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“Donkey Derby”

by Larne Shields

An Act of God, some might say, or the work of the Devil, as might some others. According to the Fire Department, faulty wiring had set the Church on fire. Damage to the vestry and chancel was extensive, and Father Mulligan was in a quandary, as to where he was going to find the money for restorations. He sought, and acquired an audience with the Bishop, who told him straight, to forget about begging from Rome.

“Our Lady’s is here for the benefit of the community,” he said. “It is up to the parish to rebuild their church, not the Vatican. Local workmen should be paid local money. I suggest you negotiate with the relevant individuals without delay.”

The parish priest met therefore with the village elders, to ask for ideas. The meeting lasted for three hours, until Father Mulligan himself finally suggested a fund-raising fête. Of course, the members of the committee agreed unanimously, amidst suggestions that, if successful, the fête could become an annual event to benefit the entire parish.

For the first two weeks of summer, in the whole of Ireland, the village of Ballyperseverence was surely the most pleasurable place to be. Free and/or inexpensive publicity had done more than Father Mulligan could have envisaged, or hoped for. Prepaid newspaper advertisements, donated posters, and word of mouth had reached into every nook and cranny of neighbouring counties. Within the first three days, the fête was already a huge success. Events and activities for the fortnight’s festivities included parades, auctions, local sports, and fairground attractions. The climax of the fête was to be a children’s donkey derby; the closing ceremony to incorporate an award for the winning donkey and child.

It was a time when very few cars were to be seen on Irish roads, the main form of transport being either pony and trap, or bicycle. Most farmers owned donkeys, especially for carting milk churns to the creamery. With regard to the impending derby, any lad who wished to participate, and did not have access to one, would need to supplicate and borrow a donkey from a munificent farmer. This was to prove easy enough.

Come ten o’clock on Sunday morning, most of the kids were already out there on the fields, trotting, cantering, messing about, with neither inhibition, reservation nor the slightest consideration for this afternoon’s race. They were having fun, and that was all that mattered. Noticeably, little Tommy Farrell, having arrived later than the others, was seated upon a well- groomed donkey, or rather a jenny by the name of Sophie. And she happened to be much larger than any of the other long eared quadrupeds present. Despite towering over their peers, Tommy and Sophie joined in the fun, and everyone was having a whale of a time. At twenty minutes before three o’clock, Larry O’Leary, the starter, who was also the man with the loudhailer, called for all those who wish to participate in the donkey derby, to form a starting line-up.

It was a spectacle to be captured by newspaper photographers, and anyone else with a camera. Twenty-two children between the ages of seven and eleven were mounted upon the same number of donkeys. Only two of them being Jacks, and the rest either cut-Jacks (geldings) or Jennies. A number of tired animals, having already had more than enough exercise for the day, were unwilling or unable to do any more. Many of the kids were having difficulties with getting their mounts to obey. Thus, it was well after three o’clock before there was any semblance of a starting line-up, with more or less than half of the competitors ready to race.

Whatever possessed him, nobody knows, even to this day, but for some strange reason, Mister O’Leary thought it a grand idea to start the race with a starter’s gun. He pointed the pistol at the sky and squeezed the trigger…


The sound of the blank cartridge detonation was a shocker, and very loud. Pandemonium broke out. Boys and girls screamed as they tried to control their frightened mounts, with long, curled up wagon reins, clasped in their tiny hands. It was impossible. Donkeys purportedly too tired to put one foot in front  of  the  other, suddenly responded with a surge of adrenalin. They hee-hawed, jumped, twisted, and pranced like bucking broncos. Kids flew through the air, having been thrown by a quarter ton of long eared, grey-haired muscle, teeth and hooves. At least one of the lads landed smack bang on a soft-crusted, squishy cowpat, which apart from soiling his Sunday best, endowed him with a most unpleasant odour. At the same time, donkeys with riders, and some without, and with long reins dragging along the ground, scattered in all directions. Women screamed, as sisters, brothers; fathers and mothers, with or without prams, dodged this way and that, out of the path of the frightened animals.

For those heading in the right direction though, the chase was on.

Little Tommy Farrell happened to facing the wrong way when the race began. He quickly turned his pony-sized Jenny, and kicked his heels into her flanks in an attempt to catch up with the others. In next to no time, not only had she caught up with them, Tommy and Sophie had effortlessly leapt into a commanding lead. The roped off course of the race stretched for just over a furlong, some two hundred and fifty paces. Families and other cheering spectators were once more lined up along each side, from start to finish.

In the race, the kids were now chasing the new leader. They screamed and shouted as they tried to convince their donkeys to gallop faster. There was plenty of name-calling and jostling for position in the main bunch, but the Farrell boy remained well out in front, with absolutely no chance of ever being caught.

A white ribbon stretched across the track, fluttering in the breeze. With only five yards to go, Sophie slowed to a saunter. They were still so far ahead, that all she needed to do was to continue walking, right up to, and through the line, breaking the flimsy strip.

Only, she didn’t.

She wouldn’t.

Upon reaching the quivering ribbon, she stopped, frozen in her tracks. Tommy kicked his heels into her flanks, several times. He screamed at her. He slapped her rump, and pleaded with her … all to no avail. Meanwhile, a rowdy bunch of juvenile jockeys on smaller donkeys, were drawing ever nearer. Still, she refused to budge.

“Come on Sophie, come on!” Tommy shrieked, until finally, in sheer frustration, he smacked the back of her head, right between the ears. In response, Sophie hee-hawed, took a backwards step, lowered her head, and kicked violently with both hind legs. This sent little Tommy Farrell crashing to the ground. He was fortunate not to be trampled, as a grinning seven-year-old, Danny Malone, passed by on Smokey, his diminutive jackass. Smokey trotted straight through the trembling tape, followed by a pace of eight mounted donkeys, plus another pair of stragglers.

It was the first, and last Donkey Derby ever to be held at the village of Ballyperseverence.