October 5th, 1983


FROM THE ARCHIVES:The Ballinasloe Horse Fair in 1983 carried strong echoes of the past for Michael Finlan in this report. – JOE JOYCE

THINGS HAVEN’T changed all that much at the great Ballinasloe Horse Fair since Wolfe Tone paid a visit to it in 1792 when it was at the height of its glory. The night-time revels of the merry-makers and the neighing of wild horses at the fair kept Tone awake until dawn. In the early hours of yesterday the few horses left on the fairgreen after Monday’s hectic trading could barely raise a whinny among them, but the human revellers were in rafter-raising voice and a throbbing cacophony combining rock and Irish come-all-yes blasted forth from a marquee. Not much sleeping was done in the nearby houses.

Tone, who found lodging with a frosty-faced lady named Miss Coulihan, reported: “I would have slept if the men next door had only ceased singing and the man upstairs had stopped playing the bagpipes.”

Tone visited the fair in the cause of Catholic emancipation and on his way home a Catholic footpad emancipated him from all his money and valuables.

Such was the noise emanating from the marquees early yesterday that one might have thought the ghost of the bagpiper who tormented Tone had returned to try out his torture methods on today’s generation. Without the benefit of licence from the local authorities, the marquee was erected by a group of travelling troubadours who mingled with, but paid little resemblance to, the more traditional Irish travelling people attending the fair in hosts as usual. The marquee began to rock after darkness fell, with disco-like flashing and an unholy mixture of heavy metal and ceili music desecrating the night air. Admission £1, which, in a stroke of brilliant originality, also entitled you to a mug full of goat’s milk, dispensed direct from a herd of goats tethered to the tent poles.

There was a time when the Ballinasloe event, which may have started long before the Normans came, was the greatest horse fair in Europe. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Ballinasloe’s reputation extended to Russia and every autumn military commanders from the Continent came to buy chargers and draught horses for the armies of Europe.

In the years after the first World War, with the coming of the tank, the word cavalry took on a new meaning and the Ballinasloe fair began to decline. But it never died and even today it is still one of the best horse fairs to be found anywhere.

The number of horses for sale on the fairgreen on Monday was a little smaller than in recent years, but there was plenty of lively bidding, with buyers coming from England, France, Germany and Italy. There was a rumour – but no more than that – that a two-year-old had been sold for £7,000. Generally, the best prices were in the region of £2,000. Among the guests at Ballinasloe were representatives from Killorglin’s Puck Fair and the Ould Lammas Fair in Ballycastle.