26 October 2014

Watching the horse and rider as one
on the shoreline at Bettystown

The horse and rider as one on the shoreline at Bettystown, Co Meath, at dusk this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

To my regret I have only been once to the races on the beach at Bettystown and Laytown on three miles of golden beach on the ‘Gold Coast’ of Co Meath. But 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 races have a story going back almost a century and a half, and the first recorded meeting was 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.

Evening lights on the beach at Bettystown this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

At one time, the races at Laytown and Bettystown were an ideal preparation for the Galway Races. There is no race track, and until recently the races were run at distances between five furlongs and two miles, with a U-shaped turn at Bettystown where the horses made a colourful sweeping return before heading back to the Laytown.

The only time I was there was 20 years ago in 1994. After an unfortunate incident that year, when one of the horses was shot, the U-shaped track was done away with and the Turf Club restricted the number of entrants in each race.

Since then, the attendance has dropped from 10,000 in the early 1990s to about 5,000 in more recent years, and the races are run on a straight, near-level course over six and seven furlong.

The next races at Laytown and Bettystown take place on 10 September 2015. But I was reminded of these colourful races this afternoon when I went for a walk on the beach at Bettystown before a late lunch in Relish this afternoon.

Three horses on the beach at Bettystown this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Three horses were being exercised on the beach although the sea was still far in after the high tide. The riders stopped just beside Relish, and it was certainly a far more pretty sight than the cars that so often blight this beautiful beach.

Inside Relish, where there is always a warm welcome, the walls are decorated with paintings of the beach races, and many are for sale.

Later, as we strolled on the beach after lunch, the tide was receding and another horse and rider were out on the shoreline.

There is a classical Japanese phrase, Jinba ittai, expressed in a four character compound (人馬一体) and describing how a horse and rider become one. This phrase was used in a recent 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 Bettystown this afternoon.

The clocks went back last night, and we could notice the evening lights were beginning to close in. By the time we reached Skerries, dusk was beginning to fall, but we still had enough light to enjoy views first of the Harbour and then of the South Strand before heading back through Rush and Lusk to the M50 and home.

A table for two on the terrace at Relish, looking down onto the beach at Bettystown today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

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