While the early origins of the fair are difficult to pinpoint owing to the lack of sources, various local newspapers dating from more recent times can provide us with an insight into what the Fair consisted of in previous years and can help us build up an image of what this town looked like and more importantly how it has changed over the decades.
This is the earliest newspaper record of the October fair that this author has come across and the paper concerned was the Western Argus and Ballinasloe Independent, a newspaper with O'Connellite connections and sympathies.
1828 was to prove a watershed in Ballinasloe's development as in that year on Monday, 29 September the Grand Canal extension finally reached the town. Ballinasloe now became an opening for markets further westwards and some major Dublin industries opened depots in the town to serve these, the most notable being Guinness. Ballinasloe was now the terminus of the Grand Canal and a James Tyrrell provided boat services to and from the town with six boats to Dublin weekly, two to Banagher and one to Athlone. Goods were plentiful and in supply if the newspaper adverts carries in the columns of the Western Argus are anything to go by. "Cheap Irish Cutlery, ivory, horn and bone knives and silver steel razors" could be bought at one establishment, while Downey's of Dublin moved temporarily into Kileen's store on Main Street and his trade centred around "cheap and genuine perfumery" and fancy goods in general. "Stays and corsets" were also popular back then.
Of course, 1828 was politically a significant time within Ireland. Daniel O'Connell was contesting the Clare election and his Catholic Association was active even during the fair that year and a 'Meeting of the Friends of Civil and Religious Liberty' [i.e. the Catholic Association] met at the chapel of Ballinasloe on 8 October, at which most of the speakers were Protestants in favour of emancipation. Quelle's shop "opposite the Market House" were selling O'Connell medals at 1shilling a piece, depicting O'Connell on one side and the inscription 'Erin ma Vorneen' on the other. Religious and political tension was high as the then Lord Clancarty was very intolerant of any beliefs other than the Anglican faith. As a sabbatarian and using his powers as 'Venerable Father in God Baron of the Fair' and he banned any fair activity from taking place on Sundays.
The Fair & Prices:
97,384 sheep were presented for sale at the Sheep fair, traditionally held on Monday, the first day of the fair. Sales were held in Clancarty's demesne at Garbally on what was then the Race Park. Before the commencement of proceedings that morning, the "lowering downcast looks" of the Connacht farmers "proclaimed the deepest apprehension" contrasted with the "quizzical glances of the sky-blue gentry from Leinster". By the evening 52,051 sheep had been sold, followed by 33,092 the following day totalling 85,143 sales, which was 10,000 up on the previous year the Western Argus reported. Sample prices for sheep in 1828 were as follows: a 'lot' of ewes £2 11s 3d, a 'lot' of wethers £2 7s.
Wednesday was the day of the Horse fair, and the Argus sadly did not cover this in great detail, possibly owing to the "dull" atmosphere and the "high" prices. Cattle sales also took place on the same day, and a disappointed reporter wrote that the quality was "middling", with few animals "of first quality". 7,707 horned cattle, 6,001 heifers and 130 calves were sold at the cattle fair of 1828.
Overall, the Argus was happy with that year's fair but was sad to see the crowds and business associated with the event leave the town. The paper commented that: "Ballinasloe has dwindled into its own unnatural, pitiful, pigmy consequence, a poor, oppressed, worried, persecuted, doctored village, without trade, commerce, manufacture, though eminently possessing natural qualifications for each," attributing this state of affairs to the divisive sectarian policies of Lord Clancarty.
Note: This is an edited and revised edition of an article that appeared in the 1998 October Fair and Festival booklet. All information and quotations are from the Western Argus and Ballinasloe Independent, September and October 1828.
- 1833 Fair (as described by Maria Edgeworth)
- c. 1843 Fair (as described by William Makepeace Thackeray)
- 1891 Fair (as experienced by Joseph Tatlow)