The Galway races started on Monday, the greatest midsummer festival on the Irish calendar, a week long lollapalozza of fun, music, drinking, carry on and craic, a Mardi grass of Irish madness.
Starting in late July, the high point of the summer holiday season, it has become the Irish equivalent of Carnival, and is the fastest growing festival in the world.
While Americans may say what ‘Happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” in Ireland the equivalent is ‘What happens in Galway stays in Galway.’
Oh, and horse racing happens as well. The great Irish playwright John B. Keane said that the "Galway races are a state of mind." Indeed they are, a state of mind that is distinctly Irish, often copied but never equaled. The festival's big races – the Galway Plate and the Galway Hurdle – bring the country to a standstill.
It is also the biggest singles shopping mart in Ireland. The bold and the beautiful show up to preen and be pursued. The women gather in the fashionable bars at the racetrack and around town, the eligible men pursue them like a stag hunt.
The social highlight is Ladies Day on Thursday when the ladies outdo themselves seeking the prize of best dressed. The men hang around the judging areas like wallflowers dying to be asked.
Some years back Galway was also inextricably linked with political power and money. The captains of the Celtic Tiger steered a course each year to the Fianna Fail tent, where politicians and powerful business men and women mixed and hatched deals.
With the collapse of the tent, Galway is no more a political Pandora's box. Instead it is the festival of the common man once again.
Once at the track the sights and sounds of the occasion all assail your senses at once: the constantly changing faces; horses; myriad colors of silks and clothing; sounds of laughter; roars of triumph; the challenging tone of the bookies; children screaming; parents gently scolding; smell of the newly intruded-upon turf; horses' sweat; quixotic odour of perfume. It's easiest to just give into it and get swept away by the thrill of it all. Galway has an utterly compelling quality.
The city itself is dressed in its finest for the occasion. Street acts, music sessions, all night partying and card games are the lingua franca. Everyone is up early because they haven’t been to bed yet.
That's one of the great aspects of the festival: it is a common man occasion, something which a lot of great sporting occasions are not, and the great and good of the land mingle with the chap in the battered peak cap who still has muck on his shoes and is only there because he sold a few sheep the week before to pay for the Bed and Breakfast and the few pints of stout. It is an event that captures the imagination of everyone.
W.B. Yeats captured it best in "At Galway Races".
"There where the course is,
Delight makes all of the one mind,
The riders on the galloping horses,
The crowd that closes in behind:and it again
Crying aloud as the racecourse is,
And we find hearteners among men
That ride upon horses."