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Open Features: Fair Day

...Fair Day brought a great buzz to the village. From early on the streets would be a mass of people and livestock and by midday the buying and selling would have reached fever pitch. I always enjoyed the spectacle of two men haggling over the sale of one or more animals. There would first be the asking price, answered by a pretended look of disbelief on the face of the prospective buyer who would then quote a price lower than that asked...

That wonderfully evocative writer Alan McConnell conjures up mental pictures of Fair Days in the Ireland of yesteryear.

By the early sixties the market fairs in Ireland were in swan song mode. Their death knell was sounded by the advent of Livestock Marts. Previous to this, however, one of the highlights of the month in many villages throughout Ireland was the monthly Fair Day.

I must explain that in Ireland the word “fair” in this context meant a market for the buying and selling of farm animals. Most villages of any size had a fair and each had its own particular day of the week on which this event was held. We children were fortunate that the date of the fair in our nearest village fell on a Saturday and we were able to get the full day’s enjoyment from it. In some other villages the fair was held on a weekday and by the time school was let out the fair was on its last legs and most of excitement of the day had gone.

Of course our parents regarded the fair as a place where the business of buying and selling livestock and farm produce as well as the more routine type of shopping took precedence over any thought of its entertainment value.

Fair Day brought a great buzz to the village. From early on the streets would be a mass of people and livestock and by midday the buying and selling would have reached fever pitch. I always enjoyed the spectacle of two men haggling over the sale of one or more animals. There would first be the asking price, answered by a pretended look of disbelief on the face of the prospective buyer who would then quote a price lower than that asked.

This was the commencement of a process of bargaining with the ritual of one or other of the hagglers walking away only to be brought back by a middleman who would appeal to either man to reconsider. Typically the conversation would proceed on the following lines, “Listen, John. Ye’ll not miss the baste for the sake of a pound.” He grabs the apparently reluctant John by the arm and pulls him back to face Peter, the prospective seller of the animal in question. “Here, Peter you don’t want to be driving the animal back home without a sale. I’ll tell you what boys. Why not split the difference for the sake of lock of shillins. Settle for ten bob. Fairs fair now.”

It’s Peter’s turn now to put on a show of reluctance but only for a moment or so. Then, “All right now, John, it’s a deal and here’s my hand on it. Hands are slapped to seal the deal and each party tries to hide his satisfaction with the way things have gone. Now it is time to adjourn to the nearest pub for a goodwill pint of porter or two. The middleman, of course, ends up sharing in the liquid refreshment.

The pubs made a lot of money on these fair days. Indeed, profits made on fair days helped sustain them in lean times throughout the year. Unfortunately, the old adage,
“When drink’s in wit’s out,” was adequately proved on all too many occasions on fair days. Disputes could all too easily arise when someone who was set on purchasing a particular beast found himself out bidden and the ensuing rankled feelings were stoked higher after a few bottles of stout. The result of these inflamed feelings meant trouble if the disgruntled one came across the rival bidder. Confrontations such as this, of course, were thoroughly enjoyed by us children, bloodthirsty little beasts that we were! Fortunately, no great physical damage ensued to either protagonist as there were always friends or neighbours of either ready to intervene before too much damage was done.

Dealers travelled from one fair to the next always on the lookout for likely bargains that they could sell on at a nice profit. They became familiar figures to us although we seldom knew their names or where they came from. For some reason they favoured stout brown boots, an item of footwear never adopted by farmers who invariably preferred wellies or black hobnailed boots.

There were always some horses for sale on these occasions. This is not surprising seeing that at that time most of the work in the fields depended upon the horse. We derived great entertainment watching the seller trotting the animal back and forward along the street under the watchful gaze of the would-be purchaser. The bidding process followed the pattern of the cattle buyers and sellers.

However, a good number of people frequenting the fairs steered clear of the agricultural activities. Their main preoccupation was with the vendors who set up stalls in the village square. Like the cattle dealers these entrepreneurs travelled from fair to fair selling their wares. Those selling second hand clothes did a good trade as did the stalls selling small fancy items – alarm clocks, cheap wristwatches, penknives, pencil cases, school jotters, writing pads, envelopes. Anything indeed that might be required in the home.

On a lighter side there were the entertainers who performed within a circle of enthusiastic spectators but, alas, when it came time to pass around the hat the enthusiasm did not always translate into copper or silver!

There was always the chance of making a few pence by rolling pennies on a large oilcloth covered board laid out in squares bearing numbers from 1 to 10. If your penny landed within one of these you were paid the number of pennies depicted on the square. It looked easy enough but the number of winners was remarkably small and proved the old gamblers’ saying that the house always wins. Nevertheless, there was never any shortage of those willing to venture their coin. I can still remember the showman’s cry, “On the line the money’s mine. On the square all’s fair.”

With so many people in town there was another moneymaking enterprise in which some of the villagers indulged. This was the setting up of what became known as eating-houses. Simply put it meant that anyone with a reasonably sized front room could enter into the restaurant business for the day and serve meals to all and sundry. As a rule the meals consisted of meat, potatoes and a couple of vegetables with the inevitable splash of gravy. Their quality depended upon the ability of the cook and those who produced the most appetizing fare quickly became known and had their regular customers from one month to the next. Price, of course, entered into the equation and in the long run you got what you paid for.

Those were spacious, leisurely days now but a memory those of an aging segment of the population who in mind’s eye tend more and more to wander lonely through scenes of their childhood.

**

For more of Alan's articles about Ireland as it was in his younger days please do click on
http://www.openwriting.com/cgi-bin/mt-search.cgi?IncludeBlogs=1&search=ALAN+MCCONNELL


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