Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Fair Day in Boyle

 My memories of the cattle fairs in Boyle of the late 1940s and 1950s are timeless and special. There was one every month, some months had two and among them there were five monster ones: January, March, May, October and November. The big ones meant a day off school and needless to say they are the ones that remain alive and well in the memory. The sound of cattle moving through the streets began around 6am as they were being guided to the Fairgreen in Lowparks. When I think back to those ‘monster fairs’ they trigger in my mind a poem I learned in my schooldays all those years ago called ‘The Drover’ by the poet Padraig Colum. Could one ever forget his haunting description of “the crowds at the fair, the herds loosened and blind, the loud words and dark faces and the wild blood behind”, and then of course the farmer wielding his little cudgel of a stick over the heads of the cattle as he steered them carefully to the Fairgreen. If the morning was frosty, little puffs of hot breath welled up from a thousand nostrils as the cattle found their way in the grey light of early dawn. The same fairs were famous all across the midlands for the quality and the quantity of the cattle for sale.

Being a junior clerk at the railway station in the late-1950s, I remember well the names of the great buyers of the day as they called to the Goods Office to order whatever number of cattle wagons they’d require. They were the Larry Goodman’s of the time, dressed in fine Crombie coats, Donegal tweed caps and brown heavy leather boots; tycoons of the cattle trade from the four provinces. For me, one stood out both in stature and his exotic-sounding home address overlooking Dublin Bay – M.J. Towey, Sorrento Road, Dalkey. He was a big man with a voice that commanded attention, a powerful sense of presence, a rural bearing and a capacity to buy enormous numbers of cattle if the quality was to his liking. Other names still vivid in the memory are the Horgans, the Foleys, the Mullins, the Mollaghans, the Conon Brothers, the Sharkeys, the McGarrigles, the Cosgraves and Clarks; all of them the embodiment and beating heart of the big fair. When deals were done the cattle were herded through the town a second time, some of them to the Crescent to be loaded onto the waiting trucks, others to Military Road opposite the old Military Barracks (the King House today) where more trucks were lined up and the rest, the majority, were herded towards the railway station to be loaded onto wagons for their ultimate destination (i.e. Dublin). On one of those great fair days, thirty or maybe forty wagons could leave Boyle railway station, each one holding an average of ten cattle, amounting to three or four hundred. The train was given the grand title of ‘A Special’ and had clearance from Central Office in Dublin to arrive at a given time at North Wall for export to Great Britain.

The first stop on the return journey from the Fairgreen was Tom Wynne’s pub, the Central Bar at the bottom of Green Street. His was one of three bars to have an early morning license allowing him open at 7am. On a great October fair morning the bar became a hive of activity from the moment it opened its doors. The scent of hot whiskies and rums rose up from every nook and cranny of the bar while bottles of Guinness, Smithick’s Ale (unpasteurised) and Double Diamond lined the counter. Mugs of hot Bovril were in heavy demand and were served up with plates of ham and cheese sandwiches. A new brand of instant soup, with the romantic name of Maggi (Italian), had recently come on the market and was the current craze on a winter’s morning. It lacked the age old basics of onions, celery, barley and Oxo cubes but the fact that it could be served up in minutes transformed it into a miracle soup. Maggi was among the first of the package soups to appear on the shelves of the grocery shops and later when the supermarkets came on stream. The pint of Guinness came into its own in the afternoon and evening when deals were done, money had changed hands and the time had come to sit and relax.

As young lads enjoying a day off school some of us would stand in the vicinity of the Royal Hotel or on the river bridge to get a close-up of the action. Mindboggling could only describe the scene as the big buyer counted out £20, £50 and £100 notes to his farmer friend in payment. The mind of a young lad could easily slip into overdrive as he tried to work out the number of visits he could make to the Abbey Cinema ‘at sixpence a time’ if he owned just one of those colourful notes with Lady Lavery on the front. By mid-afternoon, the Crescent was a sea of cattle waiting to be loaded onto trucks, many of them standing quietly with their backs up against the front of private dwelling houses. This particular aspect of the fair was very contentious and caused many a headache for the residents living there. They had considerable difficulty getting in and out of their homes and there was the added problem of cow dung splattered on the walls and on the pathways outside; if the morning was wet it became a recipe for disaster as tempers reached boiling point, arguments raged and hall doors got slammed with a bang. Tradition spoke of the country town coming into existence wherever cattle fairs and markets were held and for that reason there was no law in place that could change that situation; the tradition of the fair was older than the town itself and therefore was untouchable!  Ironically, its demise happened almost overnight with the arrival of the cattle mart in the early-1960s. The Mart was a new concept in buying and selling cattle (an auction), and the farmer ultimately found it more convenient and was sure to get the best price on the day. The neighbouring towns were quick off the mark in setting up a Mart but Boyle still believed in the fair on the street and ended up with neither. It was stealth almost by night! The residents of the Crescent and its surrounds were more than happy but the shops, bars and restaurants saw it as a nail in the coffin for business. A good day’s trading could pay a half year’s rates on a business premises or some other household expense! A way of life known for centuries died without a whimper and no law could stop it.

The colourful side to the Big Fair

On those unforgettable days there were the street traders who added colour and spectacle. First there was the clothes stall erected on a covered-in trailer parked along the wall of the old hospital (the Plunkett Home today). Suits, coats, corduroy trousers of different colours and sizes hung on a rail the length of the trailer onto which the buyer had to climb by means of three steps to make a purchase. A curtain for privacy at one end didn’t always work and could lead to a character in the crowd calling for a speech or yelling ‘the wife won’t like it’ or ‘Up Dev’; all in a spirit of good humour. Down in the town centre, near the Market Yard, the ‘Bargain King’ from Bundoran had set up his stall. A natural born orator he could be heard above the din of conversation and the lowing of cattle. A crowd of people stood around his stall listening to his catchphrases and sharp wit. One could spend hours listening to this demagogue without ever becoming bored. In later years whenever I passed the statue of ‘Big Jim Larkin’ on his pedestal in Dublin’s O’Connell Street, I would immediately think of the ‘Bargain King’ on his soapbox at the bridge in Boyle, his head erect and his arms raised to heaven extolling the merits of some new kitchen utensil or labour-saving device guaranteed, he would say, to turn a kitchen chore into a moment of pleasure. Thus it was with this unforgettable ‘latter day prophet’.

Paddy McGovern, the market gardener from Drum, ran a vegetable stall on the corner of the river bridge opposite Coleman’s egg shop on a Saturday morning and on big fair days. He carried a range of fresh root vegetables that any modern day supermarket would be proud to carry and his sales motto simply read ‘cut fresh from the soil this morning’, and the clay would still be on many of them to prove it. A stall of particular interest on the big fair day was the one selling Dilisk, Corrigeen Moss, seaweed lettuce and a few other sea-related products. One of its attractions was the unique pungent smell of seaweed that surrounded it, an odour as powerful almost as the incense that surrounds a coffin at a funeral mass. Sometimes the vendor would offer a strip of Dilisk to some inquisitive young onlooker to taste but it rarely worked, the verdict being too salty? Not so for the farmer’s wife! Dilisk or Corrigeen Moss cooked in milk was known as an age-old cure for chest colds and many kinds of lung infections; tradition handed down suggested it could even be a defence against the dreaded Tuberculosis.

Stephen Maughan, the local (and mobile) fishmonger, rarely missed a big fair day. The man didn’t use a stall and nor did he need one. His was a heavy Raleigh bicycle with the rectangular steel framework in front that could carry his boxes of fresh herrings anywhere and it was from it he carried on his business. Stephen never liked anyone handling his fish and would react speedily: “Will you quit handling them ma’am, they’ll not come alive or grow any bigger,” he’d say. His humour was infectious, good-natured and usually brought a titter of laughter both from the accused and the other customers gathered round about. On a Friday, the day of abstinence, Stephen would set off on his bicycle in the early hours of the morning to travel the countryside selling his fresh herrings from door-to-door. He was a lovable character known far and wide for his simple good humour and light banter. To quote my mother-in-law, who was a rural lady, his rare appearance at her door was “like a breath of fresh air”.

Getting back to the fairs, the three-card-trick man had just arrived in town and was about to set up shop near the entrance to Frybrook House. Michael Morris, the well-known local barber who had the lease of the gatehouse as a hairdressing salon, saw in advance the potential danger that lay ahead for the man and ran forward to advise him not to set up shop anywhere near the entrance. Mr. Fry, the owner of the Manor, had been unable to drive his car in or out of his property over several successive fair days and had remained ever since in a state of high dudgeon. A man of volatile nature (if risen) he didn’t suffer fools lightly; there would be an explosion in verbal exchanges, sparks would fly and the three-card-trick man would undoubtedly come out on the wrong side of the law. The little man with the trilby hat got the message, thanked Mick the barber for his timely advice and went in search of another site.

Ned Kelly, the well loved local town crier, had a field day on a fair day. His repertoire consisted of three songs: ‘You are my Sunshine’, ‘A Bunch of Violets’ and ‘Dan O’Hara’. Ned himself flowed gently through the fair dressed in a Bloomsday waistcoat and bowler hat supplied courtesy of his great mentor and facilitator Jim Candon (of James Candon Limited), Ned’s raison d’etre. When he had sung himself dry, he revisited the proprietors of the many shops he had regaled along the way and to a man they showed their appreciation by making a jingle in the famous bowler hat. Many farmers who would have known Ned of old were happy to show their appreciation for a voice that was a base, a baritone and a tenor all rolled into one. Ned had been Boyle’s official town crier for over half a century and was reckoned to be the last surviving member of that august body when he retired. His famous bell made a dramatic appearance at a ‘Back to Boyle’ festival some years back and it was carried in a victory run around the town in memory of a golden era. A well known local councillor at the time proposed that Ned’s famous bell be donated to the National Museum and should be put on display alongside other famous artefacts like the Cross of Cong and the Ardagh Chalice.

The last of the many colourful characters likely to appear on a great fair day was Lucky Cody. The guy wore a sombrero hat, knee-high leather boots and set up shop near the entrance to Hans Lawn which is the riverside walk that leads to St. Patrick’s Well. His few accessories amounted to a fold-up table, a spin-the-wheel with numbers on it and an old Jacob’s biscuit tin filled with cloakroom tickets folded and ready for sale. The tickets cost three pence each and when Cody reckoned he had enough sold for a spin he called for silence. I was lucky once and won what would cover three visits to the Abbey Cinema for the Sunday matinee; unrestrained joy ensued. Another stroke of good fortune might come your way if you happened to be in the right place at the right time. A farmer and a colleague standing on the river bridge might fancy a drink in the Royal Hotel or the Italian Warehouse nearby but would need someone to “keep an eye on the few cattle” for the proverbial five minutes! Destiny had directed you to this spot and now you were employed to keep that watchful eye; you had suddenly become an integral part of the fair! The reward at the end was a sixpenny bit, more unrestrained joy!

A farmer rarely left town on a big fair day without indulging in a meal in a restaurant or what was then known as an eatery or eating house. They were located in different parts of the town to facilitate both the shop assistants round about as well as the many farmers who swarmed into town on that day. The same eateries had a reputation for serving up the best of food and each of them had its own clientele. Sad to say none of them survive today but they remain part of the history and the story of Boyle. There was Lynch’s Hotel (Brady’s Guesthouse) and McNamara’s on Main Street, Mrs. Toolan’s and Ml. Moran (the old Princess Hotel) on Green Street, the Royal Hotel on Bridge Street, Mrs. Divine on the Crescent and Mrs. Spellman in Elphin Street. As the smell of cooking rose up from these well known eateries, it reawakened an appetite that might have been lost or forgotten about in the heat of bargaining. A meal of Irish stew or bacon and cabbage was God’s very own special gift to the Irish nation and took precedence over all others. An ‘a la carte’ menu or wine list (if such existed then) would have been discarded as meaningless or a waste of time; quality and quantity was what mattered. In the homely surroundings of those eateries each farmer knew one another and conversations centred on the price of cattle and the future prospects for the trade.

By 7pm, the fair was well and truly over. The streets had fallen empty and strangely quiet, the last of the trucks had left town, the clothes stalls were folded up and gone, and the ‘Bargain King’ was only a memory. The shops had reaped a harvest and were looking forward to the next big fair. The residents of the Crescent were hosing down their walls and pathways, not bothering to wait for a council worker to carry out the chore the following day; time was of the essence in getting back to normality. The great fairs and the excitement they generated are gone forever as are the loud voices, the dark faces and the wild blood. A way of life known and loved by generations has become part of our history. To quote an old Irish patriot, ‘It’s with O’Leary in the grave’. All in the name of progress they say! Maybe, though one wonders at times?

Christy Wynne

1 comment:

  1. thank you once again christy for the memories.i remember the fair days very well as many the times i had to work my way through them on the way to school.