The man from Cork thumbed through my race-card. Borrowing my ballpoint, he put a cross beside Kinard Diamond in the 4.30 and gave me a meaning look. We were standing at a lonely stretch of railing: myself, a girlfriend, the man from Cork and an old boy who said he used to be a priest. ‘I was in fifteen years,’ said the priest. ‘It was the women, I missed the women.’

‘He fell from the colours,’ said the man from Cork. Neither of them sounded the least bit sad about it. I supposed that they had come to watch the races but the priest was more interested in talking. ‘A good Englishman is a good Englishman and a good Irishman is a good Irishman.’ He raised a finger like an old piano key. ‘But a bad Englishman and a bad Irishman are tramps,’ he said happily. He was able to marry my companion and me if we so wished – there was a vestigial power which would never leave him, he said.

It was the day of the Dingle Derby. You could read about other events in the sports pages but there wasn’t so much as a tip for this one. Yet you couldn’t find a room in Dingle on Saturday night, and pots of horsey money were going through the discreet till of the Beginish restaurant in Green Street. Reproduced on the cover of the race-card was an anonymous quotation which I was unable to source: ‘The great man was alarmingly humble – and knew that Ascot and Dingle races were akin.’ The great man wasn’t an official of the Irish racing establishment, I suspect, because it doesn’t recognise the Dingle meeting. On paper, this traditional high summer event is open to ‘ponies’ but in practice it’s contested by ‘flappers’, a word for which there is no satisfactory synonym, although ‘ringers’ comes within a country mile. A waiter told me that the gold riband event had been won in the very recent past by a ranking thoroughbred, a horse so successful that even I recognised his name – though his name had been kept well out of it. ‘They put a coat of polish on him,’ said the waiter, who looked as though he wanted the story to be true as much as I did. Supposing that it was, the horse must have been entered either by his owners, taking a chance over his future participation in approved meetings, or by someone else, without their knowledge. The first prize was a modest £1300. A portfolio of bets, or betting through third parties, presumably made it worthwhile to risk an outing for premium bloodstock trading under a nom de turf.

The course itself was incredible, the most picturesque in all of racing: a crooked oval laid out between hedgerows blooming with fuscia, overlooking Dingle and the rasped metal of a bay. There was something unbelievable about the jockeys too, tiny even by the standards of the weigh-in room. ‘What are they? Sixteen, 17?’ I asked the man from Cork. ‘Younger,’ he said. Flapper races gave aspiring jockeys their first break, he said, proceeding to name a number who have gone on to become ornaments of prestigious winning enclosures.

It had been raining heavily overnight. The finishing line had faded, and men had been out on the lumpy greensward before the first race, prinking it with a brush and a pot of white paint. It was like looking at the winning entry in an outdoor spinach roulade cook-off. The going in the enclosures was also soft. The mud, and the straw which stewards had scattered onto the mud, was wattling-and-daubing race-goer’s footwear. We flapped to the bookies in raffia snowshoes. Despite the conditions, there were several women in high heels, which sank into the sod like park-keepers’ spikes. The women were contenders in the Best-Dressed Lady competition (‘kindly sponsored by Brian de Staic’) and/or the Most Elegant Mother & Daughter event. I kept an unofficial book on the Best-Dressed Man handicap: my nap was a character in a five-gallon hat and red neckerchief. I had him in a double with a man in a carnation, a pair of gumboots and a pinstriped lounge suit in the Cashiered Sunday Best stakes. I also had a few bob on something in the Tegral Thrutone Slates Plate, a curtain-raiser for the main event. My fancy came in a comfortable last, well behind the winner, the Knave. There were men panting over the loam behind the finishers. ‘Stewards are asking owners not to run on the track,’ announced the course MC, and I wondered what the races reminded me of.

It is in Dingle that Father Kinsella, the urbane fixer of Brian Moore’s 1972 novella Catholics, charters a helicopter to fly him to the island of Muck. Kinsella is carrying a letter for the abbot of the island monastery, warning him to abandon the Latin Mass. ‘The sky, immense, hurried, shifted its scenery of ragged clouds. From the cove below, four curraghs were putting out to sea. A fifth rode, far out, waiting for the others, as, bending to their oars, monks seal-wet in black oilskins pushed the curraghs stiffly over fence-like waves, moving towards the deeps.’

The Latin Mass – ‘backs to the congregation, vestments, introibo ad altare dei. And the bell! The Sanctus!’ as Kinsella’s appalled Father General described it in Rome – is popular with the people of Kerry but Vatican II has called a halt to it. It’s become a vestigial, disreputable sacrament, like the power of my new acquaintance, the fallen priest, to perform marriages. The twist in Moore’s story is that the abbot has lost his faith – wretchedly and secretly. It is the over-zealous brothers who insist on the archaic liturgy. The abbot himself cannot bear to say his prayers: ‘if one did not risk invoking God, one did not risk one’s peace of mind.’ What had undone the abbot was a visit to Lourdes, the sight of its ‘tawdry religious supermarkets, crammed with rosaries and statuettes’.

I wondered whether Moore had exercised discretion in relocating this scene away from the more obvious setting of Knock, a couple of hours’ drive from Dingle. Here were the same supermarkets, and fountains of holy water like a row of urinals. Admittedly, the shrine has been extensively developed since Catholics was published: lobbying by the clergy brought about the building of a controversial international airport at Knock, attracting many more visitors, including, in 1979, the Pope himself. What would Moore’s abbot have made of the plastic containers I had filled at the Knock taps? Labels saying ‘I prayed for you at the shrine’ had been gummed to vessels resembling, respectively, an empty orange juice carton and two bottles of handcream.

I had been reading in the Irish Times about baffling infections among hospital patients whose consultants had passed them fit to be discharged: the solution to this puzzle was that well-meaning visitors had been sousing the patients’ dressings with holy water. John Blake, a surgeon at the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital in Dublin, twice put off a cataract operation on a woman of 72 after she developed conjunctivitis. The woman had bought a statuette of the Madonna which was equipped with a reservoir of holy water. She kept a bottle topped up from the statuette and admitted that she had applied the water to her forehead on the days she was due to have surgery. Swabs taken from the bottle grew Staphylococcus viridans and those from the statuette grew Xanthomonas maltophilia – I imagined Moore’s abbot of Muck shuddering in his cell. Mr Blake has now convinced his colleagues ‘to provide patients on the eye wards with sterile, blessed holy water on request’.

It was one bill of goods after another: a horse racing under an alias; Moore’s non-believing priest; holy water which teemed with virulent pond life. The Irish establishment was reeling, or pretending to, over claims that the patriot Eamon de Valera was not the son of a Spanish nobleman, as had been hitherto believed, but hailed from rather humbler stock. A biographer was making out that de Valera’s father came from a family of slaves in Cuba. At the mention of Cuba, the punt dropped about the Dingle races: what they reminded me of were the cockfights I’d seen in the province of Havana. The rude grandstand, the beakers of drink, the pens and rings where animals were fussed over and appraised: in the case of the cocks, legs were plucked and rubbed with rum, like pugilists massaged by their seconds, while spurs made from real talons were fashioned into lethal points over a flame. There was the same pleasure over a day’s sport at the margins of the law: cock fighting, like all other forms of gambling, is strictly speaking illegal in Cuba, though everyone in the countryside knows where the cockpits are, the police included. The owners of the flappers, chasing their investments over the final furlong at Dingle, recalled the habañoras who accompanied their champions into the cockpit. Looked at one way, the Irish and the Cubans shared a reputation for enjoying a good time. Each had given a home to a singular strain of Catholicism. In Cuba, it was santería, a profane combination of the slave-owners’ faith and the creeds of Africa. In Ireland, it was the unmodish brothers of Brian Moore’s Catholics and people who clung to old certainties; it was the faithful at Knock, genuflecting en masse at the stations of the cross like slow learners in a formation-dance class.

I turned to the man from Cork. I said: ‘They tell me the Dingle Derby was once won by –’ and I named the illustrious nag.

‘It’s true,’ he said. ‘We entered him.’ He looked at me quizzically. ‘You’re not from the Turf Club, are you?’

‘No, nothing like that.’

‘That’s why we’re standing here,’ the man from Cork went on. He meant the thinly attended length of railing. ‘We can’t go down there and put a bet on.’

The priest put an arm around his friend’s shoulders. ‘This fellow is what I call an Irish rogue.’

‘An Irish rover?’ I said. What did I sound like? Something like the American-Irish who hog the fairways of the Republic, claiming ties of blood to Reagan or JFK, according to taste, and willing themselves into a state of enchantment over the Emerald Isle.

‘An Irish rogue,’ said the man from Cork. ‘He’s had a few balls of malt – that’s the truth of the thing.’

The priest said, ‘I must make water,’ and eyed the hedgerow.

I mentioned that all of my horses had lost, even a couple of favourites.

Never back a favourite in a flapper race,’ said the man from Cork. ‘Are you sure you’re not from the Turf Club?’ An air of naivety was exactly the disguise that an undercover inspector might have assumed. I didn’t scare the pair of them off, though. Was it the balls of malt? The crack of winding me up? Or the off-chance that I might be mug enough to take an old hack off their hands, a thing so broken down that it wasn’t even worth buffing its flanks with a tin of dubbin and entering it in a flapper race? When this investment opportunity cropped up, I said I didn’t really have room for a full-sized horse: it might have been different if I was being offered a past victor ludorum of the Dingle Derby. But the champion was dead, it seemed. ‘We buried him last year,’ said the man from Cork, suspicious again.

‘We needed a bloody big shovel,’ said the priest.

The reader will perhaps share my intuition that I was being spun a shaggy horse story. Anticipating this reaction, I contacted my man at the Sporting Life. First of all, he clarified the position on flapper contests. ‘If a horse ran in a flapper race and subsequently ran under Jockey Club rules, and they found out about it, the horse would be disqualified and the people connected with it could be fined or banned. The same thing would apply with the Turf Club in Ireland.’ There was indeed a thoroughbred of the name mentioned by my waiter at the Beginish, the one I was sure I had heard of or at least, there used to be a horse of that name (A name, incidentally, which I am legally constrained from divulging, pending a revolution in the forensic science industry which makes it possible for the man in the street to identify beyond doubt traces of Cherry Blossom on horseflesh.) The animal would be a nine-year-old now; it was ‘somewhere in Ireland’, my source thought. Thirteen months ago, it had been over the jumps in a £3000 race at a recognised meeting. It was the horse’s last recorded outing – and sighting, come to that.

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