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Fair DayFair Day
Dunmore is a quiet, peaceful town situated about 30 miles N.E. of Galway City. Today, judging by the volume of early morning and late evening traffic plying between itself and the city it might easily be described as a dormer town. However, in its own right it is a strategically placed market town, quite close to the spot where “the three counties meet”. Until 1971 it held monthly livestock fairs.
The fairs in Dunmore were among the oldest in Ireland and perpetuated a tradition that went back hundreds of years into the very heart of our Irish heritage.
The fair was the major forum used by the farmers of the parish and surrounding areas for trading the surplus animals generated by Commercial Agriculture. The importance of trading in the social and economic lives of the local communities of yesteryear cannot be overstated. Fairs were important meeting places in rural Ireland and people attended them not only to transact business but also with the expectation of meeting relatives and friends.
Fairs brought people together from very different social backgrounds and played an important part in shaping local history. At the fairs all kinds of social networks operated: town met country, landowner and landagent met tenant, farmer met dealer, buyer met seller, the rate collector met his clientele and the influences of the wider world were introduced into the local culture.
The usual range of farm animals were traded on Fair Day though horses figured more prominently at the fairs from October to January or February. At the November 3rd. and December 11th. fairs the town square was completely taken over by horses. They were everywhere, ranging from the large and majestic Clydesdale type to the more dainty ponies and everything in between.
The year started with its first fair on New Year’s Day. This was a great day for selling fillies. A filly was a one and a half year old unbroken horse, of either gender, required for farm work in the coming spring. The seller had the tail knotted in a bun to signal the fact that the horse was a filly. ! Haltering a filly was an art at which few excelled and those who did were in demand. Purchasing a filly on the 14th. February was to be avoided if possible. By then some of the fillies on offer might already have been put to the plough, found wanting or spoiled in the attempt.
The fair green hosted a massive convergence of bovine creatures on fair day. The provision of this fair green goes back to the early 1920’s when a field known as the Orchard was purchased by the local fairs committee. Previous to that, in 1852, the Government established a commission to inquire into the “state and condition” of the fairs and markets of Ireland. The commissioners were to inquire by what authority fairs and markets were held, the tolls and fees that were levied, the diversity of weights and measures used and the frauds committed. One of the principal recommendations of the 1852 commission was that market owners provide fair greens with proper facilities for the sale of livestock. The commission regarded fairs in the street as a nuisance and the owner of the fairs and markets should in all cases provide accommodation for the public in return for the tolls he received. Prior to the provision of the fair green toll collectors were positioned on all the exit roads from the town and collected tolls on all animals sold. With the provision of the fair green the toll collector manned its exit gate. It was the responsibility of the purchaser of the livestock to pay the tolls but he often frustrated the efforts of the unfortunate collector by rushing large numbers of cattle through the gate at once while attempting to get away scot-free. Acrimonious encounters often ensued.
The fair green however was only used for the sale of cattle. Farmers continued to exhibit their sheep, pigs and as already mentioned, horses, in the carnival atmosphere of the streets rather than in the comparative isolation of the fair green. Taking over the town on fair day gave the farmer status and emphasised the dependency of the urban dweller on the countryman. Publicans too did not like the fairs being moved to the edge of the town as it interfered with their business.
At day break, on fair morning, small driven herds of docile animals could be seen moving purposefully on all the approach roads to the town. Animals, especially cattle, were tamer then. Calves were mostly bucket fed rather than single suckled. The handling that this involved had a calming influence. Although occasionally the odd bullock, overcome by the excitement of it all did run amok on fair day. Whole families got up in the pre-dawn chill of early morning to shepherd their precious herd to a prime location in the fair green which might bring them to the attention of a prospective buyer. The old maxim “Have your goat in the centre of the market place” was uppermost in the mind of the seller. In the town the publicans and caterers stocked up in anticipation of a record day. Many a wide-eyed school boy awaited this day with eager anticipation as his role changed from scholar to Drover’s assistant.
The buyers were in town before dawn. They often employed the services of a “tangler” or “blocker” who’s brief was to buy cheaply from the farmer on the outskirts of the town—many farmers were unsure of the true value of their livestock. The blocker, an experienced and astute judge often succeeded in clinching a deal. Later on in the morning he turned over his purchases to the dealer for a few pounds profit. Wheeling and dealing always played a big part in Irish life going back to the days of bartering as practised by the Celts.
Dealers came from Roscommon, Sligo, Fermanagh and the Midland counties to do business in Dunmore. Two well known Dublin horse dealers, McEntee and Cooper were often in attendance and were ably assisted by people like the late Seamus “the blocker” Mannion from Tuam.
Many farmers from Co. Meath travelled to Dunmore for the fair on September 15th. to source their requirements of ewe hoggets and breeding sheep for the year.
Once the selling and buying of livestock finished in the early afternoon unsold animals and those awaiting transport were penned in holding yards around the town. Loftus’s yard at the ball alley by the river, Michael Burke’s yard nearby and Charles’s yard in Castle St. were such yards.
On occasion trade at a particular fair might not live up to expectations. The old economic law of over supply and poor demand often put a damper on things. Farmers, often desperately in need of money, sold stock at sacrifice prices on such occasions. The old saying “that’s how the rich man lives on the poor” was so relevant then. If the fair was bad a melancholy air seemed to descend on the town. In the evening, it was a touching sight- that of people returning to the country from the fair, many of them taking home their unsold stock, others sad from having been compelled to part with it at ruinous prices. Farmers were very attached to their stock.
After one such fair, during the economic war, a man from Gortnalea, having sold a cow met his neighbour on his return home. He was asked how he got on. Not willing to disclose the actual price, he replied:” We didn’t get what we were expecting, but we were expecting we wouldn’t”!
As already mentioned, Dunmore’s first fair of the year was on New Year’s Day. Then came the fairs on February14th., March 25th., April 27th., May 29th., June 18th., July 9th., August 15th., September 15th.,(sheep) 16th., cattle, October 10th., November 3rd. and December 11th. The December fair was known as the “Black Fair”-it was dark when leaving and returning home.
Of course the fairs were not solely the preserve of buyers and sellers of livestock. The vibrant fair attracted ancillary business to the town. Stalls were set up in the Square and Barrack St., selling second-hand clothes, delph, items of hardware and lots more. Their owners were affectionately known as “Jack cheaps”. The clothes were purchased by the stall owner at special sales in Scotland. As the dreaded Tuberculosis was rampant as late as the 1950’s Scottish Law required that second-hand clothing be fumigated before sale. After fumigation it was packed into large bundles and auctioned off. The “Jack cheap” was not privy to the contents of the bale before purchase. A Mr. Freyne from Ballaghdereen ran a second-hand clothes stall at the fair for many years.
Tom Joyce from Ballymoe also had stalls selling everything from a needle to an anchor. He in particular had excellent salesmen. Pitching the asking price of an item quite high at the start, they lowered it quite dramatically and made you feel that you were getting the bargain of the year.
Two Ballinlough families, the Campbell’s and Doherty’s sold delph which they imported in large quantities and wholesaled as well as retailed it around the country. Their stalls were visited by many a housewife as she replenished her stocks for the stations. Needless to say, the “willow pattern” was very much in evidence.
Sometimes the Ralph family from Tuam had a stall selling fish.
Amid the hustle and bustle of the fair one often heard the strains of a ballad singer’s voice or the sweet notes of an accordion spicing up the carnival atmosphere. The ballad singers often sold sheets containing ballads like “The Valley of Knockanure”.
On one fair day a coloured man had a stall selling flea powder. His skin colouring and deep resonant voice was a novelty in itself and commanded a huge audience. He spoke very eloquently and in no time at all had sold his entire stock. At this stage he expressed his surprise that nobody asked him how to administer the powder. Answering his own question he said- “You catch the little creature and put it into his eye”!
Matchmaking was also part and parcel of the fair. One story recalls how a Dunmore publican coped ever so diplomatically with a very sensitive issue while a match was being made in his pub. He was friendly with both parties. The girl for whom the match was being made was perhaps a little on the old side. At least her age was being brought into question. The publican, out of the blue, was asked to give his opinion as to what age she might be. His brain was quite alert. He replied thus:” I say 4 tens are 30 and she’s that anyway”!
Restaurants flourished on fair days. The Rushe and Mc Gill families, as well as Hannah Morris had restaurants in Castle St. and Mary Burke had one in High St., but the arrival of the mobile canteen in the early fifties signalled their demise.
Sadly from the 1950’s the specialized fairs and most of the rural fairs were being replaced by Livestock Marts. These regular marts were more convenient for both sellers and buyers and their auction format removed much of the unpredictability of the traditional fair.
Of the hundreds of fairs which were formerly held throughout the country only a small number have survived the rise of the Livestock Marts. Those which do survive like Puck Fair in Killorglin, Co. Kerry do so as much for social or touristic as for commercial purposes. Those which continue to have an economic function, like the Fairs of Ballinasloe, Maam Cross, Millstreet and Spancil Hill, are often horse fairs, at the lower end of the market which is not catered for by the prestigious thoroughbred sales or horse shows.
In the middle of the 20th. century, the importance of both fairs and markets to Dunmore’s economic survival began to decline. In September 1961, a new livestock mart opened in Tuam and the weekly marts soon eliminated the need for the local fair. The frenetic days of Dunmore’s bustling fairs ceased with the holding of its last fair in 1971.Thursday is still looked upon as “market day” by the older generation of the town’s citizens but the fair days only linger in the mind’s eye. Sadly the demise of its traditional fairs and markets has lost the town an important part of its essence and its urban heritage. Nowadays very few hawkers or pedlars visit the town. The fairgreen has been redeveloped for recreational uses. Apart from one or two stalls in the Square on Thursdays, there is little evidence that Dunmore’s streets were once hives of activity on fair and market days.

Pat Kielty