The night mart: ‘It’s cheaper than the pub’
Welcome to Gort mart in Co Galway, a world of coded language, hand signals and few women, where the bidding is ferocious and no seller wants to go first
David Curley, office clerk at Gort Mart, sorting cattle identity stamps before the auction. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
Niall O’Donoghue (8) from Kinvara at Gort Mart. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
The auction underway at Gort Mart. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
The former mart at Gort in Co Galway used to be in the town centre, but it got too small. There’s now a supermarket where the old mart was, and the new one is located in countryside two miles outside the town.
On Wednesdays, the mart deals in sheep. On Thursdays it’s cattle. The Thursday cattle mart, which I attended, is at night, from 6pm to 11pm, depending on the number of stock due to be sold on any particular night.
The registration plates on the cars, jeeps and lorries in the vast car park at the rural site suggest that some buyers and sellers have travelled from afar for the occasion. There are vehicles from Mayo, Wicklow, Donegal, Roscommon, Meath, Offaly, Dublin, Clare, Cavan and Tipperary.
Three of the local farmers attending tonight are Tony Diviney, Pat Lahiff and Michael O’Donohue. They farm lands of 120, 125 and 141 acres respectively.
O’Donohue is 74, and was farming full-time until recently, when he had a bypass. “My son does most of it now,” he says. He recalls that in 1953 a ton of wheat “would pay a farm labourer’s wage for one year. In 1973 it would only pay that wage for one month. Today, it would only pay the average industrial wage for one day.”
There are two rings inside the mart, one for selling heifers, the other for bullocks and bulls. Tonight there are some 300 animals being sold. Both areas are crowded, with some 300 people moving between the two rings.
“It’s cheaper to spend the night here than in the pub,” Lahiff jokes, pointing out regular attendees, whom he says sit in the same place on the tiered concrete bleachers each week.
“It’s a social occasion for some people,” says O’Donohue. “It’s a night out. You’d often see the same fellows sitting beside each other every week.”
I am virtually the only female present. Even the children – and there are several – are male.
“There is nothing banning the women from attending,” Lahiff points out more than once when I comment on this. “And there are women farmers selling stock here tonight, although they’re not here themselves; someone else is representing them.”
There is a coded language attached to the business done at marts. Most people are sitting on the tiered seats. A small cluster of others is crowded up against the rail that separates the public from the ring where the cattle pass through when their turn to be sold comes.
“Most of those are the dealers,” Diviney explains. Over the course of the evening, I learn a little about dealers. They all know each other. There are about a dozen of them each week at this particular mart. Everyone knows who they are. Some are buying stock on behalf of clients who don’t have the time to attend the mart themselves. Some are buying stock to sell on abroad, usually in Italy or France.
My inexperienced eye takes a while to notice the signals made by dealers to the auctioneer. It may look as if forefingers are barely being raised in the tiniest of movements for the shortest of time, but these actually constitute bids that prompt the auctioneer to bark another figure. A forefinger lifted and held means the dealer is signalling his intention to bid on the next animal, and he’s hoping nobody else will bid against him as a result.