By 1899 Ballinasloe had lost almost a third of its population since 1829. Ballinasloe, remained however, a major market town. Despite the looming advent of a new century, the Western News and Western Star provided little or no evidence that this event excited the townspeople. Of course media hype and mass commercialisation were unknown terms and practices in the sober Victorian era.
The Town Commission, Ireland's first such local authority established in 1841, was upgraded to an Urban District Council, which met in those times on a weekly basis. The councillors organised a series of public meetings to investigate the feasibility of establishing a woollen mill in the town. It was hoped that this would help alleviate the crippling poverty in the town at the time.
The Boer War broke out earlier that year and in December the Western News reported that two Ballinasloe men serving with the Connacht Rangers, James Byrne and Frank Burke, were killed at Tugela.
In May Ballinasloe lost one of its most striking landmarks - temporarily. In the early hours of Ascension Thursday (12 May 1899) fire broke out in St John's Church, leaving a smouldering ruin by morning. At 12.30 am two RIC men noticed "a red glow in the windows under the turret, opposite Victoria Street [now Duggan Avenue]. A crowd quickly assembled but despite their best efforts "when daylight broke the place was completely destroyed". Interestingly the then church was erected in 1842 on the site of a previous structure, which had also been destroyed by fire. Contrary to current opinion, there was a clock in the church tower since 1879, erected by the 3rd earl of Clancarty at a cost of £800. The present clock was installed in 1900 during the rebuilding of St John's. Over the years it lost its reliability and was restored to perfect working order in 1999 and is now keeping perfect time.
The Fair and Prices:
The Western Star was confident of a successful fair. It believed that several factors would make it "more than ordinarily prosperous, including a magnificent summer, a splendid yield in crops, [and] the excellent condition of horses, sheep and kine".
The Sheep Fair took place in Garbally on the Tuesday and Wednesday. The first day of trading saw a slip in prices since the September fair, sales picked up and by noon practically all animals had been sold. The following day was not as successful: "there was a poor and spiritless demand, hoggets commanding better competition than ewes or wethers." Average prices 100 years ago ranged from 32s to 34s for wethers, 26s for lambs and 36 to 37s for ewes.
"Though Thursday was the day fixed in the almanacs for horse sales, the custom which has gradually crept in of anticipating the day fixed, was more apparent than ever this year" the Western Star complained. Most animals had already changed hands on Tuesday and Wednesday before the Horse fair had started proper. This early trading left only "haulage animals" on the Fair Green for those purchasers who stuck to tradition. "The opinion of the horse fair is that numbers appeared equal to last year, but exceptionally good quality did not". Superior and medium hunters got good prices as did colts "but those expecting high prices for animals suited to army work were disappointed, although the attendance of foreign and cross channel agents was as good as former years". The quartermasters of the major continental powers were in Ballinasloe for supplies. First class agricultural horses sold from between £20 to £55 pounds. A "ladies horse" sold for £125.
Friday was Cattle Fair and the proceedings were judged by the Western Star to have been as satisfactory as in the previous days. By afternoon everything had been sold and prices ranged from £3 to £4 for weaning calves, £5 for yearlings, £4 10s to £5 10s for Kerries and bullocks reached £9 10s.
Strangely neither the Western Star nor the Western News contained official gap returns for 1899. (The gaps were located on all the roads into town and tellers established the amount of animals sold or unsold). However the returns from 1898 give us some indication of the scale of the fair in the late 1890s.
Entertainment and amusements of offer included a "circus, menagerie, and a switch-back business", bazaars (one to aid the convent and the other to raise funds to rebuild St John's), and limelight views of a religious nature. The press reported that a gust of wind overturned one of the menagerie wagons containing the lions, tigers and bears. No, the town was not set upon by vicious man-eating beasts as the "hands" from Toft's put the carriage back on all fours.
Harpur's of Society Street would have been a must for the thousands of farmers who flocked to the town. In a large front-page advertisement, this establishment offered "ploughs, harrows, grubbers, seed savers, pulpers, chaff cutters, mowers and reapers, rakes, and tumblers". The Western Star also carried column inches of ads for pills and tablets for practically every sickness and ailment. Eade's had pills to combat gout and rheumatic pains. 'Homocea' was the best against influenza, chilblains, bruises, colds, piles, diarrhoea, burns and eczema. Judging by the sound of it this medicine would have been the best dose after a week long stay in Ballinasloe at the Great October Fair!