The arrival home of Mam’s relations from England for the Galway Races was the high point of our summer. They usually stayed at the home place at Raford out in the country but they would visit us and sometimes stay the night.
All the anxiety and tension of life went out the door when they came in and it was a time of enjoyment. There were crowds of them from Birmingham and London.
We watched it all from the distance of childhood with fascination and much pleasure. They might go off to the Merlin Bar where Dad worked part-time and come home for a session that filled the house with the dense blue fog of cigarettes, bottles of porter, loud conversation, laughter and music.
In the early mornings I’d get up before everyone else and immerse myself in the aftertaste of the night’s pleasure – drinking the dregs of empty bottles and smoking the butts that overflowed in ashtrays. Breakfast could wait.
People would appear and the place got cleared and the fry fried, its aroma mingling with the scent of fresh fags and conversation spoken in half Irish half English accents.
“I say Maureen, I say, I say” and “Lord God Maureen”. “Harry, have a fag. Go on have one of mine love. Sure I’ve plenty more in the car.” And they’d retell and retell how Dad was trying to light a fag last night but couldn’t get the match and cigarette to connect, his hand always veering off in another direction. And they’d laugh and laugh and Dad would smile. But I didn’t like them making fun of him.
They had fabulous cars that I loved to look at and touch and wash and sit in and the sun would shine and everything gleamed.
In the afternoon we would trek over the back wall, across the field and out by O’Meara’s butcher, over to the races in Ballybrit. We never went to the Stand and I assumed it was reserved for extra special people and, therefore, out of bounds. But it was an extraordinary and fearsome thrill to stand by the railing as the horses passed by - the sight and thunder of them that made you tremble to the core.
The big field was always thronged with people, totes, caravans with the wonderful smell of greasy chips and big white tents – some for drinking porter and others selling tea and squares of fluffy cakes with pink icing. We never got beyond the edge of any tent, the pink icing always out of reach.
Young lads shouting “race cards, race cards, cards a shilling, race cards” and stout women wearing aprons calling out “apples, oranges, pears, peaches, bananas”.
There were shifty looking men doing the three-card trick on a small fold-up table that could be whisked away at the first sight of a gard. And stalls with toys and competitions for winning them and we lingered dreamlike in front of them all.
Uncle Jack, Mam’s oldest brother, was a bachelor who lived in Birmingham and he was very quiet. He brought me to the races once on my own while everyone else went off touring somewhere. It felt really special to be with him and we got soaked on the way home and tried to light a fire but the briquettes and coal were as wet as ourselves and nothing would persuade them to light.
The adults were always meeting other adults they knew. The races were great for that. You might never meet anyone during the year if it weren’t for the races..
Children stood silently by and would be introduced in time, smiled at and commented on. He looks just like his father. And there would have to be a sigh and a whinge about “children nowadays”.
But we got our turn on the swinging boats and tugged that rope hard so that we would swing as high as possible, rising out of our seat – the exhilaration was fearsome and thrilling. We were really at the races then.