand crowd and something of a Charles Dickens’ cast of characters near the track. Both races get broadcast for a huge audience of bettors and enthusiasts.

But nowhere was the buzz for the Irish Grand National more palpable than in Kilkenny. Declan and Aileen, our B&B hosts, rhapsodized long and late about Ebony Jane, a local favorite, who had decisively won its last race at local Gowran Park. Even the musicians playing at our Easter dinner shared thoughts about what a sure-fire winner Kilkenny’s favorite steed would be as an entrant in the next day’s race.

On Easter Monday, a national Banking Holiday, we discovered that only one touristy place would be open: the arts and crafts complex near Kilkenny Castle. Even the Smithwick’s Brewery was closed.

Despite my lack of horse racing experience (I expected the Irish Grand National to be a cross between the Kentucky Derby and the Indianapolis 500, with horses crashing on the course like racecars), I spontaneously decided to go all out to attend the race, taking a cue from Erin’s example earlier on the trip.

Grant and John opted to go with me, while Jim would stay with Erin and Melanie, who wanted to enjoy the crafts festival, and Garrett, who decided, like Jim, to avoid extra travel.

Not wanting to leave the Kilkenny main party without our van, I plotted a relatively inexpensive way to get to our destination by train to Dublin and then bus to the race course, which was almost twenty miles west of Dublin.

The boys and I boarded an uncrowded train in Kilkenny which added few passengers during its 1:45 hour northeastern route through picturesque Carow and Kildaire. Out the window, a seemingly complete spectrum of spring-green-growth delighted us, painting our view both on the flat countryside to the west and the gradual rising to the Wicklow Mountains in the east. Finally, the train button hooked into Dublin for our transfer by bus to the racecourse, Fairyhouse, twenty miles west of Dublin in County Meath.

Finding the right bus line in a teeming station, while realizing there were special schedules for the holiday and day’s race, proved vexing as well as time consuming. And the bus ride to Fairyhouse after we finally boarded the right one was certainly not an express.

We veered off main highways to pick up riders on the way. By the time the racecourse neared, the packed vehicle rocked and rolled with race-goers who looked and sounded more like Peaky Blinders’ gangs would years later on television than the swells had in the Ascot race scene in “My Fair Lady.”

Arriving late, I immediately began to worry about catching our Kilkenny train back after getting told the last one would depart that holiday evening at 6 p.m. All transportation seemed to be on special schedules. If we missed that train, we would be stuck in Dublin until the morning. The expense and inconvenience of finding a place to stay in Dublin, with our lodging in Kilkenny secured, was a hurdle I didn’t want to jump.

Still, the colorful experience that greeted us at Fairyhouse, though we had arrived just one race before the big one, dispelled such thoughts from the forefront of my mind.

People watching, from the fancily dressed upper crust in the grandstand to what looked like a host of stereotypical Hollywood Irish extras milling and surging en masse closer to the track, enthralled us.

Individualized betting stalls offering differentiated wagering opportunities contrasted with the general pari-mutuel betting structure back home. They lined the track in front of the grandstand, looking like Tinker vans, the Irish name for Gypsy vans, also known as Irish cobs.

The boys and I snaked through the writhing, undulating crowd.  I placed a couple pounds across (win, place, and show) on Ebony Jane at 11-1, the best odds I found among differing chalk-boarded numbers that changed by the minute with the flick of an erasure and a quick scratch. The boys ponied up a pound between them to bet Ebony Jane to show.

A bobbing wave of Irishmen, most sporting flat caps (known as duffers or cabbies), looked like ill-dressed commodity traders during a volatile market day. They crowded among the stalls, clamoring to place bets. We watched pushing, shoving bettors wildly waving colorful pre-Euro Irish currency to draw the attention of odds-setters before the numbers shifted the wrong way for them.  Bills featured iconic harps and shamrocks, as well as vibrant portraits of a variety of Irish personages from a 20th Century Mother Superior to a historic Queen Maeve on the reverse sides.

Navigating the rugby scrum in front of the grandstand as post-time neared, we crammed in with the five-people-deep mass behind a low abutment near the starting line.

For the Irish Grand National, horses complete two circuits around the course, each including 12 steeple jumps, two or three over water. Each circuit took the horses toward the countryside, making it virtually impossible to glimpse them racing and jumping from our ground level roost.

The roar of the crowd built as the 23 mounts started from behind a rope. It became a steady hum until another rumble ensued when Ebony Jane surged into the lead as she headed past us halfway through the race. Clearly, others in this crowd were also betting on our horse, though a leprechaun of a man jammed next to us with a brogue that you could cut a knife though, rooted loudly for a gray horse.

We strained to see the action on small mounted TVs perched behind us on the betting stall counters, as the horses once again negotiated Fairyhouse’s beautiful grounds and challenging jumps. According to our fellow bystander, picking up information from a transistor radio, his gray horse had fallen over a jump. His favorite was one of fifteen horses that either fell or were eased up before the finish. Only eight, including Ebony Jane, would finish our edition of the Irish Grand National.

As the diminished, stampeding herd came into our sight to make the final run to the finish line, the survivors were now strung out, the toll and intensity of the racecourse clearly apparent. Disappointingly, Ebony Jane was not in the lead. Though gallant, she placed sixth and out of the money. The winning horse, Vanton, had gone off at 13-2. 

As the excitement of Fairyhouse and Ebony Jane’s run wore off, I belatedly decided to skip the next race to race to our train. Had I been thinking clearly, the day’s schedule would have been better planned.

Still, the three of us remained caught up in the excitement of the day, even in the midst of a swarm of others exiting. Grant and John, smiling broadly, were seemingly unfazed, a sign of a successful venture.

Disoriented, we sought directions from anyone and everyone to the bus stop to take us to our Dublin train.  Typically, exchanges began like this: “Well, you sure wanna be going first to that lamppost to the left way down there; it’s past that.” And ended with something akin to, “That should be grand, it then being right beyond on the left. Unless they changed it.” After a number of such interactions with numerous wishing-to-please Irishmen, we finally realized our stop had changed because of the holiday and race, at least while the rest of the races were in progress.

To our rescue came Mairi (pronounced Mah-ree), an Irish Times reporter who looked like the young beauty with the “nut brown hair” Van Morrison would popularize as the “gem of old Ireland’s crown” in his “Star of the County Down.” We were immediately enchanted by this fast talking, fast walking, Godsend.

Due to Mairi’s attention, John and Grant saw me in a new light, engaging this incredible beauty, closer to their age than mine, and keeping the conversation going while we walked. Mairi, though disarming, could not pull my attention away from my responsibilities. I was desperate to find the bus stop, doubting whether we could race to the 6:00 train in time. And with taxis nowhere in sight, I began to panic.

Mairi, empathizing with our plight and wanting to please, changed the odds. She offered to drive us to Dublin to catch our train, though acknowledging that with the traffic and late hour we might, like Ebony, not win our race.

She drove a tiny, red, convertible sports car. Fitting us all in proved a challenge. I stuffed myself into the left-side passenger seat with John on my lap. Grant, though huskier than the collegiate hockey player to-be on me, wedged himself in the jockey-like space between front seat and trunk. Grant and John never said a word, though Mairi and I enjoyed a delightful dialogue about Irish literature and history.

While Mairi and I chatted away, money worries, specifically what it would take to secure safe lodgings for me and two teenagers in Dublin, thrummed inside my head. Mairi zipped in and out of stalled traffic as if riding a lead-stalking mount. With each maneuver, I held John tight and kept reminding Grant to keep his head down and limbs tucked in, as if he were a saddled jockey hanging on to his steed.

During a conversational lull, Mairi let loose her car’s horsepower on the N3 highway. I glanced at a flyer I had spotted on the car seat. The Irish Times promotion promised a striking collection of five six-inch pewter statues of “the greatest Irish writers – Joyce, Wilde, Shaw, Yeats, and Beckett.”

While I quibbled about Swift’s exclusion, Mairi went modern, telling me about contemporary Irish Times author Maeve Binchy and a recent Roddy Doyle novel she loved, The Commitments. Captivated, I decided I would order the busts for my classroom, even though they cost nearly fifty Irish pounds for the set.

We zipped to our train’s embarkation spot, only to watch it pull away. “Damn,” I blurted, though thinking back I likely said something stronger.

“No worries,” retorted Mairi, as she lurched, as if between horses, back out onto the road that paralleled the train tracks heading south. “I know the next stop.” Like J.F. Titley, the jockey on that day’s big winner, Vanton, Mairi left others in her wake as we paced the train for what may have been five furlongs. Mairi accelerated to open a substantial distance between us and our trailing train. We drove down the stretch to the Waterford line’s next stop.

Before the train arrived, we three Americans unfolded ourselves from the sports car. I asked Mairi if I could keep the statue flyer before stammering heartfelt thanks and getting a peck on the cheek. The boys waved goodbye over their shoulders as our apparitional savior, surely conjured by the Fairies for our benefit, sped away.

When we were back safely in Kilkenny, I was overcome by the day, but the boys chattered about our “incredible experience.”

“Your horse win?” Jim finally got a word in.

“No,” John said, “but Mr. H. and the beautiful jockey who rode us to the train won a race I’ll never forget.”

Ironically, I found out a year later that Ebony Jane had returned to win the 1993 Irish Grand National. Clearly, the experience the year before had prepped her for that victory. I still revel in that 1992 experience. Its two races, on a day that the Irish sun figuratively and magically shone brightly on my face, afforded me and my two charges an unexpected Irish blessing.



Dr. Ken Hogarty lives in SF’s East Bay with his wife Sally, retired after a 46-year career as a high school teacher and principal. He has had stories, essays, memoirs, and comedy pieces published in Underwood, Sport Literate, Sequoia Speaks, Woman’s Way, Purpled Nails, the S.F. Chronicle, Under Review, Bridge Eight, Cobalt, Points in Case, MacQueen’s, Under Review, Glossy News, The Satirist, and Good Old Days. His first novel, Recruiting Blue Chip Prospects, is available on Amazon and others.


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