Ireland has its own March Madness

It's March 17 and that can mean only one thing. People have been waiting for this day all over Ireland and in America too, of course. Yes, it's time for March Madness, the NCAA basketball tournament.


Okay, that's a lie. There is virtually no interest in the NCAA Tournament in Ireland. Basketball is a popular game to play here and there are some NBA fans in the country, but interest in the college game is limited to Americans who live here and those Irish people who spent years living stateside, especially if some of that time was spent in college. Maybe now thanks to digital television - ESPN America in particular - more Irish people will be drawn to the great spectacle that is the NCAA Tournament.

So the Irish don't gather at water coolers to discuss the office's March Madness pool. {Fortunately for me that need is met by a pool among my college friends. I have Georgetown winning it all.} No NCAA pools, but I could if I was a gambler - and I'm decidedly not - go into my local Paddy Power betting shop and (legally) bet on each and every game in the tournament. Paddy Power doesn't miss a trick, although I doubt there's much Irish betting on the tournament.

No NCAA here, but the bookies do cash in on Ireland's own form of March Madness. Cheltenham. Those who have lived in Ireland (or Britain) are fully aware of Irish people's obsession with the 4 days of racing in the west of England.

For many Irish people - more men than women - this is what St. Patrick's Day means: Cheltenham. They seem to live for the chance to get over to England on St. Patrick's Day. To these people talk of the patron saint and national holiday and parades is blah, blah, blah. It's all about the horse-racing.

I'd never heard of Cheltenham before I moved here and it surprised me how important this English race meeting is in Ireland. I mean, there are big Irish race meetings - Leopardstown at Christmas time, the Curragh around the Irish Derby and the Galway races - but nothing compares with the interest in Cheltenham.

I'm not a fan of racing. I have never been to a racetrack in all the years I've lived here. I've never set foot in a bookie's shop to bet on a horse race (or anything for that matter). It's not my thing. But even I'm aware of Cheltenham, how the "Irish" are doing (that refers to the horses as well as the "punters" - bettors).

You can't miss it because it's live on television, a top item on the news, front pages of the newspapers and, if you're listening to the radio during the afternoon, whatever program you're listening to will be interrupted to bring each race live to those who can't be in front of a television.

During the Celtic Tiger years Irish attendance at Cheltenham was massive, but it's fallen off somewhat since our economic collapse. Maybe not as much as you might imagine, however. So those who can, still go and those who wish they could go, get themselves to the bookies to place their bets and then find a television or radio in the afternoon to follow the action.

I thought growing up near Saratoga that local interest in that annual one month of racing was very high, but it is as nothing compared with the focus on Cheltenham. It's a madness that overcomes the people of Ireland every March.

{Photo from Getty Images.}

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