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PICTURES: The animals, business and craic of the Ballinasloe horse fair

Europe’s oldest horse festival is held in October each year in Galway.

ON A SATURDAY morning a fortnight ago, devastating news that two families had been wiped out in a fire at their homes in Carrickmines began to filter through.

Here, photographer Donal Moloney writes about what he was doing – and how it connected him in some way to what was happening back in his home county.

“On a sombre October morning as our small island was waking to the tragic news that 10 members of the same extended family perished in a blazing inferno, I was already on the road to Ballinasloe and the annual horse fair,” he writes.

Many of the people I went on to meet that day bore more than just a connection by name to the Connors family.

“Understandably the mood was a little subdued and reflective. But anyone who spends time around high-spirited mares and their playful foals, miniature falabellas, working shires, ginnetts, mules and donkeys is bound to be lifted by their quirky personalities and mythical beauty. As symbols of passion, personal drive and freedom, their longstanding connection to the Traveller community is a tradition worthy of preservation.

“Lots of standing around is the order of the day as owners socialise, buy, sell and trade livestock. It is all fairly serene apart from the odd equine scuffle that breaks out, whinnies resounding across the bowl shaped village green. At one point a skittish mare frantically breaks loose and it’s all hands on deck as 50 men give chase, mothers and onlookers concerned about the wellbeing of the children and the horses.

Luckily things are restored to order within minutes and the day returns to its slow dander, stretching it’s neck out with slackened reins to the slow rhythmic beat of hoof fall on dried earth.

“Elders sit in counsel while fashionably dressed teenagers enjoy flirtatious fairground fun in the adjoining site. Among the crowds are as many different characters as there are breed of horse. For some it’s following a tradition, for others it’s a business opportunity and for many “it is just a hobby” jokes Patrick Cusack.

“If you gave me clubs and membership to Westport Golf club sure I wouldn’t know what to do with it,” he said.

“The one thing they do have in common is their pride and their love of the horses, demonstrated by the welcoming bronze man and his 16-hand high horse standing pride of place in the village square.

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“Sure, it’s not perfect in every aspect but nor is any sports or social event that I have attended over the years. But as officials for the fair are keen to point out, their standards have improved substantially year on year and the appointment of a committee across the community has certainly helped in its smooth running. Fair play to you Ballinasloe for keeping the spirit of the tradition alive.”

Here are some of Donal’s wonderful shots from the occasion.

PICTURES: The animals, business and craic of the Ballinasloe horse fair
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