In many ways, the hiring fairs of old were the forerunners of job centres. In the late nineteenth century, hiring fairs were held in more than eighty towns in Ulster. Thousands of young people went looking for work, and this is one particular account of one man’s experience of the hiring fair.
What was a hiring fair?
‘On May 1, or ‘Mayday’, hiring fairs were held in local places, mine being in Cookstown. Farmers and others needing servants and works people (young people between 12 and 16 years of age) came to these fairs and bargains were struck between employers and workers performed services in a farmer’s home. Many worked as servants, others as ploughmen, potato diggers and harvesters. I was a jack of all trades in those days, and was hired at first to dig the potatoes, but I also learned how to do the milking very quickly.’
Where did you go to be ‘hired’?
‘There were large hiring fairs in two towns in East Tyrone; namely Cookstown and Dungannon. The Cookstown fair was the bigger of the two and I can remember an old rhyming poem that would have been recited on many’s an occasion. It went something along these lines:
I often heard of the hiring fair
On the street of Cookstown, I declare
‘Twas held on the 12 November and May
When young ones appeared to accept little pay.
The farmers came from far and near
To hire people for half a year
They gathered in the long main street
Viewing the young boys from head to feet
They stood with bundles near at hand
Getting ready to labour upon the land
They were only working for their ‘keep’
Sure it was in a loft they had to sleep.
The poor wee ‘crayturs’ with tears in their eyes
Stood close to their dads to say goodbye
With coats too big and heels worn down
They trampled for miles and miles out of town.
‘It wasn’t all that bad! Of course there were tough times, but in my own personal experience I was fairly well looked after by my masters and well enough paid (One pound for each month worked)’
How did you get hired?
‘All the boys and young men had means of identification. Sometimes people were identified by holding a stalk of corn, but usually I was recognizable by the bundles in which I carried my clothing and other personal effects. I remember that some of my friends brought tools with them, such as a scythe or a spade. The young girls, who were nearly always stood tremblin’ beside their mothers and fathers, would have normally worn a home made apron.
‘We would have assembled in James Street in Cookstown, which was memorable for its collection of oul’ characters. Even though I was only a cub at the time, the rhymes, jokes and general craic that the older men told me in the ‘long street’ made me prefer to go to Cookstown rather than Dungannon Square! I first attended a hiring fair when I was twelve years old, and it must be said that I was quite nervous at first. I was hired by a farmer by the name of John Donnelly from outside Castlederg, and I stayed with him from May to October. I stayed with John and his wife for three seasons on their farm.’
What was it like during a typical morning’s work?
‘At 6.30 every morning – with Sunday being no exception, the door of my sleeping quarters was given a good boot by Donnelly. At times I thought the door was going to come in. He growled at me in a voice that would have wakened the dead, “it’s time you were up – there’s plenty of work to be done today” was the usual order!
‘It didn’t take me long getting dressed as I had to sleep with most of my clothes on during the winter to shelter me from the wind whistling through the rafters. I would have normally had a big bowl of oaten porridge and a mug of tea for my breakfast. Then it was straight into the hard graft – milking the cows was the first chore of the day. I remember being handed a hurricane lamp with a cracked dirty globe; it would hardly have shown you the tail of the cow from its head. I had nine cows to milk by hand although I’ll admit some of them didn’t give very much. I had sit on a block of wood and milked into a two pint tin which I held between my knees. When it was full I emptied it into an enamel bucket. Some of the milk was brought into the house for general use and the rest was given to the calves.
‘After that demanding task, I had to help the boss with feeding the calves. Often the calf would ‘dunt’ the bucket with its head, and my poor ‘oul shin was peeled if not badly blackened. Still, you’d never complain about it! Most mornings by 10.30, Mrs. Donnelly would call us in for a mug of tay and a big thick slice of homemade wheaten bread covered with home made jam. In that sense I was well looked after! I could never complain about the way I was fed during my time with that family. John could be a bit gruff at times, but he was a hard worker and a decent man.’
Were there any jobs that you didn’t particularly appreciate?
‘Aye, there were plenty of those! I had to go to the field on the odd occasion and ‘sned’ the turnips ready for pulping in the evening. I wheeled the ‘box barrow’ down the clay field. If it went into a ‘slunk’ you were pushing and shoving like mad to get out. The big wooden handle of the knife was very sore on the hands. Many a ‘skelf’ you got in the hand, but you pulled it out with your teeth and went on ahead. When the barrow was full you had to wheel it back to the house. It was pure murder, and I hated that particular job.’
So, all things considered, was the work a good experience for you?
‘It certainly was, for it instilled me with great discipline, and I have a good work ethic to this day because of it. (Even though my agility and mobility aren’t what they used to be!) Put it like this, it was well worth it whenever you came home with a fiver in your fist at the end of five month’s graft! You felt like a millionaire even though I gave half of it to my ‘da.
‘I do have fond memories of my work with Mr and Mrs Donnelly in particular, the two years following this on another farm weren’t as pleasant. My one abiding memory of the first year on the farm was that it was a great summer in terms of the weather and that I was too busy to be homesick, although some nights at the start of the season I have to admit to crying into my blanket!’
By Cathal Coyle