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The Ballinasloe October Fair of 1898

Ballinasloe History Online
 Damian Mac Con Uladh

As was common in 1898, references to the United Irishmen rebellion of 1798 was also to be found in the columns of the town's two newspapers in 1898 the Western Star (in its 52nd year) and the Western News (in its 21st year).

An advertisement placed by the 'Pioneer of the Cycle Trade in Ballinasloe' Michael Carr of Society Street was dominated by the headline "Remember '98". Bicycle adverts were plentiful and it must be kept in mind that these vehicles were still objects of wonder and prestige at the time. The 1890s were also dominated by the 'pill' craze and the curing qualities of the numerous medicines and creams advertised were no doubt greatly exaggerated. 'Vinolia' was advised for the skin, while 'Ellman's' was recommended against rheumatism, lumbago, sprains, bruises, cuts, and, last but not least sore throats. Even is the medical qualities were suspect, the placebo effect should not be underestimated!

Jewellery could be mail ordered from establishments like Benson's of London, and an average pocket watch cost 2 2s. In that same year, Thomas Greene of Society Street sold a pub to John Burke of the Harbour for 230 with a yearly rent of 50 (this was later McGrath's pub).

Ballinasloe seemed to be prospering in general but nevertheless poverty was still common and the Workhouse had 228 inhabitants that fair week, and the average cost of maintaining a 'pauper' was 3s 2d. Graffiti was even a problem back then and the "words and expressions of an indecent, blasphemous and witless nature [which had been in the course of the previous week been] carved, daubed and placarded all over the place" were condemned by the local newspapers. Meanwhile on Main Street, the 'Creagh' men were criticised for standing with their backs to the receivers in the Post Office whilst smoking pipes and gossiping. "The history of this fair is remarkable. It has trickled down through generation after generation, and still commands the admiration and approbation of the horse buyers from Austria and Russia equally with the bonamh purchaser from our smallest hamlet in the remotest part of this country" the editorial of the Western Star proudly proclaimed. Not to be outdone in lauding the importance of the fair, the Western News wrote that "the Ballinasloe October fair is known in the three continents". There was great excitement in the town in the run up to the event and the business people were gearing up for the most important few days in their calendars. Only two of the establishments advertised in 1898 are still is existence today - Wood's of Main Street, known as the 'One Price House' in those days and Finn's bar of River Street. Shop windows were filled and new entertainment technologies were offered to an eager public. Limelight shows were once again on show in Harper's Hall in Society St, and two films of a religious nature - the 'Lost Sheep' and the 'Good Shepherd' were that year's blockbusters.

The fair & prices:

Tuesday was the opening day and the Sheep fair took place as usual in Garbally Race Park. Beginning at 5am, the business of the day was well under way at 6am, and "all transactions were completed" by 11am. Quality was good, prices down slightly and the sellers were generally satisfied at the tone of demand, the Star reported. A Patrick Curley of Kiltormer sold 80 ewes for 38s and 70 wethers for 37s 6d. P. Hession of Ballinasloe sold 150 wethers for 42s. The following day saw further sheep sales down on the Fair Green and on the streets of the town.

The Horse fair took place on Thursday but due to dealings beginning on the Tuesday, "by Thursday anything any good had been disposed of by sale in the streets or yards", which was a negative development the Star believed and could "utterly ruin the horse section, which heretofore has been the chief characteristic of the Ballinasloe Fair". Quality was "well above average, especially in younger horses". A Major Balfe of Southpark, Castlerea certainly made his money that day and sold a hunter for the huge sum of 525. The French government also had representatives in Ballinasloe who "made purchases of a big number of rough animals at prices not exceeding 25".

Brown mares 150
Five year old golding 100
Five year old hunter 90
Two carriage horses 150
Four year old 30
Harness horse 26

Friday was cattle day and in contrast to the horse dealers, the cattle men were commended by the Western Star for their "approach to systematic time, and only a few sales, chiefly of Kerry cattle, were effected beforehand". Back then 100 "heavy beasts" sold at 13 10s each.

Saturday was, as today, Country Fair Day or the Poor Man's Fair. Everything and anything could be bought and sold on this day and match making was usually a feature of this day. Sample prices were as follows:

Ewe hoggets 32s to 38s
Foals 3 to 7
Lambs 24s to 28s
Heifers, bullocks 9 to 12
Fillies 7 to 10
Springers 10 to 14

Monday concluded Fair Week and was set aside for Show day, the 58th annual exhibition of the County Galway and Ballinasloe District Agricultural Society, whose secretary was then E. Rothwell. Total prize money that year for the agricultural, dairy, poultry, nitrate of soda, canine and baking categories "exceeded 200". 100 additional RIC men were drafted into the town for the fair and were stationed in the barracks on Society St (now Image). 'Bouncing cheques' were a danger then as now and two men who passed one with a value of 450 were apprehended and remanded in custody for trial at the Galway Quarter Sessions.

The following are the gap returns for that year:

  Sold Unsold Total
Sheep 32,004 2,612 34,616
2 year olds 3,092 468 3,560
Calves 98 64 162
Yearlings 357 106 463
Horses 713 470 1,083
Oxen 10,134 768 10,902

The fair merited excellent reviews in the papers, and the Western Star commended the "magnificent display of sheep", the "tremendous array of horses" and the "vast herds of cattle" all of which ensured that "no other fair from one end of Ireland to the other [...] can produce such a supply as Ballinasloe, [nor] exert the same magnetic influence".

  • 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 Star and the Western News, September and October 1898.

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