Saturday, 17 September 2016

Memories of ‘The Truce' Harvest Fair in Ballyshannon 1921

Date for your diary Friday November 4th in Imperial Hotel Ballyshannon

“Local Memories of World War One and the Battle of the Somme” An illustrated talk by Anthony Begley, local historian, will reveal new research on how Ballyshannon people were involved in the War. The talk will include letters, correspondence, songs, images and poetry from  local participants in World War One. This talk is in memory of Kathleen and Louis Emerson, of County Donegal Historical Society,

  Memories of the 'Truce' Harvest Fair in                         Ballyshannon                                                                         

Soldiers and Civilians on the bridge at Ballyshannon

For hundreds of years the Harvest Fair in Ballyshannon has been the major social gathering where town and country came together; to barter and to buy, to meet and to greet. People from Fermanagh, Leitrim , Sligo and Donegal travelled to what was a much talked about event. Cattle dealers from various parts of Ireland assembled at the Fair Green and the mixture of western and northern accents, together with the roars of the livestock, created an unforgettable atmosphere. Horses were trotted along the road from Bishop Street to Bachelor’s Walk; and the Pig Market (now a car park opposite the Abbey Centre) was a scene of hustle and bustle. Canvas stalls in the Diamond sold hardware, farm implements, footware and all the requirements of the housewife. The Cheap Jacks sold their second-hand clothes to an appreciative audience who were also entertained by the quack doctors who could cure all known ailments with their special mixtures. Many romances for young people started at the fair often in the Market Yard where the swing-boats and the bumping cars were in full swing. Ballyshannon had plenty of eating houses in the great days of the Harvest Fair. The Harvest Fair was where town met country and great dealing and shopping kept the local economy going. Ballad singers were a regular feature of the early fair and their popular ballads were sold on sheets of paper, as people learned the words of the new songs. In modern times people remember “The Bargain King” with his great wit and quick one liners who entertained large crowds for hours as he encouraged them to buy his goods.

In the Fair Green in bygone days, drinking booths were set up; peep shows, penny theatres, shooting galleries, wheels of fortune and merry-go-rounds, all catered for the amusement of both town and country people. Before the introduction of steam, the local fair was the sole market to which the farmer had access for his cattle, horses, sheep and pigs. With the introduction of steam railways, animals were shipped to Scotland and England where there was a ready market in the industrial town and cities. Before the steam age, towns like Ballyshannon were self contained with their own trades and crafts produced to supply most local needs - distillers, brewers, hatters, glove makers, salt makers, shoemakers etc.The age of steam brought progress but also competition to many local crafts, not all of which, could compete with manufactured goods. 

The Truce Harvest Fair in Ballyshannon 1921

The Truce between the British and Irish  in the War of Independence ( 1919-1921) was agreed for the 11th July, 1921, and  a few days later talks began in London. Despite all these high powered meetings, events like the Harvest Fair in Ballyshannon  continued to be held. Yet thoughts of  the talks in London were not far from the mind of those attending the Fair. The Harvest Fair on the 16th  September 1921 was called The Truce Harvest Fair by the local newspaper which reported on a tradition that united town and country at harvest time.The hustle and bustle of dealers and farmers, buying and selling cattle and horses in the area surrounding the Fair Green, was matched by the business conducted at the stalls in the  town and in the Market Yard. In 1921 the buying and selling of cattle was only fair, with a good show of horses although prices were back a bit from previous years.  In the centre of town clothes stalls, hardware and agricultural goods were sold by quick-witted salesmen whilst the gambling fraternity parted with their hard-earned money at gambling tables. Strong men who challenged all comers, men tied up in chains who miraculously freed themselves and fortune tellers who predicted bright futures all had their supporters.

“The basket-bearing goodwives slowly move,
White-capt, with colour’d kerchief tied above,
On foot, or in the cart-front placed on high
To jolt along in lumbering luxury;
Men, women, pigs, cows, sheep and horses tend
One way, and to the Harvest Fair they wend.”
William Allingham

“Kevin Barry” and “Johnston’s Motor Car” popular songs at Ballyshannon Fair

The Truce Harvest Fair of 1921 saw huge crowds in town and the occasion was blessed with brilliant sunshine. Many people dressed in their Sunday best and were proud to boast that they had never missed a fair. Cantmen carried on their sales pitch with their glib and humorous repartee. However the ballad singers stole the show, with the most popular ballad being that to the dead boy- patriot, ‘Kevin Barry’. The ballad singers were heard through the town and had many customers for their ballad sheets. Another popular ballad which people purchased on the day was the topical ‘Johnston’s Motor Car’.

The young ladies of the St. Vincent De Paul sold flags with all the proceeds going to charity. One thing missing from the Harvest Fair of 1921 was the hobby horses which in former years had been a meeting place for the young and not so young. Nevertheless the young people carried on the age old custom of courting down the Mall and in other areas of the town. The older people headed home but many younger people travelled to Bundoran where the Bundoran battalion of the I.R.A. held a céilidh. Unfortunately others took too much drink and fought over political arguments or indeed just to show their personal bravado.

Breakdown of Talks between DeValera and Lloyd George discussed at the Harvest Fair

The 1921 fair was an improvement on the previous year which had witnessed curfews with a general unease due to the ongoing War of Independence. With the truce agreed between the English and the Irish Republican Army, people had a new sense of optimism. However the midday newspaper had a disturbing headline: “A Sensation-the Conference Off”.  People at the Harvest Fair debated the breakdown in the talks between De Valera and Lloyd George and speculated on what the future might hold. Yet amidst all the political talk the Harvest Fair had been a joyous event and despite national difficulties was to be an important social occasion for the community for generations to come.
The truce in the War of Independence meant that hostilities ceased and in a curious juxtaposition the local battalion of the Irish Republican Army were based at the Workhouse on the Rock, within sight of the  British army barracks  at the top of the steps on East Rock. In October 1921 a company of the Second  Battalion, 4th Brigade, Northern Division of the IRA, occupied part of the workhouse in Ballyshannon as a temporary training camp. They paid one shilling per week rent and a condition of their tenure there was, that they did not interfere with the routine of the inmates.They also had to provide their own fuel and food.

So life went on and so did Ballyshannon Harvest Fair as the following verse from Fermanagh indicated:

It was down near Tullygannon and some miles from Ballyshannon,
When I was young and merry, light in spirit I declare.
There I met a colleen comely, she had winsome ways and homely,
                                                        She was driving in her donkey cart to Ballyshannon Fair.

A local history blog called Ballyshannon Musings has many local history memories which can be read on the internet at See archive at the side of this blog.

Local History book available in Local Shops or for Postal Delivery

"Ballyshannon Genealogy and History" available tp purchase in The Novel Idea, Ballyshannon Museum, O'Neills, Clearys and Local Hands in Ballyshannon. Available also in Four Master's Bookshop in Donegal Town. For postal details contact

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