Horseracing, gambling and drinking were among the favourite activities of many members of the landed gentry during the eighteenth century. Some of them gambled away fortunes and indeed estates. An example of this can be seen in Luke Silke’s excellent book, ‘Cloondahamper – A History’. Luke explains how Cloondahamper came under the ownership of the Blake and Browne families following a game of cards. However, the following story is taken directly from the realms of magical folklore. The story involves the fairies who gave great power to an orphan simply known as ‘Sean The Boy’. It was Seán Rua Ó Beaglach, the old Seanchaí from Anglingham, who recorded this story many years ago. The tale is set in the area around Castlehackett and Knockma; known in folklore as the hill of the fairies. They say that under this hill, Finvara, King of the Connacht fairies, holds court. The Kirwan family were the landlords of the Castlehacket estate and they had lived there for centuries. During the eighteenth century the head of the Kirwan household found a small orphan boy wandering the roads around Castlehacket. Obviously feeling sorry for the child and discovering that he was alone in the world, Kirwan brought him home to Castlehacket. The child’s identity and name was unknown and so Kirwin simply called him ‘Sean The Boy’. As time passed, Kirwan put Sean The Boy to work in the stables looking after the horses. He became an excellent groom and was a good rider also.
Kirwan owned a number of good race horses, but he was addicted to gambling and would bet heavily. Sometimes he won, but most times he lost. Sean The Boy always had the horses looking great, well groomed and the leather tack shining with oil and polish. Whatever about them winning, they always looked good. He always carried out this work the night before a race meeting as there was little time in the morning to complete his duty. This was the regular routine until one morning Kirwan went to the stable to saddle a particular horse. He couldn’t believe it; the horse and tack were dirty with mud, like as if the animal had been running through the fields during the night. He called Sean The Boy and asked him to explain why the horse was in such a state. Sean The Boy was totally confused and a bit shocked, but assured Kirwan that he had carried out his duties the previous night as usual. There was no time to get the horse into shape for the race that day. A similar sight greeted Kirwan when he went to check on the horses on the morning of his next race meeting. Again Sean The Boy assured the owner that he had taken care of the horses before he retired to bed the previous night. On the night before the next race meeting, Kirwan went to the stables to watch as Sean The Boy going about his duties grooming and preparing the horses for the following day. Both of them then went off to their respective sleeping quarters. Kirwan and Sean The Boy were shocked to find the horses covered in mud splashes again the next morning. Kirwan was losing a lot of money and something had to be done. They had to find out what was happening to the horses during the night and so it was agreed that Sean The Boy would hide in the stable the night before the next race.
That night after grooming the horses, Sean The Boy, found a comfortable hiding place in the loft. However, he was tired and after a time he dozed off to sleep. A short time later he woke abruptly almost in fright to the sound of voices in the stable. He crept over to the edge of the loft. From this position he saw two little men down under him; they were looking at the horses and their conversation was about trying to decide which ones they would take that night. Suddenly Sean The Boy leapt from his hide-out and shouted, ‘Ye’ll be taking none of these horses tonight’. The little men were startled by this sudden appearance. Sean The Boy was also startled as he now realised that he had just confronted two of the fairy-folk. Regardless of their power, he was determined to prevent them taking the horses. They told him that the horses were being run in the fairy races across the fields from Knockma and that they would return them by morning. He refused them access to the horses and they then suggested that he accompany them to the races. Sean The Boy would not hear of it and told them the horses would not be leaving the stables that night. The little men then spoke quietly to each other for a few moments and then turned to Sean The Boy and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. They said that if he allowed them to take the horses, they would bestow a spell on him that anytime he rode a horse at the races he would win. Knowing that the little people would not break their word once it was given, he agreed to allow them take the horses and went with them to the races. He had a great and exciting night at the fairy races by moonlight. The following morning he returned with the horses, but when Kirwan arrived he was furious to see the animals again in such a state. Sean The Boy explained what had happened and told him of his pact with the fairies. While Kirwan believed in the fairies, he was suspicious of the story. Nevertheless, he had no choice but to go along with Sean The Boy riding for him that day.
All those attending the races in County Galway were impressed by Sean The Boy as he galloped first past the winning post in all his races that day. This continued at the following race meetings with Kirwan making a lot of money and Sean The Boy becoming the most celebrated jockey in the country. However, over time other horse owners complained and would not enter a race in which Sean The Boy was competing. Something had to be done by the racing authorities and it was, they banned Sean The Boy from the race meetings. With the loss of Sean The Boy as a rider, Kirwan’s luck also ran out over the following few years. He was losing a lot of money, so much so that his estate was suffering financially. By this time, Sean The Boy had let his hair grow and had also grown a long beard. Kirwan decided that he would ask Sean The Boy to ride in one more race, this time under an assumed name. No one would recognise him now; in fact some say that he had taken on the appearance of a fairy. So it was agreed between them, Kirwan would bet his entire estate on the race and Sean The Boy would be the jockey. The race meeting was taking place many miles from Castlehacket and Sean The Boy made a number requests. He asked for a relay of horses to be positioned at certain places along the way as he would leave the meeting immediately after the race and get back to Castlehacket quickly. He also requested that one of the servants to have a razor, scissors and a plug of tobacco ready for him when he got back.
They then set off to the race meeting where people wondered as to the identity of Kirwan’s strange looking jockey. Kirwan put on his huge bet and Sean The Boy took his place at that starting line. Once the signal was given to start the race, Sean The Boy took off on his mount. With his long hair and beard blowing back over his shoulder with the speed of the horse there was nothing to catch him. He won the race easily, but there was an ‘old hag’ or witch at the races that day and she knew that it was Sean The Boy riding Kirwan’s horse. She also had a horse running that day and was very annoyed at losing to Sean The Boy so reported her suspicion to the race organisers. Sean The Boy left immediately for home using his relay of horses; he made it back to Castlehacket in double quick time. Once home, he cut his hair, shaved off the beard and eat the plug of tobacco. This made him very pale and extremely sick, and he began falling about the place hopping his head off the walls of the house. Finally he collapsed and was taken to bed by the servants. Meanwhile back at the race meeting, the organisers were demanding to see Sean The Boy. Kirwan told that he was at home in Castlehacket and if they wished to see him, then they would have to go there. They all mounted their horses and galloped away towards Castlehacket. Upon reaching the house they were taken to see Sean The Boy in his sick bed. He looked terribly ill and was almost in a coma. The race organisers said that this man could not ridden any horse that day and immediately awarded the race to Kirwan, thus Castlehacket was saved for another generation. However, it was the last race ever run by Sean The Boy.