The rise and fall of a country fair
Clough Fair was an important trading post from the 18th to mid 20th century. According to listings in Calendars of Fairs in Ireland, there were five Fairs held in the year. These were on February 8, May 27, August 5, Nov ember 8 and December 10.
Rev William Mayne, rector of Dunaghy, wrote in 1812, ‘At the May and November Fairs, which lasted formerly three days each, there was a great show of black cattle driven in from all quarters; large droves of bullocks from the counties of Fermanagh and Cavan and at the August Fairs, large flocks of sheep and lambs ...... For some years past a great show of ponies are driven from the Highlands of Scotland every fair-day.’
Other accounts record these ponies as coming by way of a ferry to Cushendun. James Boyle, in the OS Memoirs 1835, records, ‘from 200-300 head of black cattle, 120-150 highland ponies and horses and a considerable number of sheep are sold in each fair and many are brought up for exportation. Pigs are often brought from Connaught to these fairs. The tolls are 2d each for cows and horses and 1d for sheep and pigs.’
These tolls which amounted to 8 pounds annually, were collected by the Earl of Antrim’s agent at the entrance to the fair-hill. Local people can today still point out the fair-hill in the shadow of the ruins of Clough castle and the pound where straying cattle were confined with its famous well, which for many years was the village's only source of water.
As well as being a place for dealing in animals, the fair had an important social aspect. It was most likely that the Fair in February was a hiring fair. In the early 1800s , the local population had increased considerably. Not only were people weaving now, but many were employed in farming with potato and flax growing, not to mention the influx of families to De Laacherois Cromellins settlement at Newtowncrommelin just above Clough. The extensive mining operations in Glenravel also brought people from County Donegal and many other parts of Ireland.
Whilst fairs started off with trading, it is known that some fairs ended in drunkenness, disorder or even riot. There were three licensed premises in Clough at the height of the fairs and they undoubtedly did good business. When one of them was being advertised for sale, the fair dates were recorded in the advertisement.
In the 1920s and 1940s, a large enclosed yard at one of the hostelries (John Blair’s later owned by Mary McCrea) was used for holding animals bought in the fair. Another hostelry, that of William Getty, now Oldstone Manor Restaurant served as a billet for members of the Royal Irish Constabulary who stayed for the duration of the fair. It is said that a cellar in that Inn was used for detaining the troublesome and to this day, the building is sometimes referred to as the police station.
Robert Dunlop, who was born in Clough in 1825 and later joined the Royal Irish Constabulary wrote, ‘Clough, though a small village, was a very stirring place, especially at Fairs. I recollect that on one occasion a row took place on Fair evening in William Getty’s public house.
'The police, who were under the command of an officer named McDonagh, were called on to quell the row. The police proceeded to do so, but were turned on by the rioters and beaten severely, which so exasperated them that in self-defence, they laid about them with their carbines and I recollect well hearing one of them going about shouting to his comrades that he had lost his carbine, which had been wrenched out of his hand.
'One of the police was a mounted man who went by the name of Mad Jackson and in my minds eye I can see him still galloping about the street at a most furious rate, with his naked sword in his hand. He certainly did scatter the mob in all directions but, though they flew out of his way for safety behind the houses, they continued to fling stones at him from every available corner. No one was killed but a good many were more or less injured.
Mr McDonagh drew up his men, between the end of my father’s house and Widow McCleary’s and stood in front of them, with his hat off, imploring them to be steady, for they had loaded without orders and were furiously threatening what they would do. Having got them calmed down a little, he marched them out of the village to their quarters at Killydonnelly, below Springmount.’
As a boy in the late forties, I can remember the Fairs fading out. As well as respectable cattle dealers with names like Kearney and Doherty and stall holders like McKeown with his famous yellow-man, tramps, gypsies, tinkers, fortune-tellers and the infamous local characters always turned up for the Fair. With our farmyard just a stone’s throw from Clough more than one tramp would have spent the night.
The town of Ballymena grew, with the building of its market house and linen hall. King Charles I issued a grant of patent, enabling Adair and his successors to hold two fairs annually and a free market in the town every Saturday. With an improved road structure and new modes of transport, the Fairs at Clough and Crebilly lost much of their earlier importance.
About this time the great ideals of Horace Plunkett were beginning to take place. A dairy co-operative had got off the ground in Cloughmills (the second formed in Ulster) and with the Ministry of Food purchasing fat cattle during war-time and subsequent years, a grading centre was set there where cattle were weighed and graded.
The Fairs in Clough ended in the early 1950s. Tradition dies hard. I remember running out of primary school at the end of lessons to see only a few animals being herded at the roadside. There were a few farmers with long sticks talking to the highly respected stuttering John Doherty of Cloughmills and another man called a guinea hunter.
He seemed to be working for the dealer. I could see them clapping hands, counting out rolls of paper money and talking about a luck penny. Shouting started. It was an old man by the name of Keerns with a large blackthorn stick who shouted, sang and danced with some assistance from his wife in the middle of the village green. Sometimes they were in harmony, but they later started shouting insults at each other. I became frightened and made my way home through the fields, but not without having seen the last Clough Fair.