A Fair to Remember

Claire Simpson looks at how rural fairs have adapted over the years

Lines of fresh faced youngsters dying to be picked - no not the audition queue for The X Factor but an early 20th century hiring fair. However, country fairs have moved away from horse shows to African drumming over the past 100 years.

Ireland has a long-standing tradition of country fairs and agricultural shows stretching back more than 250 years. Hiring fairs, where young farm labourers and servant girls were selected for work, were common throughout the 19th and the early years of the 20th centuries.

The hiring fairs were a humiliating experience for many young workers. Labourers were forced to line up while farmers scrutinised them for their working potential. The fairs were normally held twice a year, once in spring and once in autumn, and usually coincided with the buying and selling of horses.

Bizarrely, inspecting workers teeth was a common practice, suggesting most farmers viewed their potential employees in much the same way as they saw their horses.

Most hiring fairs died out around the time of the First World War but hiring fairs in Letterkenny, Co Donegal, and Strabane, Co Tyrone, were still thriving in the 1940s.

In the latter half of the 20th century hiring fairs became more like agricultural shows, with displays of farm machinery, sheep shearing and cow judging. But fairs decreased in popularity until only a handful of them, including the Lammas Fair in Ballycastle, Co Antrim, and the Markethill Festival in Co Armagh, survived.

Over the past 30 years, most fairs have suffered from a less than flattering image. As the agricultural content of the fairs declined, many country fairs gained a reputation for tacky bric-a-brac stalls and dodgy merchandise. The elements which made the fairs unique were ignored as the Troubles became a more pressing concern.

But some country fairs are fighting back.

The Lammas Fair in Ballycastle, which is held on the last Monday and Tuesday in August, has shed its image of horse trading, dulse and yellow man to become one of the biggest music events on the north coast. Last year, Ballycastle Borough Council teamed up with JW Promotions to host an open-air concert featuring ex-Westlife singer Brian McFadden and 1980s Scottish chart-toppers The Proclaimers.

The Ballyclare Fair, which celebrates its 250th birthday this year, is hoping to emulate the Lammas Fairs success.

The Ballyclare May Fair has been held annually since 1756, when the Marquis of Donegal granted a deed for a horse and hiring fair to be held in the town. The fair was renowned in the 19th century as one of the most important horse fairs in Europe and many of the horses were bought for European cavalry regiments.

Horses are still bought and sold at the fair, and although it was suspended for several years during the worst years of the Troubles in the 1970s, it has blossomed in recent times.

This year the fair runs from from 20th to 27th May.

Tourism Officer Jim Edgar, said the fair attracted over 100 stalls every year.

We have everything from plant stalls, bric a brac, charities and churches to Pakistani stalls and yellow man, he grins.

Edgar, who also helps organise the fair, is proud of its unique history.

Ive heard that during the Napoleonic War, it was the biggest horse trading fair in Europe, he smiles.

The charter from the Marquis of Donegal is in the Public Records Office in Belfast.

Edgar wants the fair to reflect all communities in the Newtownabbey area and hopes new changes will rejuvenate its image for the 21st century.

We're still working on things for the anniversary, he laughs.

This coming year were trying to get some African drummers and were trying to get the Muslim and Asian communities in Newtownabbey more involved.

Edgar said he was keen that both of Northern Irelands oldest communities would not be overlooked

Were going to have lots of community events. Therell be everything from an Ulster Scots piping festival to Irish dancing, he smiled.

Weve broadened the fair to include a whole spectrum of Scots and Irish traditional music. We want the fair to have more of a cultural feel.

According to Edgar, the council wants the May fair to celebrate all that is good about the Newtownabbey.

The fair has changed for the better. We're trying to lift the quality of the stalls by introducing new things like craft stalls he enthused.

Were hoping to involve the whole theatre aspect and get children involved in community events and workshops so its more like a carnival.

Edgar agrees the agricultural elements in the fair have lessened but feels the fair has still remained true to its roots.

There isn't so much farming input now he admits.

But the Young Farmers' Clubs still get involved on Tuesdays during the fair. They have sheep shearing competitions in the Old Market Yard. And the horses are still paraded up and down the street on Tuesday during the fair week.

For more information on the Ballyclare May Fair, contact Newtownabbey Borough Council on +44 (0)28 9034 0000.