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WEST OF THE SHANNON: From Cashel to California
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WEST OF THE SHANNON: From Cashel to California
on 05 October 2018
Susan Finnerty learns the fascinating story behind Connemara's Robbie Fallon in her new West of the Shannon series

TWO constants of the west are stories of emigration and a bond with the horse. For returned emigrant Robbie Fallon, his story involves the Connemara pony and the renowned Cashelbay prefix, a giant-sized nod to his homeplace.

“I grew up in Cashel,” he said. Looking at photographs of Connemara ponies in shop windows, when they went shopping in Clifden sparked off his interest in ponies and after working odd jobs, topped off by money from his father Joe, he bought his first pony, Spencer’s Dream, for £80. She was left with his uncle in Athenry when the 19-year-old Robbie followed the path of thousands of other Connemara immigrants to Boston.

That Athenry connection and an invaluable step up the American citizenship came courtesy of his parents. Mary, his mother, was born in America and returned to Cashel as a six-year-old to be brought up by her grandmother and great-uncle Paddy Grealish, while her parents continued working in America.

This was a typical arrangement back then as it was for Mary’s best friend, with whom she walked three miles to school in Cashel. However, while her schoolfriend returned to America at 18, Mary found a job in Athenry. And her future husband, who she met cycling from town. “He was walking up from town, they started talking and he walked along the road with her,” recalled Robbie about the chance encounter which later saw the married couple moving to Cashel to look after Mary’s elderly grandmother. Just as she had taken care of the six-year-old girl off the boat from Boston.

“My dad was used to all the good land here and he went to Cashel where it was totally different. And he never looked back, he loved the people there. He loved Cashel and he’s laid to rest there, when he died 14 years ago. And my Mom is 93 years old and she’s going very well yet, thank God. Perfect mind, sharp as a tack. It was all Gaelic in my Mom’s house but when Dad came to Cashel, the Gaelic went out the window, so we weren’t really brought up with it, which was a pity. Barbara is a native speaker. And we met in Boston!”

As his mother was an American-born citizen, Robbie and his 10 siblings were automatically entitled to US citizenship, if claimed before they were 21. “I went over when I was 19, I was the only one of the family that wanted to go to America. All the rest went to England and stayed in Ireland.

“I’d seen how hard my parents worked. No running water, the water was brought into the house in buckets . My dad worked extremely hard, he’d do farming for people in Cashel, cutting hay, cutting turf and then he’d go to England every winter from September to February to work in the beet factory to get the cash to pay bills. So I’d seen how hard they’d worked and I said ‘I want to go to America. I’m going to work hard, start a business and have something.’”

Carraroe-born Barbara and Robbie met at a dance in Forest Hills, one of Boston’s many Irish suburbs. “My first job was in the University in Galway and then I went to my aunts in Boston. Two of my sisters were over there already, one was a citizen so that’s how I got my Green Card,” explained Barbara, who worked in an insurance company in the landmark John Hancock building.

Robbie worked in construction until he got a phonecall from Ciaran Keaney, a Cashel childhood friend. “And he said ‘Come out to San Francisco, the weather is beautiful’. Construction had slowed up, the weather was very cold in Boston and he said ‘Come out for the winter, there’s plenty of work here’ So I went.”

Did he leave Barbara behind? “I went out for three weeks holiday supposedly but I loved it out there,” added Barbara. The couple soon settled in San Francisco, a city whose first mayor in 1850 was the Irishman John Geary and by 1880 was one-third Irish after the lure of the Gold Rush.

Robbie continued to work in construction with Ciaran, however the idea grew for another business opportunity. “Construction was the business I was planning on going into but I started working for this guy from Tuam, an ex-policeman, in the same business I’m in now: moving and warehouse storage and I thought ‘I’m going to go into the business myself.’ The rest is history.”

With a $700 bank loan, Robbie bought his first truck and after passing an eight-hour test, got his licence for the moving and storage business.

“Shamrock Moving & Storage Inc. That’s our business we built up, working from six in the morning to 11 o’clock at night.”

Cashelbay Rocket and Michael Harty in the Connemara pony stallion parade pictured at the Dublin Horse Show in August

A couple of paragraphs can skim over the years of hard slog taking a business from start-up to success story and Robbie is candid about the realities he faced at the beginning. “I moved to San Francisco just the end of ’74, in November and started my own business in May 1975. The first years were lean. You have to build a profile, it’s about your name. San Francisco is extremely wealthy, there’s multi-millionaires and movie stars in the city and surrounding area.

“There was a moving company named Bekins, a massive company, I’d always see them doing the big houses. I’d be out doing estimates for apartments, people wouldn’t have the money to pay and it was difficult. ‘One day, I’ll be doing them jobs,’ I said to myself. So I kept working at it and working at it. We’re the Bekins now of San Francisco. We’re the largest residential mover in San Francisco, we do Pacific Heights, Blackhawk, all the big areas.”

There are few Irish customers. “We don’t move two Irish people in the year, it’s all Americans. Some are moving that chair to that room, some are moving across the street, some are moving 2,000 miles away.”

Confidentiality agreements mean that the already trustworthy Robbie Fallon can’t disclose some clients names, but that some of the more unusual possessions they’ve moved for other customers include a giant stuffed bear and even an aeroplane.

He prides himself on giving a top-class service. “To this day, our aim is to make every one of our customers our salespeople. How do you make a customer a salesperson? The one way to do that is give them a good service and a fair price and they’re going to tell their friends. We have never hired salespeople and we don’t today.” The family-run business also recruits Irish students each summer. “We hire a lot of J1-ers. They’ve been excellent in the past few years. We look after our staff. If you look after them, they’ll work.”

ALL ABOUT FAMILY

“My oldest son Bobby is the general manager, very good with people. He’s like Barbara, easy-going. Daniel, my other son is in Operations and he’s a lovely guy but he’s like me, he’d have no problem telling a guy if he’s not doing the job right.

“Helen is the oldest,” continued Barbara, “She runs the Menlo Park office, we’ve a big warehouse there in the Silicon Valley area. Bobby is married to an American-Italian girl, Daniel is married to a girl from Galway, Marion, the second-youngest is married to a guy from Cork and she’s the office manager.”

With half-a-dozen grandchildren already “and God willing, there’ll be number seven shortly,” added Barbara, the family came up with a novel childcare solution, converting the floor above their main office into a creche for the next generation of Fallons.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes but I love America, I’m a very big fan of America and I respect the American flag, I always stand for the national anthem,” said Robbie about the country that honed his work ethic. “You have to do the job right and you have to stand behind it. No excuses. We pride ourselves on that and my kids are the same.”

Back in 1992, the Fallons made the decision to move home while their young family attended secondary school and university, leaving their business in the capable hands of Amy Messinger. “She managed the business for 15 years until Bobby took over. I could not have done what I’ve done if it was not for her. She was tough! They used to call her the Iron Lady.! An unbelievable head, she didn’t need a computer. The two of us were a great team, she had the top education which I didn’t.

“I always say ‘You’re only as good as the people you have around you.’ It’s like Michael Harty here, I wouldn’t have done what I’ve done in the ponies without him. It’s a team on both sides of the Atlantic.”

PONIES

Robbie’s grá for the Connemara pony resurfaced when he moved home, first living in Cashel and later moving to his purpose-built Athenry base in 2006, “where my father grew up on this land.”

“And when I came back from the States, Spencer’s Dream was 26, still going strong. Then I went out and bought another pony and I still have her, Ballybawn Cashel. And then I bought Bealnamulla Kim and Coosheen Pheasant, I bred off them and built up the herd,” said Robbie, listing Cashel Bay Connemara Pony Stud’s three foundation mares.

“That’s why I call them Cashelbay, the homeplace. I knew Mr and Mrs McEvilly very well and their daughter Lucy. I had my ponies with Lucy before I had my own stables here. She was absolutely brilliant. She’d have them turned out to the last. I even got best-turned out in Dublin.”

You find that Robbie doesn’t have a bad word to say about anyone. Maybe it’s his nature, acquired wisdom and worldly experience or a combination of all but the entire conversation is filled with adjectives like ‘brilliant’ and ‘nicest’ when describing anyone he’s worked with. Or maybe water finds its own level.

Praise is also heaped on Michael, who looks after the Athenry base. Originally from Oranmore, Michael went to Boston when he was 19 too and where he won an All American medal with Brighton’s own Galway hurling team. “Before I went, I used to ride racehorses for a local trainer each evening after work. I’d ride out four, maybe five horses, six evenings a week.”

He is also an accomplished Muay Thai boxer, winning 31 out of his 40 professional fights. “I was Irish, Celtic and Four Nations champion, won the Irish Fighter of the Year two years in a row and was International Fighter of the Year. So how did the soft-spoken Michael switch from the boxing ring to the showring? “A guy was building that fireplace,” said Robbie, pointing to the rosette-festooned stone feature. “He knew Michael and said “I have the perfect man for you.” I said ‘Can I trust him?’ and he said “Actually, he’s too trustworthy!” “And I’m still on a month’s trial!” said Michael with a laugh, seven years later.

To add the finishing touches to Michael’s natural horsemanship, “We went to top trainers like Tom Slattery for show jumping, Vida Tansey for dressage and Philip Scott for flatwork,” added Robbie last week, in the countdown to the Horse of the Year Show (HOYS), where Michael rides the home-bred Cashelbay Rocket in the ridden Connemara class. “Rocket was broken under saddle before Michael came here but he hadn’t much done. Michael took him from there to where he is today and this is Rocket’s second year at HOYS.

“It’s three years to the day that I first rode Rocket in a show class at Ballinasloe,” revealed Michael. “So I went from Ballinasloe to HOYS exactly three years later on the same day. I’m awful fond of Rocket because the two of us started out together.”

The Cashelbay Cruise-sired stallion is produced in England by Jo Bates, with whom he won at Royal Windsor two years in a row. Robbie had several requests from English owners looking for his home-bred, however he decided to keep him and following a recommendation, asked Jo to produce him. There was one proviso: if he qualified for HOYS, “He’ll be going with my own rider.”

“Myself and Michael brought him over and three weeks later, he won at Windsor. We spent three months over there that summer, myself, Barbara and Michael. We did shows and Michael trained with Jo, who gave him lessons. And she was extremely impressed with Michael and Rocket and couldn’t believe how good both of them were. They won at the [Connemara] Breed Show.

“I won the in-hand championship there,” continued Michael. “I won the silver medal for in-hand and ridden and I won the overall supreme which was nice.

“I’ve learnt an awful lot with Jo, she’s someone you’d look up to because she’s won so much. She always says to me, ‘You have to feel and look a million dollars going into the ring.”

CASHELBAY PRINCE

So from the numerous Cashelbay champions, which is their favourite? “Cashelbay Prince!” replied Michael instantly before loyally adding: “Rocket is up there as well.”

“There’s only one Cashelbay Prince,” said his owner-breeder. “And not because I own him, because he’s retired now, but he did it all. He’s by I Love You Melody out of Coosheen Pheasant, by Callowfeenish Mairtin, a super mare. I won Clifden with Coosheen Pheasant and Prince the same day. I won first with Pheasant in the 10-year-old mare and over class and then won the yearling colt with Cashelbay Prince, her son. The year before last, we won three red rosettes in Clifden with three different ponies from Cashelbay and a reserve supreme ridden champion – I don’t think it was ever done before in Clifden.

“Prince won everything in every discipline, he won at Clifden from a yearling to a stallion. When he retired – he got a bad injury when he was eventing – I put him back in the in-hand classes and he won the stallion class at Clifden in 2017. And then we retired him completely.

“Pascal Crawford, a brilliant, brilliant man, had Cashelbay Prince for, I’d say, seven years and the pony won just about everything with his riders in other disciplines.” One top UK judge told Robbie later that Cashelbay Prince ranked as one of his favourite all-time ponies. “He is a prince.”

Later we visit the firm favourite holding court in his field, where the regal grey lives out, running with his mares. “He’s there for the winter with a round bale of haylage, no rug on him, totally natural.”

Another of his brides is Fredericksminde Mellow II, by Hazy Dawn and due to foal in early 2019. “She’s won Balmoral two years in a row. As a two-year-old and a three-year-old, she never went to a show that she didn’t win the junior championship. She’s special, just a super mare. She was his first mare covered, you could say, in the wild. He never ran with a mare, until after he retired at Clifden. He had lots of visiting mares with him last year running with him in the field and every single one of them in foal. Before that we used to take Prince down to Philip McManus to do AI. Philip does our vet work, he’s unbelievable, I don’t know how he keeps going.”

Balmoral is a reminder about another Robbie Fallon all-or-nothing stories, when, to advertise Athenry’s show date change in 2017, he had a large sign made for the back of his lorry “and drove all the way to Balmoral,” he said, laughing about his mobile billboard. “We have a marvellous committee with Ciaran O’Keefe as the chairman. Everyone of them is great and works extremely hard to make the Athenry Show a great success.” Robbie also spent two terms on the Connemara Pony Breeders Society council from the late 1990s. “I had a great interest in the Connemara pony and thought that I could bring something to it. I ran for Council and got elected with a couple of others, very good people, at the same time.”

One of the highlights of his term in office was upgrading the Society’s office to incorporate a heritage centre. “A brilliant lady, who joined the Council the same time I did and works for TnaG, named Mary Coyne, was the chairperson of our fundraising committee. There was a great chairperson, John Luskin from Cong, total gentleman, just the nicest man and his heart was in the right place. There were some very good older Council members, Eamon Hannon was one and Miceál Higgins, another brilliant man, who was a mentor to me.”

To supplement a grant for the project, the fundraising committee worked tirelessly selling €100 raffle tickets. “We sold them at fairs, we sold them at shows, we went to dealers and marts. We spent nights and days selling tickets. We had a good team with brilliant support from the members. And then another committee, ran by Henry O’Toole, decided that the Showgrounds needed to be done. So they drained the grounds and the Showgrounds are a credit to them now. So that was accomplished around then too.

Robbie added another Clifden role to his portfolio this summer when he was chef d’equipe for the Irish team in the performance class. “I’d sold Cashelbay JJ to England, (out of one of his foundation mares, the dun Ballybawn Cashel). He won HOYS over and over, had won everything and he was on the international performance team at Dublin.”

His owner asked Robbie if a similar performance championship could be held at Clifden last year. “I thought it was the greatest thing ever because I love them sort of challenges, so I brought it to the Society and they sat down and agreed.” With the sponsorship put up between Robbie and John Sweeney, “a first-class gentleman” the inaugural event was a great success. Robbie was delighted when the Irish team won this year. “And then afterwards, they asked me to lead the team around the town.”

Another parade was the St. Patrick’s Day event in San Francisco, held “usually on the Sunday before St. Patrick’s Day.

“Everybody wants to be Irish that day! Connemara ponies came from a 500-mile radius. Kathy Lucas brought a couple from Los Angeles, where she has the most beautiful equestrian centre and Joanie Webster, who was the backbone of everything to do with Connemaras on the West Coast.”

Cashelbay Rocket has already done the team proud this year, with Windsor and Royal International championships added to his breeder’s long list of accomplishments. “It’s a massive achievement as only four years ago I was a beginner in the showring and now here we are at HOYS. I would never have got the chance without Robbie and Rocket,” said Michael. Such praise is shrugged off by Robbie, who for all his business acumen doesn’t seek the limelight. This, he tells me, is the first interview he’s ever done.

“I’m the kind of person that will tell you exactly as it is. I won’t sugarcoat it. Maybe that’s good, maybe that’s bad at times.”

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