Moving through the fair in search of some animal magnetism


A day spent amongst horses can be a good distraction from purely human concerns – just try to ignore the fillies parading in hot pants

MARJORIE QUARTON is a distinguished writer. Now in her late 70s, she stands as straight as a sally rod, and quivers with curiosity behind round spectacles.

She was an only child of elderly parents. She grew up on a farm near Nenagh, Co Tipperary, and all her life she has maintained a passionate love for animals, especially horses. And she has spent a lifetime breeding dogs, trading horses and writing books.

Recently we had dinner at the Lough Derg Yacht Club, with friends of the Dromineer Literary Festival. There was a lot of talk about whether a soup spoon ought to be placed to the side of a dining plate or horizontally at the top. The matter was resolved by a novelist who once served with the RAF. He explained, with some authority, that for an informal event the soup spoon may be placed at the horizontal, but that on formal occasions the correct position is on the right-hand side, vertical to the diner.

I confided in Marjorie that I was hoping to go to the Ballinasloe Horse Fair the following day, and I wondered had she any advice.

“Just be early,” she said. “The first time I went to Spancil Hill Fair, many decades ago, I was advised to be there not later than 3.30am if I wanted to find good horses. Have your breakfast the night before, they told me.”

This was advice she never forgot, in all the years she moved through the fairs of Ireland, sometimes buying horses for elite cavalries in Europe.

I arrived in Ballinasloe the following day at noon. By then the streets were jammed with hucksters, traders and all classes of humanity, including young Traveller girls in hot pants and miniskirts, adorned with earrings and bracelets; a brash parade of sexual assertion, driven by a heady mix of adolescent uncertainty, social exclusion and sexual repression.

It was a cold enough day to be tipping through the horse manure in toe-crunching stilettos, bare-shouldered and bare-bellied.

I kept hearing the ghost of Margaret Barry singing She Moves Through the Fair, and I was so mesmerised by all the young women that I hardly paid any attention to the horses that stood idle and gentle beneath the blue sky.

I was never good with animals. Apart from the odd cat, I stand aloof from wild beasts. I have failed not just in human relationships, but with the entire panoply of sentient beings.

There is something unbearably tender about falling in love with an animal, about shedding tears on the television because your cows have been slaughtered, or about preserving a herd that was once tended by your grandfather.

But I am ignorant of all that compassion; I am caught in a much too narrow, self-obsessed human realm. Which is why I decided to head for a cattle mart last week, and expose myself to other animals.

I went to Delvin, Co Westmeath, where Lawrence of Arabia’s ancestors once ran their hounds and where there is an ancient monastic ruin, near which a friend of mine once dug up the cranium of a monk by accident (he thought it was a donkey’s skull).

In the cattle mart, there is a restaurant, where men waited for breakfast. A girl from eastern Europe brought plates of hot food to the tables and there was an air of excitement as farmers in old jumpers and trousers (which must have been lying on the floor of some byre for centuries) set aside their staffs and removed their baseball caps before tucking into “the fry”. Then everyone went to the rings.

In one area a lot of furry pedigree lambs were being auctioned by a man in a white coat. I toyed with the idea of a cuddly sheep at the end of my bed instead of a cat, but decided against it.

In the main ring, anonymous heifers stumbled into the lights, and were walloped with sticks when they showed signs of unruly behaviour.

I had an uneasy feeling that Marjorie Quarton wouldn’t quite approve of the brutality. But then I saw an old man, stretching his hand beyond the barrier and touching the flank of an agitated calf in the ring.

The man was old and frail, and his hand was white, but when he touched the beast it turned to face him, recognising him, and then he petted its trembling head and pulled its ears, with extraordinary delicacy.