HORSES FOR COURSES AT BALLINSLOE

English, French, German and even Cossack horse dealers, as well as Ireland's own travelling people, come to buy and sell at this traditional Irish fair. Peter Cunningham joined the throng of 1,500 horses, and as many people

THERE'S something happening in Ballinasloe. Loose, piebald horses are ambling down the street and in Hayden's Hotel acres of plastic have been laid atop the carpets. A pair of chestnut-faced farmers with ash switches in their hands have the quick blue eyes that can in a moment size up a mare and predict with accuracy what her unborn foal will look like. It's the week of the horse-fair in Ballinasloe.

The fair field lies beside the Galway road like an enormous headscarf come to life. One corner licks up to where a garda stands on traffic duty, the other ends under the tower of St John's church, 500 yards away. The two remaining compass points are marked respectively by a neon sign for the Emerald Ballroom and a convent. Embraced within these parameters swarm a riot of at least 1,500 horses and as many men (and women) again.

Irish horse-fairs like this one have taken place for at least 2,500 years. It's not just shrewd men from the four corners of Ireland who come here, but tanglers from Britain, Germany and France too, and sometimes even from east of the Urals, men whose slanting eyes and Cossack ways with horses are uncannily similar to those you find in Mayo and Donegal. At the beginning of the Christian era in Ireland these foreigners were referred to as "Greeks". But it was not only a one- way trade: Tacitus observed that at least one Irish merchant prince was a regular in the camp of the Roman general, Agricola.

Ireland's travelling people are well represented in Ballinasloe, their ruddy faces and canny eyes peering over the withers of their piebald horses, waiting patiently for a man with a wad of money in his pocket and a hunger for a good horse to come down the steps into the field. He exists, this man. He always exists. Maybe he's been waiting all week and his patience is finally wilting. Maybe he's just had a mighty feed of corned beef and porter up the town and is now bursting with confidence. There's a horse for him here, and a luck penny too, and a word of ancient blessing, and good wishes to send him homeward with his new purchase, his eyes alight, his face towards Mayo or Donegal or Clare where his wife and children cock their ears to the sound of every car and trailer and wonder what fertile mare or great strong horse daddy will bring home this year from Ballinasloe.

We cross the top corner of the fair field and our senses reel. Too many horses to make meaning of, too many colours and shapes. Even closed eyed, the rich mixture of dung and horse-tang has innate timelessness, as have the noises on the wind: the whinny of a stallion; the snatches of the dealers' conversations.

"She's burstin' in foal to the best horse in Wexford."

"Go on! Go on! I'll treat you right!"

"You'd take the shirt off me back."

A man in his late forties with an open, smiling face stands in the middle of the hubbub with his four-year-old chestnut mare on a lead rein. There are no pens or paddocks here, just an endless series of self-defining groups. The man has the kind of open, decent face that would allow you to concede the advantage in a deal to him and not feel bad about it afterwards.

"Some people think a chestnut mare is unlucky, especially one like her with four white socks. Don't mind that, there's a great jump in her. For pounds 2,500 you won't buy her equal."

Chatting on a mobile phone, a youth leads past us a Thelwellian pony, its pregnant belly brushing discarded burger cartons. An old farmer, easily 80, his gnarled fists leaning on his walking stick as if both have been cut from the same knotty bough, waits patiently for someone to bid him for the dappled roan foal to which he's tethered. Between man and beast exists a unity here that is rare and wondrous. In one sense it's a far cry from Newmarket or Longchamps or Santa Anita, but there is another, deeper sense in which thoroughbreds all over the world have ultimately sprung from deep wells such as this one in Ballinasloe. Palpable wisdom exists on this field. Like speed and strength, it is a thing gifted from previous generations.

``How are you doing, a mac?'' One links the other and they walk over, a combination of 150 years at a guess, to where a butty cob has his ears flattened. The owner's face creases in a smile at the sight of these two old men who've between them bought and sold more horses than there are stars in the sky. One picks up the cob's hairy leg, heavy as an anvil. Placing it down again, he puts his hand on the vendor's shoulder and they share a laugh. But nothing is done just to waste time here. You may be sure this was no casual visit, that these two old stagers were sent by a third party from the far side of the fair field to check out this broad limbed work-horse that had caught his eye earlier that morning.

Like sideshows to the main action there are men selling asses and sheep from the back of trailers. The breeder of English setter pups, described as "tricolour" because of their black, tan and white appearance, is only looking for pounds 50 each for them. "I've shot snipe over their mother for eight years," he confides as the captivating pups look out dolefully from behind the wire mesh of their cage. "They're rock solid and their mouths are like silk. I'll take pounds 85 for two, look, they love you already."

Above on the high road the sounds of the travellers' trotting ponies reverberate like the teeth of a rachet. An entire family drag into the field a tiny, batty pony, its toes dug into the earth, mother and father pulling, a hydra of red heads pushing at the rear.

A man wearing a pioneer pin, the badge in Ireland of the non-drinker, stands on the back of a trailer auctioning tack. "You'll travel the world and you'll never find the value I'm offering you," he tells his wary audience.

Five men in a group are huddled low at a mare's head. There are some brave cries, then a smack of hands. The new owner emerges triumphantly, slightly breathless, glowing. In his hand is a twist of hay. He goes to the rump of his new purchase and symbolically rubs the hay in a circle. "My mare. May she bring me luck. May she rise to her fences like a swallow rises over a treetop. May she stay in the good health in which I've found her. May her belly carry the seed of a brave sire and may her offspring be as gallant as their father and as serene as their mother. May they be gentle to handle and fearless in flight. May she bear me good foals into both our old ages and there may we both find peace in the quiet reflection of our achievements."

! Next year's horse fair in Ballinasloe takes place over three days starting 4 October. Fly to either Dublin or Galway then travel by train or bus to Ballinasloe. For train and bus information call CIE on 0181 686 0994. Irish Tourist Board, 0171 493 3201.

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