Musings on a night at the races




All human life – well, almost all – is visible at the races.

  There was a lovely race day buzz in town all day. Mind you, there is literally a buzz (from drilling) in Abbey Street, where the Roscommon People office is, as Irish Water workers are toiling all week.

  I was walking into the Church grounds when I met two tourists. An Australian couple, they asked if I’d take a photograph of them in front of the Church Grotto. I’m not sure what they made of me when I told them we have a great town and that the races were on in the evening!

  They were from Queensland, and were visiting Roscommon because the woman’s grandfather had been born here a long time ago. I gave them a brief summary of our great town and county before moving on.

  By 6.30 pm or so a group of us had joined the large crowd at Lenabane. What a wonderful sporting theatre, social hub and economic impetus these regular race meetings are.

  On this sunny summer evening, the Roscommon Racecourse was a lovely place to be. All human life, almost. As we made our way in, dignitaries were gathered for the official opening of the new facilities at the course (recently featured in a special Roscommon People report). Politicians, national horseracing administrators, jockeys, owners and trainers mingled with our great local races’ personnel to conduct the formalities for posterity.

  The bookies were in full flow, a chorus of temptations, odds somersaulting. It’s all very Irish, very traditional, a marvellous slice of our culture. I watched the bookies – young, old, male, female – with their flicking fingers, their speedy calculating, their cash-filled bags, their quick eye for the approaching would-be punter. They are businesslike – but friendly, up for banter – and skilled in their own way as exponents of this craft. Money in, money out, calculating odds, speedy counting of notes, an eye to the list of horses to check numbers, a quip here, a quip there, and always the eyes scanning the landscape – or, more specifically, the small world of commercial potential within five or ten feet of their workplace.

  The thing about the races is that you can be public or private…you can chat to people and spend time in the bar or you can just wander around on your own, savouring the whole experience. On Monday, we took the social option, and it was a great evening. All human life. Some people I hadn’t seen in years. Some people I had seen hours earlier (around town). It was cosmopolitan too. Australian visitors. American visitors. English visitors. Familiar faces from Rooskey. People from different walks of life now sharing the same passion for a day at the races. Every now and again the zig-zag foray into the bookies’ area is briefly halted by a trail of ladies in extravagant hats. It’s Ladies Day. We had bet after bet, and after a slow start, began to pick some winners. Happy days. Cheering your horse to victory from the stand is a great feeling, the adrenaline pumping. The torn and discarded betting slips will always outnumber the tightly gripped winning slips, making the latter all the more cherished.

  Mostly it is good fun, unless you are on a losing streak or the weather is miserable. Monday was terrific. The first bar was packed, with a great atmosphere all evening. We popped in once or twice, but mostly hovered around the bookies, chatting and having the craic, placing bets, then moving to the stand to watch the action. Everybody was in good humour, it was a lovely evening weather-wise, and you couldn’t but glow with pride at how magnificent this asset is, how beneficial it is to our county town.

  I thought of my father, now seven months gone. As people who have lost loved ones will know, memories – and emotions – can be triggered at any time, often by places, faces, dates, events…reminders of what once was. And all evening I could see my father, in whose footsteps I now followed. He attended hundreds of race meetings in Roscommon and the West. On Monday evening I could picture him, from just a couple of years ago, stood like many more wily elderly men in the midst of the punters, eyes on the bookies’ odds, cigarette and race card in hand, happy to be in the middle of this vibrant social gathering.

  I notice the old men, because there are a lot of old men at the races, and they are particularly obsessed, certainly intrigued, about it all. They study form, they weigh up the odds, they listen out for information, tips, changes in the betting. They have experience, knowledge, shrewdness. They seem to have all the time in the world, standing there between races, card in hand, eyes trained on the odds.

  I looked at this scene, with these great happy crowds, and I marvelled at what we have…this great tradition. I thought of the passing years, of my father, and of all his evenings at Roscommon Races, from the 1970s through to a year or two ago. And I looked at men who look like him, these men who were still here, like me, in the footsteps of him and others who have gone. These men who looked like him, with their similar gait, their cigarette, their mischief and humour and ready greetings, race card in hand, happy as any man or woman anywhere at this moment, stuck in the middle of Roscommon Races. Little wonder that so many people can relate to the lines from Patrick Kavanagh’s poem.


Every old man I see
In October-coloured weather
Seems to say to me
“I was once your father”


Life moves on. And you will see all human life at the races. Mind you, I didn’t see the Dublin ladies selling their cut-price mars bars at the exit. Perhaps they were gone by the time we got there. And have the three-card trick men stopped coming? (My father could do that too!). As we left, the various service providers were packing their stuff away, the bookies were driving off. Henry & The Usual Suspects were playing their music in the bar below, which was still buzzing. Where would you get it?