Ireland is famous the world over for horse racing. Nowhere is the ordinary “man in the street” more passionate about the sport of kings. In 1980, I was serving as a director of a London business which had bought a young racehorse and had listed me as its owner. Apparently the owner had to be a human being rather than a corporation. The horse’s first race was to take place in Ireland’s capital city, Dublin. To see that race, Pat and I made our first and only visit to the emerald isle. This was in May, a few months before Pat and I were married. Incredibly, our horse won. I left the winner’s circle after congratulating our jockey, Tony Murray, and started to make my way towards the bookies in order to collect my wholly unexpected and undeserved winnings. However I was first intercepted and warmly embraced by a well dressed little Irishman, whom I did not initially recognize. He thanked me profusely for having given him the opportunity of backing our horse. He turned out to be our cabdriver from earlier in the day, who had heard me discussing our horse’s chances with Pat, while we were riding in his cab. He had invested far more heavily than us and was understandably euphoric. Such is the passion for horse racing among the Irish. It is therefore ironic that our principle memory of that visit to Dublin is entirely unconnected with the racetrack and it is this.
During our stay Pat and I visited Phoenix Park, Dublin, which is the largest urban enclosed park in Europe and is a couple of miles west of the city center. This had been the scene of great events some seven or eight months earlier, when Pope John Paul II had made the first ever visit of a pope to Ireland. We stood exactly where he had stood when celebrating an open air Mass before a congregation of over a million people. Incidentally, this was easily the largest gathering of Irish people in history. We gazed across the park, now green and empty, and tried to visualize how the scene must have appeared to the Pontiff.
In the park, we were able to see the Papal Cross. It is 116 feet high and had been erected by the Irish to commemorate the visit. In fact, the Irish only managed to put up the cross a few days before the Pope’s arrival and I smiled at the thought of the last minute panic that this must have engendered. Yet, because Pat’s family is Irish American, I prudently kept my thoughts to myself.
What a pioneer Pope John Paul II turned out to be! He was the first Pope to leave Italy since 1809 and he was the first to travel by air. During his papacy, he undertook more overseas travel than all his predecessors combined during nearly 2000 years. Of course, we did not know then what would befall him only twelve months later in St. Peters Square in the Vatican. In May 1981, a trained sniper from Turkey attempted to assassinate the Pope, who was struck by four bullets. He lost three quarters of his blood and his survival was surely a miracle. He was over 60 years of age at the time. How strange that this should have occurred in the supposed safety of the Vatican, rather than on a risky overseas trip.
On a happier note, we wandered along the banks of the Liffey. This river runs through the center of the city of Dublin and past the 18th century St James’s Gate Brewery, at one time the largest brewery in the world.
This is where Guinness is brewed. A total of ten million glasses of Guinness a day are consumed in 150 countries and this is where it all comes from. A good deal more than ten million glasses of Guinness will be drunk next week on St Patrick’s Day, when the Chicago River is turned green and they parade in New York City. As I looked into the Liffey, I wondered whether it was responsible for the taste of Guinness, which tastes like no other beer. Is there something in the river water, which looked to me to be too dirty to drink? Who knows? Guinness is a dry stout. It’s black in color with distinctive creamy foam on top. It’s reputed to be good for the heart, although in these politically correct times the brewers are not allowed to claim any health benefits for their product. Even their famous advertising slogan, “Guinness is good for you”, is suspect these days. They can however truthfully claim that it’s still the best selling alcoholic drink in Ireland.
When I lived in Nigeria 50 years ago, I would admire the Guinness advertising billboards of those days. Nigerians then still often used the tops of their heads to carry things. These billboards would show a Nigerian striding along with a big steel girder balanced on top of his head and the message below was “Guinness for Strength”. This impressed the Nigerians enormously and Africa is still one of the biggest export markets for Guinness. I never did taste either Guinness or the waters of the Liffey during our visit to Dublin in 1980. Fortunately the performance of a certain racehorse permitted us to concentrate on champagne instead.