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Irish Connection
by John McEvoy

"…the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry,
And all their songs are sad."

So wrote G. K. Chesterton in his poem "Ballad of the White Horse."

Characterizing citizens of that small nation, Chesterton might well have added a stanza or three about their tremendous affection for horses. Which is where my connection to Ireland in my writing, particularly my horse racing thriller Close Call" (Poisoned Pen Press 2008), comes into it.

Forebears on both sides of my family fled Ireland's Great Famine in the 1840s, emigrating to farming communities in western Wisconsin-the McEvoys and Kerrigans on my father's side, the Trainors and O'Connors on my mother's. With them they brought senses of humor, stubbornness, energy, an appreciation of language and labor and laughter, and one of the most pervasive traits of their native nation, the love of horses and racing. It was the latter characteristic that prompted me to set four chapters of my horse racing thriller Close Call in Ireland.

I first visited Ireland in 1984. My younger sister Ann had vacationed there a few years earlier, met the musician and instrument maker Paddy Healy, and married him. She lived then, as now, in the Dublin suburb of Dun Laoghaire. When my wife and I journeyed there, one of the first things we did was visit Dublin's Leopardstown racetrack. It was a cold, late autumn day. The sky was heavy with rain clouds. Yet the stands were packed with enthusiastic fans. As I was to understand further years later, when researching a chapter for my non-fiction book Great Horse Racing Mysteries, racehorses are widely revered in Ireland. I was writing then about the mysterious kidnapping of the great Irish horse Shergar. That 1983 incident horrified the nation and prompted a massive investigation. Though no solid evidence ever accrued, the wide spread presumption was that the valuable animal had been stolen by the IRA and, after being unsuccessfully ransomed, was "disappeared." Shergar has never been seen since.

That Irishmen and women are mad about their "harses" is evident at any of the dozens of racing meetings that take place each year all over the 26 counties of the Irish Republic and the six in Northern Ireland. These events are held both at major racetracks such as The Curragh and Leapardstown near the nation's capitol of Dublin as well as at modest-sized courses in much smaller towns. Irish jockeys are among the best in Europe, as are Irish trainers and runners. This has been true for many years, not just in the past decade when the so-called Celtic Tiger began to roar its economic roar.

My interest in thoroughbred racing was first sparked by the sight of Native Dancer, the "Gray Ghost of Sagamore," who flashed across television screens in the early days of that medium. When I saw the The Dancer in person, as a teenager at old Washington Park south of Chicago in 1953, I was hooked. He was a striking package of strength and beauty, and he led me through a career door that would deeply involve me in racing. The horse racing part of my DNA kicked in with a flourish.

After a few years as a reporter on metropolitan papers and three spent teaching college English, I joined the newspaper "Daily Racing Form." It was known then, as now, as the "Bible" of thoroughbred racing. More than three decades as a writer and editor with that publication afforded me intimate views of a sport that I found to be a fascinating microcosm of American society, populated by many wealthy owners, many more low wage caretakers of these owners' horses, and a large middle class in between comprised of hard-trying trainers, jockeys, bettors and bloodstock agents, all living and dreaming of getting their hands on "a big horse."

In 2000, the first of my non-fiction books about racing was published. My first novel, Blind Switch, a horse racing thriller, came out in 2004. It was followed in 2006 by Riders Down, winner of the Benjamin Franklin Award for best mystery/suspense novel. These books were set primarily in Chicago, Kentucky, and Louisiana.

Close Call, published by Poisoned Pen Press in March of 2008, is also set in Chicago. In it, I brought back Jack Doyle, my knight errant hero of Blind Switch. Midway through the book, Jack is asked to undertake an assignment in Ireland-the attempt to convince one of that country's bookmakers to accede to the wishes of his cousin, Celia McCann, operator of Monee Park racetrack and Jack's employer.

Drawing on my observations of contemporary Ireland, freshened by trips there in two recent years, I incorporated them into Jack Doyle's experiences abroad in Close Call. There is a chapter set at the Curragh that includes this passage:

"They strolled into the interior of the grandstand. 'That is one of the longest bars in the world,' Hanratty said, pointing toward a busy section where hustling bartenders worked behind a stretch of mahogany that ran for hundreds of feet. The huge area was abuzz with racing talk, arguments over various horses' merits, voices being raised and then briefly stilled as their owners lifted glasses to their mouths.

"As Doyle took in the scene, he felt a tug at his elbow. He looked down at a dapper, older man, ex-jockey size, whose wide grin ran under a large, red nose. The little man lifted a thumb in the direction of the long bar. 'Sure,' he said, 'there's no finer sight in the world than a furlong of bent elbows. Am I right, now?'"

That Ireland and racing should become a subject of my writing can be seen as a natural outgrowth of my heritage, background, and interests. It was great fun for me to develop this material. I hope my readers enjoy the result.


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