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Travel: Country with an Eire of fun; They say luck comes in threes - it certainly did for ANNA SMITH during a triple visitation to the Emerald Isle.

Byline: ANNA SMITH

AMID the climate of fear in the wake of the Twin Towers atrocity, it's not surprising that many of us don't want to stray far from home.

Long haul trips to exotic lands may have to wait until public confidence in travel builds up.

But in reality, we don't have to venture too far for a rollicking good time.

Just across the water in Ireland there are short, sharp weekends to be had, and if you can survive three of them in one season you might think twice before getting your sunscreen out for the classic beach holiday.

Come with me now to the famous Galway Races for the first leg of the experiment on a gloriously sunny weekend at the start of August. It's actually a week-long festival of gambling, drinking and anything else you might try your luck at, but mere mortals like me could only hack a few days.

From the moment we arrive at the splendid racecourse at the edge of town, there is an ominous sign of the days ahead.

A lengthy queue is swelling at the Cashline, strategically placed a few yards away from the betting ring, and punters stand with race cards in one hand and cash cards in the other.

At the turnstile, a little man with a whimsical look is crouched on a box with a Help The Disabled sign above it. His "disabled" hand is covered by some plastic contraption and for everyone who drops cash into his lap, he winks and gives them the winner of the next race.

Of course everyone gets a different winner, so he can't really lose. Rumour has it that later in the day, his "disabled" hand is clasped around a pint of stout as he laughs at how fools and their money are soon parted.

In the bustling betting arena, eager gamblers are parting with fistfuls of punts to bookies with faces which have been up all night counting their money over a bottle of Jamieson's.

Men with Guinness bellies whisper behind their hands, imparting inside information on the fancied horse - or their own mounting problems after too much drink.

There's women with outrageous hats and the kind of expensive clobber you see at Ascot - but without the snobbery.

The bars are choking with punters, the lucky ones popping champagne corks, the less fortunate souls like me sipping Guinness. I quietly grope inside my pocket for the very last tenner I am going to lose.

But once you've made your donation to the bookie, the secret is never to mention it again, put the day behind you and head for Galway city determined to have a good time.

At night the all year round busy town is heaving with Galway race-goers in various stages of drunkenness.

And so with pub lock-ins for those in the know, the night drifts into the morning and jaded party animals filter out of bars, blinking into the sunshine in search of a huge breakfast to help them tackle the pressures of the day ahead.

Galway Races is not for the faint-hearted, but as I hadn't caused any major scandal by the end of the weekend, I returned to the fine city a month later for Phase Two - the Galway Oyster Festival.

That's the great thing about the Irish. They have festivals for everything, and hordes of people keen to organise them. We could learn from their attitude, because our festival culture seems to be restricted to the Edinburgh do, or the occasional jazz week, or folk weekends in outlying places with little else to offer.

The Guinness Oyster Festival, which attracts thousands of tourists, is renowned worldwide and is built around a quaint international contest to find out who can open the most oysters in the allotted time. As I say, any excuse for a party.

The entire weekend has all the fun of the races without having to part with a shed load of money to the bookies.

On the day of the contest there is a parade through the town to a huge marquee where for around pounds 60 you can enjoy a hearty lunch of fresh salmon and oysters, of course, and as much Guinness or lager as you can drink in an afternoon. The ticket also covers you for brunch on the Sunday - if you can stomach it.

By 4pm on the Saturday, the crowds have congoed out to the street for the classic barman's race down the Quay Street precinct, with three pints of Guinness on a tray. The object is to win without spilling a drop.

Serious festival-goers sober enough by the end of the afternoon to get into their formal outfits can attend the evening bash for pounds 100. This features people in party frocks and dinner suits dancing on tables for the traditional hanky-waving sing song.

And so we go home, with just enough time to rinse out the liver, rest up and get back in training for the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival next week, from October 26-29.

Again, the Irish attract all the big names in jazz and Cork is packed with tourists from across the globe.

Last year 35,000 tourists and 1000 musicians flocked to Cork, a cultured spot which feels like Edinburgh but is much friendlier and more relaxed.

This year the city will be swinging like never before, with an impressive line up of top artists including Courtney Pine, Humphrey Lyttelton, Jim Hall, Buster Williams and Bobby Previte.

There's even free master classes if you want to take your own instrument along with you. There's nothing like walking into a pub with a clarinet case under your arm to guarantee you a chat up. Just remember to make some excuse if you're asked to perform because only you know that the case is actually empty.

Outside in the streets, buskers of all ages will entertain you. I saw one old couple playing their accordians in the middle of the precinct. Can you imagine that happening in Glasgow?

Not being a big city person, however, I flit in and out of Cork and spend most of my time at the fringe festival in the seaside town of Kinsale about 30 minutes drive away.

Known as the gourmet capital of Ireland, Kinsale is the riviera of the Republic where only the wealthy can afford to buy a house on the waterfront with its spectacular views of the Atlantic.

It's a great place to sit and contemplate your next batch of weekend breaks.

Now if only I had backed the 14-1 shot at Galway.

Details

You can get to Dublin for as little as pounds 20 return with Ryanair if you book in advance. Then for Galway take the train across the country or an internal flight through Aer Lingus.

Accommodation during the races and the Oyster Festival will set you back minimum pounds 24 a night bed and breakfast or double that for hotels. Self catering can be found through the Irish Tourist Board. For Cork, British Airways now operates a direct flight from Glasgow, with prices from pounds 128 return.

Aer Lingus operates cheap fares if you book in advance and have two for one deals. Sometimes the overall cost of flying all the way to Galway is just as cheap and more convenient than taking the train.

To book a package call Thomson Breakaway Cities on 0870 606 1476.
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Oct 20, 2001
Words:1238
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