Fair Day

“Come on, Lads, get up. It’s half-four. It’ll be time to be off now when ye have a bite to ate.” I tried to open my eyes, wondering where I was and what was the story with half-four. “Time to be off!” Suddenly, it dawned on me; it was the second of May, Fair Day in the Town of Glan. I was out of bed like a shot out of a gun. Down to the kitchen. The fire was already a-glow, the kettle boiling on the crook. My father took down a piece of bacon that was hanging over the fire. It was very yellow on the outside and loaded with salt. But when he cut a slice off it, it was white as snow and red as blood. He continued to cut a few more slices; one each for my brother and myself and two for himself. The same with the eggs. My mother brought these in from a basin in the kitchen. “Get out there and wash your face and get your wellingtons on before your breakfast”, she ordered. While I was washing my face in the dim light that spilled over from the double-wick, paraffin-oil lamp, I could see it was pitch dark outside. I wanted to go to the “loo” but it would have to wait because at that hour of the morning the place would be crawling with ghosts and fairies, especially with it being May Day and everything.   But the sound of the bacon crackling on the hot pan over the bright red coals of fire and the smell that reached my nostrils from it – never better than when my mother cracked those eggs into the pan – soon caused all thoughts of spirits to evaporate; you couldn’t be worrying about fairies and eating your breakfast at the same time.             

“I’ll give ye a hand to turn them out on the road”, my mother said as each of us in turn picked up the ash plant already prepared for the occasion. My father went out first, dipping his finger in the holy water and touching his hat, my brother next. I could not reach the holy water font, but I felt a good sprinkle on the back of my neck. Looking back, I could see my mother blessing herself and saying a prayer. Outside, my father led the way carrying a bicycle flash-lamp fitted with a new battery. My mother brought up the rear carrying a storm-lamp as we made our way down the narrow boreen to the ‘léana‘ field by the river. Few words were spoken until we got to the gate. Then the instructions were dished out: “Bring the flash-lamp with ye and turn the cows into the other field and bring up the four cattle that are going to the fair”. I followed my brother down the field. I never realised the ground was so uneven. After picking myself up two or three times, I wanted to carry the flash-lamp but it was not on: we had a job to do and had to be quick about it. Besides, it was not as dark as it had been earlier, dawn was breaking. The sky was a funny colour, a sort of pinkie grey over the nearby eskers. Cattle were lowing in all directions, dogs barking and the sounds of distant voices filled the morning air. We were not alone in our mission. “Don’t let them break to the cows”, my mother said as she made her way back to the house. We followed the cattle down the narrow roadway with a sigh of relief now that we had them on the road. “Run and stand before them and stand at the bog road”. My brother responded. He being three years older than me, the instruction was directed at him. In across the fence he vanished and ran through the dew-laden grass. The cattle also responded to the sudden movement in the field, but my brother got out before them at the bog road. But our first real test came shortly after that. Four houses were in close proximity to each other, and each house had at least two dogs, each ready and waiting for a bit of excitement. A cat couldn’t move unknown to them, never mind four cattle and three people. They duly responded to the approaching cattle with a fierce attack of barking, chasing and biting, scattering the cattle in all directions. My father’s reaction was equally as wicked as that of the dogs. He responded with shouts of “Lie down” and “G’in to bed, ye fools” and flung a few stones in their general direction to encourage them to do as they were told.

We were about half a mile further on before all was back to normal. By then it was after six o’clock in the morning and bright enough to see the cattle on the road ahead. I had to pick up a steady trot to stay with the pace. In the distance ahead I could hear the sound of men shouting and roaring. It was obvious that there was a major panic on.  The morning air was filled with the sweet smell of tobacco which the neighbouring men had emitted from their smoking pipes. As we approached the “Lough”, the reason for the panic was plain to be seen: there was a bullock stuck in the “Lough”. He had gone in off the roadway, down the gravelly edge of the lake that had no protective fence. He swam okay until he came to a muddy patch where he got stuck fast in the mud. He was owned by one of the neighbours. “Why the …. didn’t you keep them moving faster?” said one of the men. “Never mind talking like that now and watch your language. I knew we should have turned back when we met that re-haired …. .” “But how in …. are we going to get him out?” While they pondered their predicament, a few more animals indicated that they too were about to go for a swim. So they decided to move the remaining cattle up the road away from the “Lough” and then see what could be done to get “your man” out of the water. We had not gone a hundred yards when the bullock made his way out of the water and followed us up the road, looking like a drowned rat.

We moved along at a steady pace being joined by other neighbours. To our left the morning sun was just appearing over the ridge of the eskers. Hazy clouds seemed to cover its face like a sheet. “Maybe, it won’t want to get up this morning,” I thought. But then it was Fair Morning. In the background a grey mist or fog shrouded the “Lough”, masking its deadly hazards. Ahead of us we could already hear the bustle of traffic on the main road. “Think will the day be fine?” one of the neighbours asked my father in a raised voice. It’s looking good anyway. Nothing as rotten as a wet morning at the fair.” By now we had joined the steady stream of traffic on the main road. A flock of sheep ahead had slowed down movement considerably. The cattle too had slowed down being more interested in eating grass that chasing all over the place. A horse and cart had caught up with us. The clanging sound of the iron wheels on the road, mingling with the sound of the horses’ hooves reminded me of bringing home the turf last summer.

“Almost there,” someone remarked as ahead we could see the clear line of the church. One final obstacle came into view as if to remind us that we could not relax yet. It was a big cattle lorry. Luckily, our cattle found a secure gateway to hide in until the danger had passed. A short distance ahead, the sound of breaking stakes told us that a neighbour’s animal had absconded. But we could not come to the rescue because “when your neighbour’s house is on fire you must take care of your own”. As we rounded the last turn, we could see that the entire town was packed to capacity. “There won’t be any room for us at the fair”, I thought. “Who is selling them four?” asked a man in a black coat with high, red, leather boots. “I am”, replied my father. “but I am selling them at the fair, not out the road”. He was a great believer in the ‘seanfhocal’: “Muna abhfuil agat ach pocaide gabhair, bí í lár an aonaigh leis”.  It was also supposed to be a good sign of the fair when buyers went out approach roads trying to buy animals on their way to the fair.

We edged our way forward until we found a spot at the centre of the town. To our right flocks of sheep stood behind railings, so tightly packed you could not fit another lamb among them. On the left-hand side of the street, a line of carts was backed up against the footpath, all painted the same colour, a bright red with blue creels. In the carts was a variety of animals: sheep, lambs, calves and bonhams, while an equally varied range of animals pulled the carts, horses, ponies, asses, jennets and mules. Right beside us a man was selling an old cow. Her most striking feature was her horns: they grew out from her head in a semi-circle. There was very little flesh on her bones: you could count her ribs one by one. Everywhere we looked there were cattle and people. The real action of the day was about to start. “What are you axin’ for the two big ones there, Boss?”, enquired a prospective buyer as he hit a blow of his stick on the back of one of the cattle. “The four are going together”, replied my father. The man moved on to the next bunch of cattle. A steady stream of buyers moved to and fro, each one trying to suss out his particular requirements. “How much for the bag of bones?”, asked one of them of the man beside us. “Thirty-five pounds,” was the reply. “What”, said the buyer, “she wasn’t worth that ten years ago. I’ll give you ten pounds, take it or leave it. If you took the handlebars off her, there’d be nothing left”. The owner of the cow got very insulted by the meagre offer and accompanying derogatory remarks and replied: “If you buy her, she will stay with you”. I learned afterwards that this remark contained a hidden innuendo directed at the buyer whose wife had walked out on him some months previously. “’twas hard enough to get rid of one auld cow”, he muttered as he moved away. My father smoked his pipe and talked to the man with the cow. “If I got twenty-five pounds for her I’d let her off”, he confided in my father. The front door of the pub across the street opened and the owner emerged all dress up like a man going to Mass. He spoke to several people, shook hands with others and his parting remarks to all of them was, “You’ll be in later”.

“Who owns them there, Sonny?”, asked a man in a brown shop-coat with a stick of red raddle protruding from his breast pocket. “That man there smoking the pipe”, I said, pointing to my father. “Will you buy the four?”, asked my father before the man spoke. “If the price is right”. “That’s the question! What’s right for you might not be right for me”. And so the haggling and bargaining started. “Thirty-five pounds each”. “I’ll give you twenty-five”. At this point the man with the cow intervened to help make the deal. “What’s between ye? Come on now and split the difference”, he said, taking my father’s hand and forcing them to slap hands. “Ye’ll not break my word”. “I’’ll have to get a pound apiece back for luck”. “You’ll get ten bob back and I’ll treat you ‘dasent’ out of it”, said my father. “That’ll do so”, said the buyer as he struck an almighty slap on my father’s hand. And then turning to the cattle he splattered soft ‘coc bó’, with his stick on the back of each animal. “Where’s there muck, there’s luck”, he explained. “I’ll see you down at the barracks at around 12 o’clock. I’ll pay you then”. The jobber went on his way to make the next purchase.“They are gone now and good luck to them”, my father said with a sigh of relief. And the pipe was taken out again. “Keep an eye on them there for a while. I’m going to look around the fair”, he said.

The hustle and bustle of the fair was in full swing: cows and cattle lowing in all directions, sheep bleating, with donkeys, horses and bonhams all adding to the noise level. A big cattle lorry slowly made its way through the masses of people and animals, making clear tracks on the street that was by now completely covered by soft ‘coc bó’. In the distance I could hear the clear voice of a woman singing. I was hoping she would make her way in my direction. Very soon she came into view. I could see that she was carrying a little box in one hand for a few ‘coppers’ and in the other she carried a bundle of ‘Ballads’, yellow and white. A little lad of about four years held on tightly to her skirt. As she passed by, I could see that she was heavily pregnant. The man next to me have her a ‘tanner’. She bowed her head in acknowledgment and went on her way singing, ‘She Moved Through the Fair’. My father soon returned and started talking to the man with the ‘auld cow’. By now a number of people, mostly women, were making their way to morning Mass trying to pick their steps. The priest also made his way towards the church and the men at the fair touched their hats as he passed. Two postmen appeared, each approaching his own house-holders. “Out of luck to day”, our postman said. “I’ll have something for you tomorrow, a grá”.

A small man with a round dirty tweed hat approached carrying a big basket and crying “apples, sweets and chocolates”. Looking into the basket put ‘dúil’ on me. My father winked at the little man and he, in turn, told us to take our pick from the basket. It was hard to decide between the sweets and chocolate, but in the end the chocolate won out. “We’ll put the cattle down in the yard across from the barracks until the jobber is ready to collect them”. “What a great idea!”, I thought. That way we would be free to go round the fair in comfort. “A ‘tanner’ a head”, the lad at the yard gate said. “You can leave them as long as you like”. My father gave him two bob for the four. He also gave us a half-crown each to go and get something to eat. “Don’t buy rubbish now. I’ll see you after an hour or two”.

As we made our way to the square, the people were on their way home from Mass. A man was leading through the town what looked like a wild horse with a blue ribbon attached to his bridle. “Keep back from the entire”, he shouted at us. At that moment the stallion reared up on his hind legs. Whining and dancing, he was led to the other end of the town. Ahead of us on the Kilkerrin Road, a line of ‘Jack-cheaps’ had taken up their spots. Some of them had stayed there all the previous night in order to get a prime location. Across the street a mobile butcher was about to open up. Beside him a ‘herring woman’ was already shouting ‘fresh herrings alive with their eyes open’. I looked into the box of fish and to my surprise their eyes were really open. The ‘delph-man’ was also busy setting out his wares; an array of sorted cups, saucers, plates, jugs, sugar bowls and ornaments of every description. The ‘bacon man’ too was already standing at his table loaded with pieces of bacon. Pigs’ heads could be seen in the back of the van along with a pile of ‘crubeens’. Everyone was waiting for the arrival of the real customer – the housewife – who no doubt would arrive in large numbers very shortly. A man with a big cart with lines of numbers on it was putting the cart onto the side of a van while a young lad was getting boxes of tickets ready. Further up the street a big stall was in full-swing selling everything for the farmer: tubs, troughs, ladders, wheel-barrows, gates and a wide variery of tools – spades, shovels, forks, to mention but a few.

Soon, the ass-and-carts started to appear carrying the housewives accompanied by a youngster or two sitting on a wide board placed across the middle of the cart. Every available parking space was quickly taken up. Asses were tied to gates, railings and poles. Some housewives made the trip on bicycle. Soon the entire street was black with people, everyone looking for a bargain. In a quiet corner between two houses, an oldish sort of man was surrounded by a group of people, mainly youngsters. He was rolling and unrolling a felt belt and inviting the people to find the fold or loop. Everyone seemed to be winning. Encouraged by this, one bystander was so convinced that he could win that he bet a ten-bob note. He lost and threatened to go for the Guards. Some lad behind me said, “Oh! Look at the black man”. Turning around, I saw the first black person that I had ever laid eyes on in my entire life. He was standing at the back of a big grey car. The boot of the car was open and inside were boxes containing little bottles and packets of tablets. The first thing I heard him say was: “I am a fully qualified doctor”. He was so black that I was almost afraid to look at him: his teeth were so white and noticeable and his thick black hair reminded me of a polish brush we had at home. The palms of his hands were a much lighter colour and I surmised that the black must have rubbed off them due to the fact that he was constantly rubbing his hands together. He named ten or fifteen diseases that could be cured by his bottles or tablets. “All you have to do is take two of these or two spoonfuls of this in a cup of milk or water, go to bed, and leave the rest to me”. One or two people approached him for a private consultation. He told them that he would be holding clinic in the local hall at three o’clock. I heard afterwards of a man with a dislocated hip who attended the clinic. The ‘doctor’ put the man lying on the floor on his side. Then he went up on the stage and jumped down on the man’s hip putting it back in place in the process.

As I made my way up the street past some more ’Jack-cheaps’, I could see a number of young girls holding summer dresses and so on up against themselves, wondering if they would fit them. Well, that was the last thing any ten-year-old would want to look at, especially on a Fair Day. In a big green van, the side of which was opened up, two men were busy making sandwiches and handing out mugs of tea. I would have loved a sandwich but there were far more exciting ways of spending my half-crown, like at the ‘Roll-a-Penny’ table. The woman at the table was giving thirteen pence change to the shilling. All you had to do, as she kept on saying, was: “Clear the lines to win; On the line the money is mine.” There was so much to be seen I was afraid I’d miss out on something happening. A man nearby had an old rug under his arm. He placed the rug on the ground, then got a box of broken glass and spread the broken glass around on the rug. He then took off his shoes and shirt. First he walked on the broken glass and then he lay down on it. A large group of people looked on. After he got up he went around with his hat collecting money. He then picked up the glass and the rug and moved on to a new location.

The sound of the Angelus bell told us it was twelve o’clock. “Dad will be looking for us to bring the cattle out of the yard”, my brother said. So, we made our way through the fair to where the cattle were being held. Close by, my father was waiting, so straight away we brought the cattle to where the jobber was collecting and paying for cattle. There was a number of people around him but soon it was our turn. My father handed him the ticket he had written out when he purchased the cattle and in return he paid my father for them. He had a big roll of notes in his hand. First, he handed over three big red twenty-pound notes, then he gave four blue ‘tenners’, followed by five brown ‘fivers’ and five green one-pound notes. As he counted the cash, he had a funny way of clicking the notes between his thumb and middle finger to ensure that only one note was being handed over at a time. My father then gave him back two of the pound notes for luck. He also he also put his hand in his trouser pocket and gave the jobber some silver and coppers to complete the ‘luck penny’. The jobber spat on this money and put it in a different pocket.

My mother had re-joined us by this time and was having one last look at the cattle. “They sold well”, she said to my father. “Well, the first thing we must do now is go and pay the rates”. Inside in a pub, where the rate collector was collecting the rates, was packed to the doors. The flag-stone was covered with fresh saw-dust which gave off a strong smell which mingled with the smell of tobacco and stale porter. There was a grocery at the right-hand side of the shop and a drapery shop on the left, but today it was primarily a pub. A large hook hung from every square inch of the ceiling. On these hooks hung kettles, saucepans, pots and pans. But the most thing that caught my eye was a bag of colourful balls of every size – wind and sponge with a few ‘slithers’ in there also. My mother sat in the ‘snug’ with a few other women. My father ordered a pint and a glass of porter and a bottle of lemonade while he was waiting his turn to pay the rates. The barman filled an enamel jug with porter from a wooden barrel that was up on a step inside the bar counter. From this jug he gradually filled the pint and the glass, going away to give it time to settle, coming back and combing the froth from the top until it was ready to be served. “How could anyone drink that stuff?” I asked myself. “It looks like water you had leather soaking in. Then again, it must be nice because everybody licked their lips and sucked their moustache after taking a drink”. “Bring that glass of porter into your mother, the lemonade is for yourself”, my father said. My brother had been sent home earlier to check the cows in case they broke out after the rest of the cattle were taken to the fair. Then my father picked up his pint and raised it to the other men around him and said: “Sláinte agus go mbeirimid beo ar an am seo arís”, to which they replied: “Sláinte and go gcuadfaidh Dia sibh”. Inside the ‘snug’ was as black as the ace of spades, especially when you came in from the light. Three or four other women were in there with my mother. Some had glasses of wine, others cups of tea. A large brown willow-pattern plate was left in the centre of a low table in the middle of the floor. A few biscuits remained on the plate. “Ah! How are you a mhac?” said one of the women, “Would you like a biscuit?” “Would I what!” I thought. “Ah! No thanks ma’am. I’m not hungry”, I said looking at my mother. “Take one and say thanks”, my mother said. I took a biscuit and was on my way back to the bar, leaving the women to talk in comfort.

When I got back to the bar, my father had gone over to the rate collector who was sitting behind a table on a corner of the bar. He was an oldish man with a bald head, glasses down on his nose and a cigarette in his mouth with the ash intact. In front of him he had a pile of books and letters. On a chair beside him was a large cask box with a brass key stuck in it. My father had a few words with him, paid the rates, got a receipt and returned to his drink on the bar counter. When a suitable opportunity arose, he called the shopkeeper to one side and said to him. “I want to straighten out that few pounds that’s in the book”. “I’ll see to it shortly”, the shopkeeper replied. “Sure you’re not going yet?” All around the conversation was about the fair, the prices and the animals. Terms used when speaking of cows were strippers, springers, milkers, yearlings, weanlings, sucks, bulls, bullocks, steers. Sheep were described as ewes, weathers, hoggets and rams. Horses too formed part of the conversation. The descriptions used included mares, garrens, fillies and foals. To me they were all either cattle, sheep or horses. A steady level of noise filled the entire bar. Now and again a loud burst of sound emanated from one particular individual sitting on a high stool in a corner at the end of the bar counter. He was constantly rearranging his hat which rested on top of his turnip-shaped head. Most people had their backs turned to him, and nobody seemed to be paying any attention to him. He was obviously very drunk.  “What is that man over there talking about? I asked my father, in response to which he whispered: “Ná bac leis. Nuair a bhíonn an t-ól istigh, bíonn an chiall amuigh”.

By this time my mother had come out of the ‘snug’ and was standing at the grocery counter doing her shopping. My father and I joined her. A bachelor in his mid-forties came up to talk to us. He lived with his elderly mother in the next village to us. He put his arms around my mother’s shoulders and said to my father: “How come you got a fine woman and I can’t get any sort?” My mother smiled but did not comment. My father said: “You must be too hard pleased”. “Do you hear him now?”, said the woman behind the counter. “Only last Sunday after Mass, there was a grand girl in her asking me if I had seen him lately, and I told her he would surely be in the Fair Day”. All of a sudden the man got very interested, enquiring who she was and what she looked like. “There you are now!”, said my father. “Maybe, we could arrange something between ye”. “Give us another drink there, Mrs”, said the man. Over the next few drinks, a lot of questions were asked and a lot of answers were given by all concerned. Eventually, it was decided that all interested parties would meet again in the same place on the next Fair Day. The man from the next village was so happy with what had transpired that he put his hand into his pocket and gave me two bob for myself.

Two strangers came into the bar from the street. One of them said to us as he passed by: “How come ye’re not out town? It’s getting very hot at the election speeches”. He then followed the other man to the bar, not waiting for a reply. “Election speeches gettin’ hot! More excitement!”, I thought. “Can I go out for a while?”, I asked. My father looked at my mother. No objection was forthcoming. “Don’t go near them and don’t get lost because we will soon be going home”, my mother said. As I approached the square, I could see a man standing up on a wooden porter barrel shouting at the top of his voice. He was only a small light frame of a man, in his late sixties I would say, but he had a powerful voice and could be heard all over the town. He was surrounded by a large number of supporters – men and women – some of whom were wearing large, heavy brownish medals attached to a short green, white and gold ribbon pinned to their lapels. The first thing I heard him telling the crowd was about fighting elections in 1919 when we were “all the one”. He told the crowd how he fought the “Black and Tans” almost single-handed. Then he proceeded to talk about 1922 and attacked the signing of the “Treaty”. Another large group of people had gathered across the street, again consisting of men and women. They were getting very restless and annoyed at the politician’s attack on their beliefs and convictions. Shouts and insults were hurled from each side of the street. The politician speaking from the barrel continued to attack the crowd across the street, calling them “The Surrender Party” and “The King’s Men” and alleging that they “sold out to the Crown”. He told his listeners how proud he was of the stance he himself had taken for Ireland’s sake. By this time the crowd across the street had moved out to the centre of the road and was in a much better position to retaliate. “The ‘Long Fellow’ will deal with ye”, came a shout from behind the speaker. “Like he dealt with the ‘Big Fellow’, I suppose came the reply. Shouts and cheers rose from both sides: “Up Dev”, “Up the Republic”, “Up the Free Beef”. When things quietened down a little, the speaker continued talking about fighting the ‘Civil War’ and ‘going on the run’.  “You’ll be going on the run again out of this town if you don’t shut up”, came a response from the middle of the road. The speaker was fast to reply: “Will someone give that man a ‘Union Jack’? It would look better on him than the ‘Blue Shirt’.”At this point things were really boiling over: pushing and jostling had started as the two sides got involved in a bit of a ‘free for all’. The speaker was not the least bit concerned with the commotion going on in front of him. Only when he was almost hit by some rotten fruit that had been discarded at the fruit stall earlier did he respond by saying: “I think we’ll have to call in the Free State Army to bring the lot of ye to Kilmainham”. “Or better still, deport us”, said a voice from the crowd. Two Gardai arrived on the scene and things quietened down, most of the crowd slipping back into the pubs and yards. The speaker soon finished up when the crowd scattered. But by gaining maximum publicity, he had achieved his mission. My father and two or three other men standing a bit away from the action also returned to the pub.

I joined a group of youngsters, some of whom I knew from school. They were playing games of ‘Tig’ and ‘Hide and Seek’. There were plenty of hiding places with all the vans, carts and lorries that were parked around the place. A water pistol ‘battle’ broke out between a few of the bigger ones. They had bought the water pistols at a stall earlier on. Everyone got a good ducking. One pretty, flaxen-haired girl of about fifteen crept up behind one of the big lads and gave him a good squirting on the back of the head. He in turn ran after her. She ran into a corner at the back of a big lorry. I ran after them to see the struggle. He caught her and took the water pistol from her – she handed it over without much of a struggle. He then gave her a drenching. Again to my amazement she did not cry out or scream or fight back; she just stood there and smiled back at him almost inviting him to continue. I felt sort of embarrassed and slipped back to the rest of the group.

We made our way back to the old weighing-scales area where a large group of tinkers had gathered, most of whom were very drunk. Some of them were drinking porter out of five-naggin bottles and others out of shiny tin saucepans.  The men were dressed in baggy clothes and had caps on their heads with the studs open. The women wrapped up in black or plaid shawls over colourful tartan skirts. On their feet they wore bootees or old wellingtons. While we could hear them talking, we could not understand a word they were saying: they had their own dialect and accent. A ‘scaoi’ of children ran around the place barefooted, some even minus their trousers. All the little boys had their hair cut real short but for bobs of hair at their foreheads. “What are ye looking at? Off with ye about yer business”, shouted one of the tinker men at us. “Scram! Scram”, yelled another. Three or four brightly painted tinker carts were close by, each containing its own load of stuff, either collected at the fair or stuff they failed to sell: tin cans, pictures, camphor balls and the likes.

There was no welcome for us around that area, so I returned to the pub where my father and mother were. I looked in the yard to see if our ass and cart were still there. They were still there. As I turned to go back down town for another while, I heard a voice calling me from the other end of the yard: “Come ‘ere a minute like a good ‘gasún’ and help me catch and tackle this auld devil of an ass”. I saw a fat old woman standing at a gate that led out to a small field at the back of a line of sheds. “He is up there in that corner and I can’t run after him”, she said handing me the halter. This was a job I was going to enjoy: tackling someone else’s ass for a change. I ran to the corner where the ass was. He was watching me like a hawk and as I came up close to him, he blew a puff of wind down his nostrils and cut off around the little field. The woman herself had come to assist with her ‘cámóg’ stick in one hand and the other outstretched. She was shouting at the ass, “Woe! Woe! Whee there!”. We managed to get him into a corner and I grabbed him by the neck and held on to him as he swung me around with his ears back and ‘back-lashing’, trying to get away. But I held on for dear life. “Try and get the halter on him, but mind would he bite you”. He had settled down but he wouldn’t open his mouth to let me put the bit in. Then the woman came to the rescue by putting her stick in at the side of his mouth and prising it open. With the halter now on, the rest should be plain sailing, or so I thought. We brought him down the yard to where the cart was left. The rest of the tacklings were in the cart. Next to go on was the collar. “Be sure to close the buckle tight in case it slips off”, the woman said handing me the hames. I then placed the straddle across his back with the strap under his belly. This he did not fancy because he responded with a wild kick at fresh air. But the most dangerous piece of tackling had still to go on: the britchel. This had to be put down over his rear end with the back strap under his tail. I managed to get it over his rear end without much difficulty, but not so with the strap under his tail: he kept pressure on his tail against me. I had to use my two hands to pull his tail over the strap while at the same time keeping well back from his hind legs. The woman let go his head to assist me, but as soon as she did he made a run for it. Fortunately, the main gate was closed. I ran after him. The fat woman started to run too. “Nuair is crua don chailleach caithfidh sí rith”, I thought. Anyway, we caught him at the gate and brought him back to put him under the cart. We raised up the cart, one of us at each shaft, while holding on to the reins. This ass never heard of reverse. If Hell had us, we couldn’t get him to back under the cart. All we could do was to pull the cart forward over his back, but of course he moved forward at the same time. However, he could not go very far because he was facing a wall. Eventually, we got him secured under the cart and tied the belly-band good and tight ready for the road. Just one final hurdle remained to be crossed, and that was to get the fat woman into the cart. She had already thought of a plan. First she checked her bags of shopping to make sure everything was in the cart. Then she said. “We’ll pull the cart over to that big open shed and I can get in there. Inside the shed there was a pile of two-hundred-weight canvas bags of special. They provided ideal facilities for the woman to get into the cart. We pulled the ass and cart alongside the bags. “Hold on to him there by the head until I get in”. She climbed up the bags and got into the cart. She then clicked open a black handbag that had two gold-coloured clasps keeping it shut and took out a brown pocket-book with two small gold-coloured studs to keep it shut. She shuffled through some loose change before eventually taking out a big half-crown. She looked closely at both sides of it and then handed it to me, saying: “’Tis happy for the mother that is rearing you. Now you can let go th’ass and open the big gate.” With a whack of her ‘cámóg’ on the ass’s back, she was on her way home. I looked at the half-crown twice just as the old woman had done. I couldn’t believe my eyes: a day’s wages – almost – just for tackling an ass.

I then returned to the bar where my father and mother were about to load up the shopping – some in bags, more in boxes left on the floor.“Bring out some of that stuff and put it in the cart”, my mother said. “I think that’s everything except the bag of flour. We’ll get that in the store outside.” My father picked up a box containing bottles of porter off the counter in order to have a bottle in the house in case anybody called. Everything was loaded up ready for off.  “Ye can get into the cart outside the town”, my father said. To the left and right of the street, the shop assistants and yard boys were busy cleaning up, bringing in protective railings and washing down the walls and windows before the ‘coc-bó’ could dry in and leave permanent stains. Most of the ‘Jack-cheaps’ and stalls had already closed up. “Would you be interested in two good barrow bonhams, cut and better, there Mrs?”, shouted a man that was loading a number of bonhams into the back of a small truck. You could hardly hear him with the squealing of the bonhams. “Not today. We’ll be selling a few pigs at the end of the month and we’ll see then”, was the reply.                                                             

And so we moved out of town and stopped to get into the cart. I had to sit down because my legs were killing me. My mother sat on the crossboard. My father sat at the front of the cart with his legs hanging out, almost hitting the ground. I sat on a bag of flour at the back of the cart looking back at the town. It looked so different from the morning, gone was the cloud of smoke that hung over the town. The streets now looked almost deserted. We made our way out home as fast as possible. The ass too, seemed to be anxious as to get away he broke into a trot going downhill. Soon we were off the main road, down Esker Road with grass growing inside the cart tracks. On our right stood the line of Eskers covered with furze and clumps of hazel bushes. On a clear patch of hill “Lazy Beds” were still visible since the famine. A sandpit visible from another point, sand martens had bored holes in a vein of soft rabbit sand in order to build their nests. They were shooting in and out with food for their young. Those hills held many secrets, fairy trees, ringforts, burial ground, Mass site and bonfire site at the summit. I thought to myself that it was a good job the cattle did not break in amongst those hills on the way to the fair.

To our left was the “Lough”. Gone was the blanket of fog that hung there in the morning. In its place swallows were skimming over the water, almost touching it at times, water hens bobbing and ducking in the water made their way to the protection of the reeds. Only some disturbed gravel and black mud marked the spot where the bullock had gone in earlier. The sun shone through the ash and beech trees that grew on the far side, casting a beautiful shimmer on the water as the breeze blew through them on a beautiful May evening. Flowers grew everywhere, even on the grassy patches in the middle of the “boreens” where “nóiníns” grew giving colour to the green carpet of grass. Flocks of lambs frolicked and skipped in the fields. The sound of a corncrake from a distant meadow and the cuckoo singing as she flew overhead told us it was their time of year. On we went over the narrow bridge that spanned a rippling stream. The may-fly danced in their millions over the crystal clear water that dashed them against big rocks at the edged of the banks, creating a white foam that floated away down stream. It was all familiar territory now, the worn pathway to the spring well where we got the water for the house and the “Judgement Stone” or “Cloch an Bhreithiúnais”, another sad reminder of difficult days in our history. As we climbed one of the many hills on the little road that led to our house I could see in the distance the old graveyard on the hillside with a Celtic Cross at its summit. I thought of the many people buried there and wondered had they gone to the fair like us in their day. Of course they had – weren’t my grandparents buried there and they were farmers too.

By now we were approaching the “baile” of houses. Again the dogs were on point duty, only this time their attacks went unheeded. When they found that the reaction to them was nil they very soon dropped their tails and returned to the security of their own doors. One housewife was out in the garden feeding the hens, another bringing in turf from a reek at the back of the house. On the window sill of another a freshly baked, large soda-cake was cooling for the lunch. Leaning out over the half-door, an old man was enquiring, “How did ye get on? Did ye sell? Was it a good fair?” and  hardly waiting for the answers to the individual questions. My father pulled up the ass, got out of the cart, came round to the back, reached into a box of bottles and took out two. He then took the corks off them with a pen-knife and handed a bottle to the old man. Then sitting on a low white wall that surrounded the little thatched house, they started to talk about the day’s happenings. “I’ll be going home and putting on the kettle”, my mother said, as my father recounted to the old man how we sold the cattle, paid the rates, fought the “Civil War” all over again, had a few pints and fixed up a woman for “Patrick James”.  “All in the one day!”, exclaimed the old man in amazement. “Ah! Yes”, said my father, “But today! Today is Fair Day!”.

 Author : John Donlon

Source : “Absorbing Ireland”. Edited by John Malachy Raftery 1998