The fair is one of the oldest known gatherings of people which we know of. Fairs are known to have been held by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, who utilised the religious games they played for trading purposes.
In Ireland, the aenach or fair, was an assembly of every social group without distinction. It was the most common kind of large public meeting and its objectives were the celebration of games, athletic exercises, sports and other pastimes. One of the most important fairs in ancient Ireland was that at Tailltenn, now Teltown on the river Blackwater between Navan and Kells in Co. Meath. It was attended by people from all over Ireland and also from Scotland. It was held yearly on or around August 1 and marriages formed a special feature of it. Another important fair was held at Nenagh, Co. Tipperary and has given its name to the town. Nenagh in Irish means ‘the fair’.
At many of the fairs, the chief men would sit in council in places specially allotted to them and discussions would take place. Each day but the last would be given over to the games of each social group or tribe. Among the entertainments was the recitation of poems and romantic tales. Music also formed an important part and there were many harpers, pipers and fiddlers. There is no mention of dancing and it is probable that the ancient Irish did not dance as we know it. Other performers included showmen, jugglers and clowns similar to what we see in circuses today. Prizes were awarded to the best performers and were publicly presented by the most important person present, whether it was a king, queen or a chief.
Buying and selling was a very important feature of the fair. There were often three markets. A market of food and clothes, a market of livestock and horses and a market for the use of foreign merchants who sold articles made of gold and silver. Space was also assigned for cooking. The cooking would have taken place on a very large-scale to feed the large numbers of people present.
When the evening of the last day had come, all the men of the council would stand up, at a signal from the chief and make a great clash with their spears. Each man would strike the handle of the next man’s spear with the handle of his own. This was the signal for the crowds to disperse.
After these, the most ancient of the Irish fairs, others developed over the next one thousand years. When St. Patrick introduced Christianity into Ireland in the fifth century, the Pagan customs were discontinued and Christian ceremonies were introduced. The fairs were organised by the local chieftain in his area. The Gaelicised Normans later continued this tradition. Many patents were issued by King James I in the early seventeenth century, granting authority to towns to establish fairs. It would be much later, however, before many of these fairs would become a reality.
The Cromwellian policy of land confiscation, ‘To hell or to Connaught’, and later the Penal Laws, suppressed the customs previously practiced by the Irish people and denied them ownership of anything over £5. However, as the eighteenth century wore on the laws were relaxed and Catholic Emancipation was finally granted in 1829. Despite this, the Irish people largely did not own any property, renting the land from landlords. From this time onward many fairs and markets were set up. These fairs were used mainly by the landed gentry and the landlords for the buying and selling of the herds of cattle and sheep from their estates. The tenant farmer’s land could only support one cow and as time went on, the growing population and the division of the farm amongst all the farmer’s sons made it nearly impossible to do more than grow potatoes for eating and enough grain to pay the rent.
In those pre-Famine times the weekly markets provided an outlet for cottage industries, butter, linen and potatoes. It was only after the Famine, at the time of the Land War of 1879-1881, that the majority of Irish people made the transition from the market to the fair. The Land Acts which gave the tenant farmers fair rent, free sale and fixity of tenure and the opportunity to buy out their farm from the landlord, gave them the personal and economic independence to do so.
The building and extension of the railways in Ireland in the mid-to-late nineteenth century meant that cattle could be easily transported around the country to various fairs. It also brought about improvements in the breeding of livestock. Better animals were now for sale at the fairs due to the importation of different breeds of bulls and rams from abroad.
In the rural towns and villages the markets gave way to fairs held on the fair green. Gradually the fair moved onto the streets, no doubt encouraged by the business people but not by the residents as the streets would be left in a mess. The first cattle would appear in the town at about seven o’clock in the morning, some having been walked as far as ten miles to it during the night. They would be met by cattle jobbers who would buy and sell the cattle later on to bigger dealers at a profit. The buying and selling of the cattle followed a set pattern. The price would be enquired of the farmer, the farmer would then ask the dealer how much he would give. The animal’s mouth would then be examined to determine its age and a bid made. If the bidding became prolonged a third man, a friend of either the farmer or the dealer, would appear. He would enquire how much money was dividing the two and try and settle the deal by catching the hands of the farmer and dealer, slap them together and spit on them to seal the deal. A ‘luck penny’ was then given to the dealer by the farmer as a gesture of goodwill.
In the larger towns the market would be held on the streets and would be especially busy from October to Easter. This was regarded as the Christmas period when the country people would do their buying. Goods were displayed on stands lining the streets, with each range of items having its own special location. Frieze, flannel and clothing material in one location, wooden dishes in another, followed by shoes and brogues of all sizes and quality; hats, pottery, butter, flax seed, pork and beef, sally rods for scallops (used in thatching roofs) and rushes for lights. Hosiers, tailors and pedlars did not use stands, preferring to carry their wares- stockings, ready-made waistcoats, pins, needles, brass buttons and other items through the streets.
Most shoppers went straight home after the fairs and markets but some headed for the whiskey-houses (sheebeens) and the pubs, both of which had been open since six o’clock that morning. In the sheebeens, the drinking often went on all night. Unsold cattle would be stored in yards which the publicans made available to their customers.
Throughout the 1960’s the fairs and markets came under threat from the cattle marts. In the beginning the farmers would drive their cattle past the mart to the fair on the streets. As time went on, however, the farmers made less use of the fairs and markets, the majority dying out thirty to thirty-five years ago. At many marts today, it can be seen that a lot of business is still done outside on the streets in the fair tradition.
Some fairs and markets are still in existence today. The horse fair at Ballinasloe, Co. Galway and the Old Fair Day, held every year in Tubbercurry, Co. Sligo are two such examples. They prove that the fair and market, in existence for well over a thousand years still have a place in the modern world.