“The Galway Races” is about a real annual event that is still held in Galway every summer. On August 17 of the year sung about, "half a million" people gather (a more-than-slight exaggeration, methinks).
The Ballad Index tells us that the author of this traditional tune is unknown. We know that it’s been around since at least 1939, but there is evidence that it existed as early as 1867, with the more dowdy title "The Sporting Races of Galway."
In my experience, it’s kind of a second-tier standard: While it’s been performed and recorded by artists as varied as the Clancy Brothers, Luke Kelly, and the Pogues, it’s not as commonly known as, say, “The Wild Rover.” (You know: No, nay, never, no more?)
After the introductory first verse, the rest of the song consists primarily of enumerating the diversity of the attendees:
- They come from near (Limerick, Connemara, Clare) and far (Nenagh, Cork City).
- They are religiously diverse (Catholic, Lutheran, Jewish, Presbyterian).
- They range in personality type from the “unmarried maiden” to the hale adventurer who would bring home political prisoners from abroad.
- Their vocations and avocations include gamblers, competitive pipers and fiddlers, dancers, barkers, turf accountants (bookies), and, of course, jockeys.
The song reaches a climax at the end of the fifth verse, with the running of the horses, at such amazing speed that “you’d think they’d never once touched the ground.” Perhaps it’s this amazement that inspires the speaking-in-tongues chorus of authentic Irish gibberish: “With me whack fol the do fol the diddlely idle ay.”
Given the otherwise parochial subject matter, I’ve always found it touching and surprisingly cosmopolitan that the epilogue of the song is about religious harmony: Despite the differences in faith, there is “no animosity…, but fáilte (welcome), hospitality, and peace throughout the nation.”
I think I first became aware of “The Galway Races” in (naturally enough) Galway, during the fall of 1986. I was spending a semester studying at the National University of Ireland, Galway (then known a little more casually as University College, Galway, or just UCG). Two of the popular pubs in town were the Crane and the King’s Head.
You’d go to the Crane to hear a really fine trad seisiun (looks like you still do). But I seem to recall that there was a certain sternness to the proceedings: Meaning, one did not presume to play unless one was very good, and under no circumstances was one to bring that fecking bodhran, without a handwritten note specifically granting permission to do so.
In contrast, the King’s Head was the loud, overpriced tourist trap, teeming with boisterous Yanks stopping off between Durty Nelly’s and Yeats Country, or taking a breather from their quest traversing the west coast in search of ancestors’ gravestones and steerage records.
Now, dear readers, I would love nothing more than to flash my trad credentials and tell you that even at that tender age my tastes were unassailable and purist-- that as I walked into the Crane every evening for a contemplative tipple, I was greeted with broad grins and welcoming shouts of "Patrick!" like Norm on Cheers. But I cannot.
No, alas for my credibility and savings, every Friday night (and Thursday night, and Wednesday night, and Tuesday night, and Monday night, and Saturday night) you’d find me in the Kings’ Head, hoisting my overpriced pint of Guinness aloft with hearty choruses of-- you guessed it-- No Nay Never No More. (Now that I mention it, I think there were probably more than a few Sunday nights in there, too.)
The house band was named Folklore. I know this, not because I remember it (ha!), but because with a portion of the small portion of money I did not draft directly to St. James’s Gate, I bought a Folklore cassette, which I still have. Their lyrics, I realized later, were largely original or at least non-standard, and include provincial political jokes that I still don’t get; in fact, their version includes very little of the traditional verses. I do like their final verse:
Let peace and true prosperity abound throughout the nation
And trade and commerce flourish as it did in former ages
This was a partial inspiration for the final verse in my own version-- which, incidentally, is to the best of my knowledge the only one specifically placing Lutherans at the scene.
As I rode down through Galway Town to seek for recreation
On the seventeenth of August, my mind being elevated
There were multitudes assembled with their tickets at the station
Me eyes began to dazzle and they're off to see the races
With me whack fol the do fol the diddlely idle ay
There were passengers from Limerick, and passengers from Nenagh
The boys from Connemara and the Clare unmarried maidens
There were people from Cork City who were loyal, true, and faithful
Who brought home the Fenian prisoners from dying in foreign nations
And it's there you'll see the gamblers with the thimbles and the garters,
The sporting Wheel of Fortune with the four and twenty quarters,
And others without scruple pelting wattles at poor Maggie,
And her father well contented to be gazing on his daughter
And it's there you'll see the pipers and the fiddlers competing,
The nimble-footed dancers and they tripping on the daisies,
And others shouting cigars and lights and bills for all the races,
With the colors of the jockey and the price and horses' ages
And it's there you'll see the jockeys and they mounted at their stations--
The pink, the blue, the orange and green, the colors of all the nations--
When the bell was rung for starting the horses seemed impatient
You’d think they’d never once touched the ground their speed was that amazing
There were half a million people there, of all denominations:
The Catholic, the Lutheran, the Jew and Presbyterian
And yet no animosity, no matter what persuasion
But fáilte, hospitality, and peace throughout the nation
Traditional; arr. © 2010 Patrick Clifford (ASCAP).