Turlough Round Tower.

Local history: Turlough races in 1928

By Tom Gillespie

IN the 1987 Castlebar Parish Magazine, Eddie McDonnell recalled a race meeting held on Vinegar Hill.

He wrote: The picturesque village of Turlough, seat of the Fitzgerald landed gentry, derives its name from the flash lake which is situated below the village, and in front of the present edifice of the remaining Fitzgerald family (now the Museum of Country Life).

The village, which has historical ties going as far back as to the days of George Robert the ‘Fighting Fitzgerald’, was also renowned for its equestrian traditions, and some very fine local horses competed as the various meetings held in the Tower Field, adjacent to the round tower. This racecourse was reckoned to be one of the finest this side of the Shannon.

Following the division of the Tower Field by the Land Commission, subsequent race meetings were held on Vinegar Hill, on the southern side of the river, on which General Humbert travelled on his way towards Swinford, via Drumdaff, Kilnacarra, Loughtavarry and Ballyvary after the Races of Castlebar.

On May 12, 1928, one such race meeting was held on Vinegar Hill. From early, the crowd began to gather from all directions. The mode of travel was by sidecar, trap, horseback, bicycle and ‘shanks mare’.

There were only a few motor cars to be seen. Jack Mellett brought several loads from Castlebar in his open Ford Tourer, Model T, and Barney Holland drove his private Ford, IZ 37. This registration number may be indicative of the few registered motor vehicles in County Mayo at the time.

Racehorses came from as far away as Galway, Sligo and other distant areas, and there were many local animals on view. The punters were adequately served by the several bookmakers present.

Between the races there were many sideshows for the enjoyment of all. The traders from Castlebar were out in force plying their wares - the Creshams, Brinklows, Lydons, McGoughs and Devaneys, who operated the swinging boats for the enjoyment of the youngsters.

The cries of ‘Penny each the apples and oranges’ could be heard all over the course.

The name of the gentleman who operated the roulette table escapes my memory. In an effort to attract prospective customers in the crowd, he was roaring at the top of his voice: ‘High up, me boys, there she goes again, the old spade, the labouring men’s coat of arms, a very useful little instrument, the smallest child can play as well as the biggest man.'

‘How about you, sir?’ he said to Seamus Browne, who was standing in the crowd with Tom Hopkins listening to this great orator from the town. Now, Seamus, a man who always kept a few half-crowns handy in case of a challenge, declined this one, however, and walked towards Pat Merrick and William Wilcox, who were preparing a horse for the next race.

The same horse, ‘Romany’, was an unusual animal, in so far as that he was wind-broken and ‘wired up direct’. He had a tube fitted to his windpipe which whistled like a widgeon as he galloped at high speed. He won this race, and many others.

The main attraction, apart from the Tower Plate, was the farmers’ Race. Favourite to win was a local horse from the Plovervale stables. This animal, ‘Log Boy’, was trained and ridden by the owner, Sonny Corley, a hotel equestrian and breeder.

Having had previous success on the course, he was considered a hot favourite to win. He started at evens, but as the money went on, he came down to 5/4 on.

It was a closely contested race, with ‘Log Boy’ in the lead from early on, but, alas, at the Gordnafulla bend, the rider and horse parted company, leaving ‘Park Lass’ a clear winner at 6/1.

There was much disappointment in the crowd, their local favourite had let them down.

When the crowd scattered, all converged on the village where the winnings of the day were diverted to Durcan’s, McQuaid’s and O’Donnell’s in the course of the festivities.

The race dance was held that night in the local dance hall - the ‘Preaching House’. It was situated in the High Meadow, at the rear of what was then Loughran’s garden. The hall was overflowing with around 200 dancers.

We supplied our own music - Mattie Clarke and Dan Peter McGrath, Pakie Barrett and Eddie Duffy on fiddles, Matt Devaney, John Clarke and yours truly on accordion, and John Rice on the tin whistle.

During the intervals, songs were rendered by many local vocalists and recitations were given by the eloquent Paddy Connor.

Money was scarce in those days, but the ‘crack’ was free. Porter was ninepence a pint, or sixpence for a ‘medium’.

Due to the advent of the internal combustion engine, and the Land Commission, the ‘Sport of Kings’ in Turlough had vanished.

Scarcely ever again will the Tower Field or Vinegar Hill accommodate the merry throngs of racegoers as in the past. More’s the pity.