I knew none of my companions before that evening. Yet here we were, all five of us, striding with intent, to our common destination.
A full moon swung in the air like a bare bulb in a dingy pub toilet. The path  was wet and slimy from that evening’s summer downpour,  slippy from the sodden daily grime of a country town’s streets, chip grease, spilt beer, puke and chewing gum. We trudged along purposefully and, it must be said, tipsily.
We were seeking arbitration and judgement on something that on a summer’s evening in a small town in north west Kerry raised issues as fundamental as birth and birthright.There was close to 750 Euro  in side bets involved too.
It’s amazing what a night of carousing can be had from a summer’s night in a country pub with a town festival and carnival in full swing. The posters we spotted promised as much. It was the ‘Welcome Home to Lixnaw Festival incorporating (intriguingly) An Cailin Ailinn na paroiste’ (Lovely Girl of the Parish).
Terry ripped the poster from the newsagent’s noticeboard, oblivious to the shopkeeper’s withering look, declaring,‘are they taking the piss or wha’? An Cailin Ailinn na paroiste? If I remember my Buntus Cainte that’s straight out of Fr Ted. We have to check this out.’
And that’s how I found myself marching the streets of Lixnaw, Co Kerry with four strangers I met in a pub close to midnight one summer on an August evening, only two nights after the solar eclipse that scarcely a sinner, myself included, saw, on account of the dense sea mist engulfing the county.
The darkened smokiness of Quilter’s pub in Lixnaw was in stark contrast to the mayhem going on all around it.

A full moon swung in the air like a bare bulb in a dingy pub toilet. The path  was wet and slimy from that evening’s summer downpour,  slippy from the sodden daily grime of a country town’s streets, chip grease, spilt beer, puke and chewing gum. We trudged along purposefully and, it must be said, tipsily.

To the right of the pub and just behind its small car park, a ferris wheel the height of a four storey building spun its cargo of humans to the tinny rattle of Rod Stewart’s Do Ya Think I’m Sexy.

At the entrance to the temporary fairground a harried man in a candy striped booth, dispensed tickets, loose change and candy floss at 50c a stick.
There were chairoplanes and a kiddies’ roundabout and a stall with a wheel of fortune that was tended by a woman the size of a baby elephant who was chanting ‘Hairy Mary’s back from Tipperary, round and round she goes, where she’ll stop, no-one knows…’
We headed straight for the bar. Quilter’s was the hub of all the festival activity as they owned the carpark and the field behind where every other event, bar the ‘tarrier race’, would be held. These included a wellington hurling contest, a tug of war and then the highlight of the evening, the donkey race.
‘How’re ye, boys, what can I get ye?’ a friendly voice enquired as he wiped the beer stains from the counter before us sweeping two empty pint pots away in one easy movement.
‘Two pints of stout,’ Terry replied.
The barman squinted in the dim light of the bar. With a glass cloth over one shoulder and his head tilted to the side while he pulled the pints, his squinting eyes twinkling, a thin smile lingered on his mouth as he asked, ‘are ye here for the festival, boys? There’ll be some craic here tonight.’
‘We’re here for the tarrier racing, the donkey derby and the cailini  ailinn…’ Terry joked loudly.
A group of men huddled in one corner of the bar turned their attention to us. Ruddy faced farming men, they were big boned and hardy. The tall one sitting nearest to me wore a baseball cap that declared him a fan of the Boston Whitesox. The grey flannel trousers he wore were torn and frayed. His worn, brown leather boots had seen better days. The lining of his jacket burst from a hole at the elbow of his left arm. His hand, like a shovel, gripped his pint glass between his thumb and his forefinger.
‘Are ye from Dublin?’ he asked, adding, before we could reply, ‘there’ll be a book open soon if ye wanted to make a bet on the donkey race.’
‘Jaysus, give us a chance to wet our whistles first, men,’ Terry laughed easily. They all joined in.
‘We don’t mind ye backing the donkeys or, indeed, the dogs but we’d like you to stay away from the lovely women. They’re for our eyes only,’ another joked, triggering another burst of merriment. In fact, the cailin ailinn wouldn’t be chosen until the following night, we were told.IMG_4018
The ice was broken. More pints were ordered, stories told, great games won and reputations destroyed. As the evening advanced, our numbers grew and each newcomer, in his turn, made his way into our circle with a round of drinks and a sporting story or a joke.
Around eight o’clock the barman, who had been missing for a short while, came in and declared the tarrier race was starting and would pass right by the front door of the pub in less than two minutes. We all grabbed our pints and squeezed out the door.
Outside the light of the summer’s evening had given every surface a sparkle. Fifty yards down the street a dark green Hiace van was idling as a group of men huddled near its back door. Beyond them we could hear better than see another knot of men holding a motley pack of hounds on strings, ropes and leather leads.
‘Wait’ll ye see this, boys,’ one of our drinking companions encouraged, nodding down the road towards the dogs and the Hiace.
‘What’s going to happen?’ I asked but the action had already begun. The barman, our genial host – his name was Ignatius – had emerged on the other side of the street carrying a whistle  and a gas hooter, like the kind they use at football games. He let off an earsplitting honk as the Hiace coughed into action, gathering speed as it approached the pub.
But the most unholy sight was the stampede of dogs of all shapes and sizes, yowling and yelping frenziedly, as they thundered in our direction in pursuit of the van.
Or what was hanging from the van, it transpired. Because as the Hiace drew level with the small wall of the pub we were all standing on, you could see a beat up joint of meat had been tied to the  van’s rear fender. This was drag racing, Kerry style.
We all stared, bemused, at the receding van as it sped up the road with the town’s dogs baying and barking in hot pursuit. There was laughter and roars all round. But soon everyone was back in the bar, assuming the positions they’d stood or sat in before.
Although you’d be hard put to pin down a reason, the atmosphere had changed. Ignatius, a hard working gossoon who never seemed to stop, had raised a board behind the bar complete with grids and the names of all the donkey’s jockeys in preparation for the big event, the donkey race.
Betting was brisk and rich. Fivers, tenners and the occasional twenty made their way into the carefully attended biscuit tin. Names and stakes were jotted into the cash book. No dockets were issued.

Terry, a fervent punter, was already sussing out the form. Although there were 12 donkeys in the race and hundreds of people from the village and the outlying townlands of the parish would be there to cheer on the winner, it was a two donkey race, according to the pundits dispensing advice and wisdom out of the corner of their mouths while sitting at the bar, nursing pints and bottles of stout and the occasional glass of whiskey.
‘Murphy’s donkey will take the prize from Mick Lehane’s grasp and Jimmy will never let him hear the end of it,’ one old farmer in a grime encrusted serge blue pin stripe suit that must have been more than thirty years old if it was a day.IMG_0451
‘I’ve £20 on Lehane,’ a younger man said, ‘and he won’t let me down. His donkey has won two good races this year and he’s been training him this past month for the feshtival. There’s nothing known about Jimmy’s donkey although they say he’s been grazing him in a farm outside the parish.’
‘He’s a cute hoor is Jimmy. He’ll give nothing away ‘til he’s good and ready,’ someone else said.
The race track, in the field behind, was laid out like a crime scene. Wooden stakes and empty beer kegs littered the rectangular pitch strung together by a twisted roll of thick tape. There was no paddock but everyone caught a look at the field as they lined up beside Ignatius now posing as captain of the course, perched on a high chair he’d borrowed for the purpose from the bar within.
There’s little need to describe the race. Once around the field might have been their objective but at least four of the contestants never left the starting line regardless of the coaxing of their jockeys and the growing impatience of their supporters.
Two others, a petite and coquettish grey mare and a lumpy roan by her side, gave in to their baser urges, discarding their pilots unceremoniously, in their unbridled passion.
There were, as the wise old pundits in the bar had predicted, only two donkeys in the race although some held out for an upset when a snow white donkey ridden by what looked like a spider monkey but was a child of six or seven, took off at a brisk canter ahead of the rest.
His charge abated as swiftly as it had begun. When he reached the first bend in the field he carried on in a straight line through a gap in the outer fence, the howls of his jockey drowned by the baying roar of the crowd.
After that it was all over bar the shouting.
Jimmy Murphy’s donkey raced nose to nose alongside Mick Lehane’s until the final straight. Holding the inside line on the curve, Murphy’s donkey inched ahead as they straightened out for the final burst for home.
Then Murphy’s donkey showed its class, streaking ahead, leaving  Lehane’s two times champion a big time loser on the night.
Murphy’s ass had barely crossed the finish line past the waiting Ignatius, frenziedly waving a chequered flag from his lofty position on the high chair, when the shouting began in earnest.
A knot of angry Lehanes surrounded the winner and his owner and their supporters. The atmosphere changed from festival to fight night in a trice. Mothers herded their children to the fairground. Boys boxed each other about the ears and wrestled.
‘There was foul play here tonight,’ Mick Lehane was heard shouting, ‘that donkey should never have run in this race. He’s not even from the parish.’
All heads turned to Jimmy Murphy like spectators at a match and they waited for his return. But Murphy wanted to savour his victory and his reply was calculated to answer nothing and exacerbate his opponents’ anger and frustration.
‘Twas a fair race,’ says he, ‘can’t you take your beating?’
Lehane was fit to be restrained as indicated by the way he spread his arms out to those around him as he feigned a lunge for Jimmy Murphy.
‘That donkey has ridden races in other parishes,’ someone argued, ‘he was grazing in a field near Listowel only two weeks ago.’
Murphy faced his accusers and taunted, ‘there’s no stud book in donkey racing.’
At this point Ignatius, the race marshal and course captain stepped in and the gathering crowd hushed to hear his say.
‘Tis true, competing donkeys in the annual Lixnaw parish derby  must be from the parish,’ he announced, adding with a hint of a smirk, ‘but ‘tis also true there’s no stud book in donkey racing as Jimmy here points out. In that case this is not only a matter of honour but of birthright. We are all entitled – and a donkey is no exception – to a homeland for the parish graves are full of our forebears who have fought for that right.’

There was a murmur of assent and agreement among the spectators . Then a voice from the rear of the group piped up, ‘you’ll have to ask the parish priest. He’ll give ye ye’r answer.’
It was the crusty old sage in the corner, our man in the blue pinstripe suit. Savouring his moment at the centre of attention, he declared,
‘The donkey’s home is the home of its owner and if the owner’s home is within a Station district of the parish then it stands to reason – he said ‘raisen’ but even Terry and I knew what he meant – that that’s the home of the donkey.’
‘The Stations is when the priest takes the Holy Mass to the homes of his parishioners,’ Mr Woodbine explained, sloshing the dregs of his pint about in their glass, a look of forlorn yearning in his eye arched in Terry’s direction.
‘Give that man a pint,’ said Terry, asking ‘are youse boys ready for another?’
No sooner had he asked than three more drained pint glasses hit the counter which Ignatius, already a step ahead, had begun to replace with fresh ones.
Mr Woodbine cleared his throat and squinted happily at the settling head on his pint. He raised the pint to eye level and with one eye shut, examined the depth and quality of the pint’s creamy head. Then satisfied, he raised it to his lips and slowly submerged them into the edge of the glass.IMG_1542
It wasn’t until he had replaced it on the bar, his beer mat straightened and the stout moustache on his upper lip wiped clean with the back of his sleeve that he spoke.
‘Each parish is divided into Station Districts and twice a year each Station house in the district gets a visit from the priest. These are called out from the pulpit by the parish priest himself on the first Sunday of the month.’
Terry and I looked at him, hearing but not understanding. He went on with the tolerance of a saint.
‘To be named a station house is a great honour in the parish and no expense is spared to bring the house to sparkling order for the honour of receiving the Holy Host in your home,’ he continued.
‘Tis only a chance for the well to do of the parish to show off,’ someone interjected. He was silenced by a grumble of voices while Mr Woodbine waited patiently for calm to resume.
‘Tis true for you, in a way,’ he conceded graciously, ‘everyone is invited but only a few are chosen to host such an event. In the end it is an opportunity for the Grandees of the parish to sit down and eat grub with the parish priest in their own house. Their houses are painted and scrubbed from gable to gable, the best ware and linen is laid out and the dinner table groans with baked hams glazed with honey and cloves, roast chickens and steaming bowls of spuds, bursting with floury laughter, all served with tea, bread and sweet cakes on the best bone china.’
‘There’s only one thing for it,’ Jimmy Murphy declared, ‘let’s go to the parochial house now and ask the parish priest to arbitrate the dispute.’
So here we were, this motley crew, hastily delegated from Quilters. We swung through the tall, cast iron gates of the parochial house. It was five minutes short of midnight.
Lehane and Murphy and the little man in the tired pinstripe suit doffed their caps and hats as Ignatius rattled the parochial house’s heavy door knocker. The crash of metal on metal in the midnight gloom could have raised the dead. For one ridiculous moment I felt like running away to hide.IMG_0527
There was a pause as long as a week before a light came on within. Then a distant sound of approaching feet down the hallway stairs.
‘Who’s that?’ the voice of the parish priest could be heard enquire.
‘Could we have a word with you, Father?’ Ignatius began, ‘there’s a dispute arising out of the donkey race…’
The door opened to reveal a distinguished if sleep tousled head in a collarless white shirt and pants donned in a darkened hurry, a button misplaced in his haste.
‘The donkey race? Are ye mad?’ he growled, surveying our faces in the gloom.
‘Murphy’s donkey took the race but the Lehanes believe the donkey is not a bona fide member of the parish,’ Ignatius explained breathlessly.
The parish priest glared at him in disbelief, mustered himself to speak, shook his head, snorted and went silent.
‘We said the only way to establish the donkey’s bona fides was to ask yourself if the Murphy’s house was within the station district,’ Pinstripe, unabashed, contributed.
The parish priest’s anger appeared to dissipate as though he’d been distracted by the territorial conundrum raised by Pinstripe.
‘There are three townlands in that Station district,’ the parish priest explained, ‘Glenoe, Leam and Oliversfield. The Murphys live in Oliversfield and I’ve seen three generations of their family through their devotions from cradle to grave but I’ve never seen their donkey at a Mass. Now turn around, men and get out of my sight. I’ve more things to be doing than arbitrating on the results of ye’r gambling exploits.’
And so the dispute was settled. Murphy’s ass carried the day. Lehane would have to take it in good grace. Ignatius would have to pay up at two to one.
As we strolled back towards the pub to carry the news, Pinstripe by my side chuckled silently to himself. ‘Murphy’s donkey may be from the parish but Father Gaynor’s housekeeper slipped in to the bar to place a fiver on the winner only minutes before the start of the race.’

5 thoughts on “Donkey Race in Lixnaw

    • Coy? A magazine in New Zealand rejected that story for stage oirishness but, hey, I’m Irish and believe me, the way we see things is often funnier than how we write it. Thanks for your comment

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