By John Fitzgerald
Callan in the early years of the twentieth century was a thriving market town-thanks mainly to its monthly fair and weekly fowl markets. The fair was on the third Wednesday of each month, and saw the town transformed into a hive of wheeling and dealing. Buyers and sellers of livestock converged on Callan from a radius of about fifty miles around.
Pony and traps, ass and carts, bicycles, and cranky motorcars lined every street on fair day. Townspeople awoke to the clattering of hooves on the pavement. From cockcrow, they could hear drovers ushering their herds. Loud voices and the sound of sticks whacking the beastly column shattered the morning silence. And they caught the pungent whiff of dung that hung in the air, seeping into their homes.
Jack Gardiner attended his first fair in 1912 at the age of ten. With his brother and father, he helped to drive cattle from Poulacapple into Callan. They paid the required admission fee of 3 pence to enter the fair grounds. A sea of cattle, pigs, donkeys, and other creatures stretched out before him.
Cattle predominated, but on both sides of the old pathway up the middle of the Green Jack saw carts containing creels of pigs and bonhams. Down by the wall in Green Lane were sheep pens. He noticed fellows his own age and older “turning the wild-act” on the pen railings. There was always chaos and confusion for the opening minutes of the fair, but then things settled down.
The young Jack Gardiner was mesmerised by the scene of riotous chatter, loud bursts of hearty laughter, and the massed ranks of animals snorting, grunting, bleating-and roaring to the high heavens. It was like Noah’s Ark, he thought. Looking around the green, he tried to understand what all the fuss was about.
He watched the burly farmers and dealers milling around… in groups large and small, spitting, palm slapping and holding forth in tones of great persuasion on the alleged value of the piglets, bullocks, and other livestock they had come to sell.
He listened with bated breath to the cursing and swearing from the buyers who always suspected-and often rightly so; that they were being codded by wily dealers. Meanwhile, their wives and girlfriends had huddled together in little groups to exchange gossip and pronounce judgement on the issues of the day. The alternately hushed and animated cackling of the women “had a certain music to it”, Jack discovered.
The fairs he attended afterwards, right up to the very last of them in the 60s, remained true to his first impression of this now dead Irish tradition. “The fairs were mighty”, Jack reflected, “they were the heart and soul of Callan and the town was never the same since they stopped”.
He recalled that people-both buyers and sellers-embarked on their journey to Callan for the fair as early as 3 A.M., depending on how far they had to travel. They came from places like Grange, Kells, Windgap, Mullinahone, and Ballingarry, to be joined by hundreds of locals.
There was a very visible cash flow at the fairs. “Jobbers” and “tanglers” -men seeking to buy-in before the animals reached the Fair Green- met cattle coming into town. And every buyer had his “man in the town” who tipped him off or gave him the wink about a “nice lot” from such-and-such a place.
To be continued…