06 July 2020

White horses on the sea
at Ballybunion and ponies
and riders in the water

White horses, with ponies and riders on the shoreline at Ballbunion, Co Kerry, on Sunday afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

One of the pleasures I miss from the each coast in recent years is the excitement that builds up around the annual races on the beach at Bettystown and Laytown, three miles of golden beach on the ‘Gold Coast’ of Co Meath. These races are colourful, exciting and unique, and this is the only race event in Ireland that is run on a beach under the Rules of Racing.

The first recorded meeting was over 250 years ago in 1868, when races were run as a side show to the Boyne Regatta, with the rowing competition taking place on the high tide and the racing later at low tide. The Home Rule leader, Charles Stuart Parnell, was one of the first stewards at these races.

At one time, strand races were common throughout Ireland: they were run at Milltown Malbay, and at Baltray and Termonfeckin in Co Louth, and even feature in the movie The Quiet Man.

I was reminded of these colourful races on Sunday afternoon when I went for a walk on the beach at Ballybunion after our first services in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, and Saint Brendan’s Church, Tarbert, with the easing of restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown.

There was a strong wind, and the sea breeze was blowing sand into our eyes as we walked from the South Beach to the North Breach.

Despite a red flag warning of the high waves, some surf boarders were braving the water and the white horses, under the watch of lifeguards.

And, as we walked, three ponies and their riders came into view below the cliffs, enjoying an afternoon canter at the point where the waves meet the sand.

There is a classical Japanese phrase, Jinba ittai, expressed in a four-character compound (人馬 – 体) and describing how a horse and rider become one.

The phrase was used some years ago in an advertising campaign by Mazda to describe a driver and car. But this description of the unity of horse and rider as one, which comes from Japanese mounted archery, could have described the scene out of time on the shoreline at Ballybunion on Sunday afternoon.

On the other hand, horses and riders must have seemed as one to slaves fleeing Egypt when Pharaoh’s pursuing troops and horses were drowned as the waters of the Red Sea closed again.

In the story in Exodus, Moses and the people sing to God:

‘I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea’ (see Exodus 15: 1 ff).

This song is known as the ‘Song of Moses and Miriam,’ the ‘Song of the Sea,’ or as the ‘Song of Miriam,’ to distinguish it from the ‘Song of Moses’ (see Deuteronomy 32). It was deleted from the Canticles in the Book of Common Prayer (2004) when it was revised in the Church of Ireland almost 20 years ago.

In the Talmud, in Megillah 10b, Pesachim 64b, and Sanhedrin 39b, the rabbis tell a corrective story about this song. In the story, attributed variously to Rabbi Yochanan or Rabbi Yonatan, God hears the angels singing and rejoicing, and asks, ‘Why are you rejoicing?’

The angels reply, ‘Your children, the Hebrew children, were saved today.’

God then rebukes the angels as he asks, ‘Did you not know that the Egyptians who died today were also my children? My children are drowning and you would sing my praises?’

Meanwhile, the next Laytown races are planned for 1 September 2020.

White horses in the water at Ballybunion on Sunday afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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