Fifty Years of Railway Life in England, Scotland and Ireland
by Joseph Tatlow
[Joseph Tatlow was Director of the Midland Great Western Railway of Ireland and the Dublin and Kingstown Railway. Along with the management of the railway company, he visited Ballinasloe during October Fair Week In 1891. In this extract from his book, published in 1920 by The Railway Gazette, Queens Anne's Chambers, Westminster, London SW1, he records his impressions of the town and the fair).
Chapter XXI — Ballinasloe Fair (...)
A few days before the battle of Waterloo, during the journey to Brussels, partly by canal and partly by road, of Amelia and her party, Mrs. Major O'Dowd said to Jos Sedley: "Talk about kenal boats, my dear! Ye should see the kenal boats between Dublin and Ballinasloe. It's there the rapid travelling is; and the beautiful cattle." "The rapid travelling" was by what was called the fly boat, which was towed by three horses at a jog trot, and as to cattle, the good-humoured eccentric lady, who Thackeray tells us came from County Kildare, was thinking perhaps of the great Ballinasloe Fair where cattle and sheep assemble in greater numbers, I believe, than at any other live stock fair in the United Kingdom.
On the first Monday in October, 1891, to a special train of empty carriages run by the Midland from Dublin for the purposes of this fair, a vehicle, called the directors' saloon was attached, and in it the chairman of the company, most of the directors and the principal officers travelled to Ballinasloe, there to remain until the conclusion of the fair at the end of the week. It was my first introduction to Ballinasloe.
This saloon merits a word or two. It was built in the year 1844, was originally the property of William Dargan, the well-known contractor and the promoter of the Dublin Exhibition of 1853, whose statue adorns the grounds that front the Irish National Gallery. Dargan made the Midland railway from Athlone to Galway, completed the work before the specified contract time (in itself a matter worthy of note), and on its completion in 1851, presented this saloon carriage to the company, which also, I think, deserves to be recorded. Thus, in 1891, it was nearly 50 years' old and was handsome still. The panels were modelled on the old stage coach design, and a great bow window adorned each end. In the seventies and eighties it enjoyed the distinction of being the favourite carriage, on the Midland, of the Empress of Austria in her hunting days in Meath. This fine old carriage, now in its 75th year, does good work still. It has had a new under frame, its roof has been raised, and it looks good for another quarter of a century. Perhaps, granting an originally sound constitution, its longevity is largely due to the regular life it has led, never having been overworked, and having enjoyed many periods of rest.
Ballinasloe fair has two specially big days—Tuesday and Friday—the former devoted to the sale of sheep and the latter to cattle, though in fact its commerce in cattle, sheep, horses, pigs, calves, rams and goats, not to mention donkeys and mules, goes on more or less briskly throughout the whole week, Saturday being remnant day when jobbers pick up bargains. In 1891 the fair was not, and is not now, what it once was, which recalls the answer a witty editor of Punch once made to a friend. Said the said friend: "My dear fellow, Punch is not so good as it used to be." "No, it never was," came the quick rejoinder. But of Ballinasloe fair I cannot say it never was, for a hundred years ago, in Peggy O'Dowd's time, in the west of Ireland it was the great event of the year, not only for the sale of flocks and herds, but also for social gatherings, fun and frolic, so at least I am told by the oldest inhabitant. An older account still, says these fairs were a time for games and races, pleasure and amusement, and eating and feasting, whilst another record describes them as places "where there were food and precious raiment, downs and quilts, ale and flesh meat, chessmen and chess boards, horses and chariots, greyhounds, and playthings besides." It is curious that dancing is not mentioned, but dancing in the olden days in Ireland was not, I believe, much indulged in. Eighty years ago over 80,000 sheep entered the fair, and 20,000 cattle.
Arrived at Ballinasloe we established ourselves in quarters that were part of the original station premises. These consisted of a good sized dining-room, six bedrooms, and an office for the manager and his clerk. The walls and ceilings of the rooms were sheeted with pitch pine and varnished. They were very plainly furnished, the only thing in the way of decoration being a production in watercolour representing a fair green crowded with herds of cattle and flocks of sheep, and adorned with sundry pastoral and agricultural emblems, from the brush of my friend Cynicus. This I framed and hung in the dining-room. As it had columns for recording statistics of the fair for a period of years, it was instructive as well as ornamental. Three of the bedrooms were on the ground floor and were small apartments. The upstair rooms were much larger, were situated in the roof, and were lit by skylight windows which commanded a limited view of the firmament above but none whatever of the green earth below. These upper rooms were reached by an almost perpendicular staircase surmounted by a trap door, a mode of access convenient enough for the young and active, but not suitable for those of us who had passed their meridian. Two of these rooms were double-bedded and all three led into each other. In the innermost, Atock, our locomotive engineer, and I chummed together. He had slept there for many years, with two previous managers, and, in Robinson Crusoe fashion, had recorded the years by notches in a beam of the ceiling. The notches for him then counted twenty-three years, and number one he notched for me. Every morning an old jackdaw perched on a chimney outside our skylight, and entertained us with his chatter. Atock said the old bird had perched there during all his time; and as long as I visited Ballinasloe—a period of nearly twenty years, he regularly reappeared.
To be able once a year to entertain friends and customers of the company was one of the reasons, probably the main reason, why the directors passed the fair week at Ballinasloe. Their hospitality was not limited to invitations to dinner, for guests were welcomed, without special invitation, to breakfast and lunch and light refreshments during the day. It was an arrangement which gave pleasure to both hosts and guests, and was not without advantage to the company. A good dinner solves many a difficulty, whilst the post-prandial cigar and a glass of grog, like faith, removes mountains. One who, in the last century, became a great English statesman (Lord John Russell) when twenty years of age was in Spain. The Duc d'Infantado was President of the Spanish Ministry at the time. The Duke of Wellington was there too, and great banquets were being given. The Duc had more than once visited Lord John's home and enjoyed its hospitality, but he neglected to invite Lord John to any of his banquets; and this is the cutting comment which the youthful future statesman recorded in his diary: "The Infantado, notwithstanding the champagne and burgundy he got at Woburn, has not asked me. Shabby fellow! It is clear he is unfit for the government of a great kingdom."
In the creature comforts provided at Ballinasloe the working staff was not forgotten. Adjacent to the station was a large room in which meals were provided for the men, and another large room was furnished as a dormitory. Two long sleeping carriages had also been built for the accommodation of drivers, guards and firemen, which were used also for other fairs as well as that of Ballinasloe.
Ballinasloe was new to me, and I felt not a little anxious concerning the working of the fair traffic, which I knew was no child's play, and which I was told was often attended with serious delays. Early on Tuesday morning I was awakened, long before daylight, by the whistling of engines, the shunting of wagons and the shouting of men. My friend Atock and I rose early, went along to the loading banks where we found the work in full swing and one special train loaded with sheep ready to start. The entraining of sheep, not so difficult or so noisy a business as the loading of cattle, is attended with much less beating of the animals and with fewer curses; but there was noise enough, and I can, in fancy, hear it ringing in my ears now. Throughout the day I was besieged by grumbling and discontented customers: want of wagons, unfair distribution, favouritism, delays, were the burden of their complaints, and I had to admit that in the working of the Ballinasloe fair traffic all was not perfect. The rolling stock was insufficient; trains after a journey to Meath or Dublin with stock had to return to Ballinasloe to be loaded again, which was productive of much delay; and what added to the trouble was that everyone seemed to have a hand in the management of the business. It gave me much to think about. Before the next year's fair I had the whole arrangements well thrashed out, and when the eventful week arrived, placed the working of the traffic under the sole control of my principal outside men, with excellent results. In the course of a year or two the directors opened the purse strings and considerably increased the engine and wagon stock of the company which helped further, and by that time I had in charge an official, of whose energy and ability it is impossible to speak too highly, Thomas Elliott, then a promising young assistant, now the competent Traffic Manager of the railway. Under his management the work at Ballinasloe has for many years been conducted with clock-work regularity.
In 1891 there were 25,000 sheep at the fair, 10,000 cattle and 1,500 horses, and the company ran 43 special trains loaded with stock. The sheep fair is held in Garbally Park, on the estate of Lord Clancarty, and the counting of the sheep through a certain narrow gap, and the rapidity and accuracy with which it is done, is a sight to witness.
The hospitality part of the business was attended with the success it deserved, and helped to smooth the difficulties of the situation. I remember well our dinner on the Tuesday night. On the Monday we dined alone, directors and officers only, but on Tuesday the week's hospitality began. That night our table was graced with five or six guests, one being Robert Martin, of Ross, a famous wit and raconteur, and the author of Killaloe. It was a delightful party, for your Galway gentleman is a genial fellow, who likes a good dinner, and a good story which he tells to perfection. Sir Ralph never took the head of the table, liking best a less prominent seat; but his seat, wherever he chose to sit, always seemed to be to the central place. Never lacking natural dignity, he was not punctilious in mere matters of form. Secure in his authority, to its outward semblance he was rather indifferent. Another delightful guest was Sir George (then Mr.) Morris, brother of the late Lord Morris, the distinguished judge. Until a few months previously, Mr. Morris had been a director of the company, but had resigned upon his appointment to the position of Vice-President of the Irish Local Government Board. He, too, was a Galway man, big, handsome, with a fine flowing beard, a fund of humour, and the most genial disposition imaginable. His anecdotes were ever welcome, and the smallest incident, embellished by his wit and fancy, and told in his rich brogue, which he loved, were always sufficient to adorn a tale. He was rare company, and though, perhaps, he could not, like Swift, have written eloquently on a broomstick, he could always talk delightfully on any subject he chose.
Whilst Sir Ralph remained chairman of the company, which he did until the year 1904, the directors annual stay at Ballinasloe and its attendant hospitality continued. He was not likely to give up a good old custom. But time inevitably brings changes; for some years now the old hospitality has ceased, the rooms at Ballinasloe are turned into house accommodation for one or two of the staff, and the great fair is worked with no more ado than a hundred other fairs on the line. Not many complaints are made now, for delays and disappointments are things of the past. Yet, I dare say there are some who, still attending the fair, look back with regret on the disappearance of the good old days.
Ballinasloe station is on the main line to Galway, 34 miles distant from the "City of the Tribes." (...)