Hiring Fairs in Ulster

Helen Lewis discusses a time when the work boot was on the other foot

Today, ‘Working in Ireland’ fairs regularly tour cities like Glasgow, Budapest and Stockholm, selling Ireland as an attractive place to live and work. Yet only 60 years ago, hiring fairs were more likely to be found in towns throughout Ulster and mostly marketed children between the ages of 11 and 16.

The legacy of these hiring fairs can be felt today in the works of authors like Patrick McGill and Paddy Gallagher, in songs such as The Magherafelt May Fair and The Strabane Hiring Fair, and in the wake of the co-operative movement.

Between the 17th and 19th century, thousands of men and women were driven by hunger and poverty to move long distances within Ulster to work as gutters, horsemen, ploughmen, cattlemen, yardmen, milkers, herdsmen, marketmen, carters, housekeepers, cooks, turf-cutters, harvesters, reapers, labourers and tattie hokers (potato pickers). Desperate to reduce the number of mouths to feed and to pay the landlord’s rent, many parents also sent their children to work for distant farmers.

Hiring fairs emerged as a sort of outdoor job centre connecting these men, women and children to potential employers. At their peak, they took place in more than 80 towns across Ulster and were generally held twice a year in May - the beginning of the harvest season - and November – the beginning of preparation of the ground and planting. The largest of these fairs took place in the North West in Strabane, Derry and Letterkenny, with smaller fairs held in Limavady, Cookstown, Ballybofey and Omagh.

Rabble Days
Hiring fairs were widely known as ‘rabble days’ and were often chaotic events – especially when they took place alongside traditional fun fairs. Indeed, the song The Strabane Hiring Fair suggests how central entertainment was to the day:

Let lads and lasses all be true and listen to these couple of lines;
If you take a glass too long to last, you’re sure to miss your hiring time.

The Magherafelt May Fair also sings of a single Irish girl hoping to attract a husband at a hiring fair.

Amidst all this confusion, various signs and symbols were used to show availability for work. For example, men carried straws, sticks, tools or a bundle (often empty) under their arm, whilst women wore aprons and string bags.

Having identified potential employees, it was then common for employers to inspect workers to determine their strength and to check their teeth - an often humiliating experience, especially given some employers’ attitudes towards their employees:

‘Their appearance, too, caused us much mirth…the person’s ruddy complexion and callused hands, epitomised to us sophisticates the ‘culchie.’

Ultimately however, hiring fairs were buyers’ markets and the ill and the weak stood little chance of being employed.

Workers who did succeed in finding a position were generally hired for 6 months – or a ‘term’ as it was called. This saved employers having to pay weekly wages to employees during times when there was little farm work or labouring to be done.

Contracts between employer and employee were then sealed by the mutual slapping of palms – also a common practice when buying and selling livestock. As security, employees were often asked to leave a personal item with their new employer for collection on their first day; whilst employers were expected to provide their future employee with a small down payment.

The amount paid to these hired workers varied according to their location, the market prices farmers were receiving for their produce at the time, and the worker’s age, gender and abilities. Horsemen generally earned the top wage of £8-£12 per term, followed by cowmen earning between £7-£10 and labourers who received about £5-£7 per term.

Out of all these different types of worker, female employees undoubtedly had the greatest range of responsibilities including, for example, cooking, washing, cleaning, dealing with small livestock as well as working alongside men in the fields. Yet, women earned up to 50% less than men - about £3 per term and stood no real chance of promotion. Meanwhile children, who were generally put to tasks in and around the farmyard, for example, feeding animals, or collecting eggs, earned about £3 or £4 for 6 months of hard work.

Although this might seem like slave labour, hired workers did also receive their board and lodging, as well as occasional payments in kind such as clothes and cash advances for tobacco and church dues - ‘money for the priest.’ Moreover, as large farms often had permanent workers on staff, most hired workers were employed by small farmers who were often themselves scraping a living. Hired workers also benefited from the security of a 6 month contract whereas daily and weekly labourers (who earned higher wages) were often subject to layoffs.

The experiences men, women and children who undertook passed through hiring fairs varied considerably – as suggested by Patrick Gallagher in his description of his teenage years:

‘The following year I went to the Laggan and hired to another farmer for three pounds ten. He was a fairly good man. I was also hired near Doneyloop. The master I had there was a good man. The following years I spent in the Laggan until I reached the age of sixteen. I had some good places and some damned bad ones.’

Good workers, or those who had a good relationship with their employer, were often lucky enough to be re-hired. Otherwise, long working hours, under payment and physical and mental abuse were something of a lottery. The song, The Sale from County Louth offers the would-be hired worker some useful advice in this regard:

come all you young lads and young lassies, who hanker to work on the farm,
Now, be careful when choosing a master, it might serve for to keep youse from harm.

Nearly all workers however, experienced the psychological strain of living away from home and within the confines of their employer’s farm. This hit children particularly hard and meant that, as one girl hired through Strabane Fair remembers, the ‘journey back home was like heaven.’

Sectarianism may also have been a source of tension, as it was common for ‘Donegals’ to end up working in the more prosperous eastern areas of what is now Northern Ireland – and thus inevitably working for Protestant farmers and landowners. Certainly, many hired workers describe feeling obliged to hide their Gaelic identity and language.

The author Patrick McGill’s relentless criticism of exploitation of the Irish working classes can be traced back to his experiences of hiring fairs. Born near Glenties, McGill was sent to the hiring fair in Strabane, County Tyrone, when he was 12 years old. After working for a wealthy farmer, McGill moved to Scotland as a tattie hoker before gaining a job on the Caledonian Railway.

At the age of 21, he self-published his first volume of poetry Gleanings from a Navvy’s Scrapebook of which he sold more than 7,000 copies door to door. He subsequently published two more volumes of poetry before moving to London and completing various fictional accounts of the harsh life of Irish emigrant workers, including Children of the Dead and The Rat Pit.

While McGill went on to portray life in the trenches of World War One, he ultimately returned to his favoured theme of working class exploitation, and pronounced Strabane hiring fair, ‘the slave market of Tyrone.'

Another Donegal writer, Paddy ‘The Cope’ Gallagher, was also inspired by his experiences of hiring fairs. Born in Templecrone, Gallagher was hired out to a farmer through a hiring fair when he was just 10 years old. For the next 6 years he worked as a farm labourer in Donegal, before going to work as a ‘tattie hoker’ in Scotland.

Gallagher’s experience of long hours, poor accommodation and low pay encouraged him to found a co-operative movement to create employment in Donegal. His 1939 autobiography, My Story describes how Gallagher organised local knitting and fishing co-operatives, whereby people could trade produce for goods in their local cooperative store and to build up credit, and how he overcame fierce opposition in doing so.

Hiring fairs began to disappear as industrialisation drew farm workers to towns and cities, and as mechanisation on farms reduced the demand for manual labour. The introduction of benefits in the early 20th century also meant workers increasingly wanted to work and be paid on a weekly basis; whilst new legislation began to push youth into education rather than work. Yet, several hiring fairs survived in Letterkenny, County Donegal and Strabane, County Tyrone up until the 1940’s.

It is therefore no wonder that hiring fairs have left such a powerful cultural, social, economic and political legacy in Ireland. This is worth remembering, as Ireland experiences unprecedented levels of immigration. Whilst those hired to come and work in Ireland today will hopefully not face 19th century levels of exploitation and deprivation, they are likely to share the same sense of isolation and dislocation.
Supported by the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation