Gathering of the Hostings

The owners all seemed to be waddling around the field like ducks. Surely not all of these horses are lame I said to myself. The rough ground on the Fair Green at Ballinasloe would give any honest horse dealer a profound limp and they are notorious anyway for having atrocious feet. The Fair Green is the site of the annual October horse fair at Ballinasloe held for a week in early October. This is the most famous Irish horse fair of them all and the oldest in Europe.

For horses Ireland is heaven. Horses are the only ones who don’t mind our mild climate and thrive on it. Damp summers and limestone clays produce gourmet grasses packed full of nutritious calcium for healthy horse bones. The climate and a preponderance of good bloodlines have led to the production of some world famous Irish racehorses and sports horses.

They are treated with reverence in a nation with a preponderance of horsewhisperers and to the ancient Celts they were Gods. The Irish Neptune Manann MacLir (a sea God) created the horse with a wave of his trident.

Irish mythology was filled with great chariot warriors such as Cuchulainn who through the rage and fury of battle was transfigured into a fearsome creature at one with his magnificent chariot steeds. The Femorian Gods of the spiritual Celtic Otherworld were centaurs and Niall of the Nine Hostages of the O’Neill clan claimed to be of that lineage. The chief of the Femorians, Eochaid Ollathair, was the horse God from whom the old Irish word for horse “ech” comes. The surnames Keogh and Haughey derive from “ech.”

Epona was another centaur and ancient Celtic goddess. This centaur myth continued even into the 17th century when Gearoid Iarla, the Earl of Desmond allegedly became one with his horse and disappeared into Lough Gur.

Great horse races were held at the ancient sites of Tara and the horse was integral to the inauguration of the High Kings of Ireland. It was here that the God Lug performed feats of horsemanship to establish class of kinship. At the inauguration ceremony a white mare was sacrificed and boiled to make a kind of horse stew. The king would drink from the broth and then bathe in it. The ancient Irish had a taste for horse and believed by eating it they would become one with the Gods. The Vikings were also partial to the odd equine steak. With the arrival of Christianity in Ireland, horses are not eaten anymore, as the Church doesn’t condone the eating of the flesh of animals that are not cloven.

It was believed the horses had magical powers, which could have been used for good or evil. They could transport ordinary mortals through water to the Otherworld, as the white steed did for Oisin on his way to Tir Na Nog. These waterhorses could mate with an ordinary horse and improve the bloodline of unsuspecting breeders. But there was also the dark Pooka spirit horse, which was evil and used to pick up unsuspecting travellers and throw them into deep black pools in the bog never to be seen again.

Ballinasloe comes from Beal Atha Slua, which translates as “ford of the hostings” and the ancient Celts would have crossed the River Suck here on their way to Tara. The gatherings of the hostings were special ancient Celtic social gatherings at auspicious times of the year. The October fair may have had its origin way back in prehistoric Ireland as the festival of Samhain (now celebrated as Halloween), but the modern fair dates back to about 1722 when Lord Clancarty, of the local landlord Trench family, was granted a royal charter to have a sheep fair. Sheep and cattle trading was the major activity at the fair up until the start of the twentieth century when horses became the major trading commodity. European Union Regulations and weekly livestock marts have put pay to that part of the fair and it is not almost exclusively horses that are sold.

The Connemara Pony and the Irish Draught Horse are the two breeds of Irish horse that have made Ireland famous in the horsing world. In times past the great armies of Europe used to come to buy Irish Draughts, as their placid nature and great strength was considered ideal for military service. It is claimed that about half the horses at the Battle of Waterloo were bought in Ireland, including Napoleon’s mount Marengo. The Draughts were also great farm horses. The advent of automated farm machinery and the tank in the battlefield marked the decline in the use of the horse in military and agriculture. It nearly marked the end of the Ballinasloe festival. But the value of these horses was recognized in the sports arena. Thoroughbreds are crossed with the Irish Draught Horse and the Connemara Pony to produce top racing horses and showjumpers. For racehorses, the thoroughbred bloodlines are so controlled and you are unlikely to pick up a bargain thoroughbred at Ballinasloe. The big horse sales at Goffs and Goresbridge and arranged visits to the major breeding stables is how that business is done. Now the purchase of a racehorse is buying into a genetic dynasty of thoroughbred breeding. They are only beginning to build up a stock of good horse jumping stallions, so you are more likely to be lucky at the fair if that is what you are looking at. Many foreigners still come to the fair to look and see, but most use local dealers or agents to buy their horses or they may even buy them through the Internet as they can view them perform using video transmitted through cyberspace.

The buying and selling of horses at Ballinasloe involves certain rituals before the hands are slapped against one another and the deal is done. After an initial sideways glance, the buyer will examine the horse thoroughly and glean the information he needs to know. The banter is mighty at this stage, but you may need a translater to understand some of what is being said. The “tangler” is usually an accomplice of the seller and he will pull the buyer back by the hands if he tries to walk away. He will forcibly slap the hands of the buyer off the sellers as he coerces him into trying to part with his money. The “horse-breaker” who is usually a friend and associate of the buyer will block other dealers from moving in to make a bid when the buyer walks away but only to add drama to negotiations. Both “horse-breaker” and “tangler” will get a commission on the sale. When a deal is struck, and it may be done in the field or in one of the town’s bars over a few drinks, then wads of cash will pass hands between the two. After being paid the seller will often give back a twenty-euro note “luck money” with a silver coin wrapped up in the note. Some dirt is put on the horse’s rear end to show they have been sold. Some dealers will do all of their business while drinking in the bar via mobile phone without ever having to leave their pint. By judging the mood of the fair they may be able to make a profit buying and selling many horses they have not even seen.

There are various tricks of the trade, some honourable and some not, which have in the past been used to make a horse seem a more marketable commodity. Many buyers will judge a horse by looking into its eyes, as they are windows to the soul. They will be looking for a horse with kind eyes. To make the horse’s eyes seem less sunken in air was blown behind the eye socket using a hypodermic needle attached to a bicycle pump. The dealer who knows horses will be able to tell from the length of the horse’s teeth and the markings how old he is and filing them down won’t fool him. For the lethargic horse without much pizzazz, they used give him a ginger suppository to give him a bit of jizz. Dyeing of grey hairs and plucking the tail hairs and the feathers (hairy ankles) make the horse more presentable, but painful for the horse. Drugging feisty horses to make them seem more docile was another unsavoury and dishonest behaviour. Nowadays there is a vet on the Fair Green to ensure that the horses are not unfairly treated, and to be sure some of these dodgy tricks are kept to a minimum. Stolen horses have been sold at Irish fairs. Redmond O’Hanlon, a sort of Irish Robin Hood and leader of the Tories, had to go on the run after he was trying to sell a stolen horse with a fake tail at a fair.

Crowds of tourists that mill around the horses on the Fair Green and thankfully there has been no serious injuries. It is those who know little about horses that are at most risk. You need to be wary when you walk behind or in front of the horses on display because you might startle them and they kick out. Slapping a horse you pass on the hindquarters is asking for trouble and will probably result in a raised hoof in defensive anger. Some horses are natural born kickers and at events and on hunts they often wear red ribbons on their tails to warn the passersby, but there are no such warnings at Ballinasloe. Horses are free animals and not used to being in the presence of crowds of people and large numbers of other horses, so keep an eye on the horse that swings around defensively as it is showing you its hind legs. Look out for ones that throw their ears back flattened against their head, as they are in a bad mood.

The travellers (the Irish gypsies) are intrinsic to the Ballinasloe Horse Festival and they come in their droves each year. It is a major social event in their calendar. They come to the fair with their coloured horses and their small spritely trotter ponies. The coloured horses, although in times past frowned upon by the sporting fraternity, are now given the once over as there are a few of these piebalds (black and whites) and skewbalds (brown and whites) that have turned out to be champion jumpers. The travellers race their horses at breakneck speed down the death alley strip of concrete on one side of the Fair Green. They used to come here in their barrel caravans, but now they do so in more modern ones. Although a lot of them don’t look like the original Eastern European gypsies you are often surprised to see a man with a great Romany nose and skin that would not be out of place in Andalusia. The men do the horse dealing, chat, smoke and drink, and the women with their black lace scarves and exotic fake names peer out of darkened caravans and into the future to foretell fortunes and read palms. Those without the special vision will be selling sweets and trinkets.

Buying a horse is a gamble at Ballinasloe. But if you know your stuff and avoid the pitfalls, you might pick up a bargain. A tall, grey Connemara cob or a beautiful fay (light brown) sports horse that is for sale could turn into a champion jumper. The legendary showjumping champion Leapy Lad, bred in Ennis, and winner of the Aga Khan trophy was bought here allegedly as a three year old for a song and sold on a few years later for a cool quarter of a million old money punts. You are unlikely to pick up a long lost relative of neither the tragic racehorse Shergar that mysteriously disappeared nor a horse with some mythical waterhorse blood in it. Frankly you have more chance of winning the Irish lottery and the odds of that aren’t great either.


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