Ballyclare May Fair
(taken from his book “Ballyclare” by Archie R. Reid)
On the 16th December 1756 George II granted to the Earl of Donegal the right to hold two fairs yearly, at the Town and Lands of Ballyclare yielding therefore yearly to us the sum of thirteen shillings and four pence for the said fairs . . . . to be paid forever.
At first the Fairs were markets for animals and goods but as they grew to four in a year it was the May and November fairs which became the most important as it was there that the farmers hired their labouring men and servant girls for the next six months.
The May Fair was traditionally held on a Tuesday in late May but in the nineteenth century such was the demand for horses that the Monday was given over to this sale. One dealer alone bought a hundred horses each year, while others came into Ballyclare, riding bareback and leading a string of horses. Representatives of cavalry regiments from all over Europe came to buy as the reputation of the Fair spread.
Local farmers also needed horses to plough and transport their produce, while the nearby city of Belfast sought carriage horses and sturdy animals to pull carts. Any of the bakeries alone would need a hundred horses. The great days of the horse fair ended with the First World War and the growth of mechanisation. However in recent years the Main Street once again echoes with the sound of horses being exercised and dealers shouting. This is not just a colourful revival of part of the town’s cultural heritage but a real market, where bidding is keen. It is now the centrepiece of a week of activities, which is the May Fair Festival, when the Square is filled with stalls as in the past. (This was written in 2004 and the Fair has changed a lot since then. What do you remember of recent Fairs?)
For farm workers the Fair Day was a critical one, when they might be hired by a decent man, who would honour his promise of payment, feed them well and provide a comfortable bed. Many had had bad experiences in the past but knew that if they left they would get no payment at all. The half year wages a servant man might expect and bargain for were between three and four pounds ten shillings with meals and lodgings. A servant girl was valued at one pound ten shillings for six months. If meals were not provided she would probably get sixpence a day for her food. Some farmers would only feed their workers at harvest time but sold them buttermilk at a penny a gallon in summer time. Conditions varied from farm to farm so while they waited around the Cunningham Monument to be hired the men and boys exchanged information about who was mean and which employers might treat them well. When the agreement was struck there was the tradition of giving a few coins, or erls, to spend at the fair. With this money in their pockets they could sample the attractions on offer.
There were the traditional hard nuts and yellow man as well as much else to eat and drink.
There were roulette tables and other gambling games to tempt and preachers to warn of the fate of those who sinned. The gambling was of course illegal but rather than get involved with courts, the local police found that a well aimed kick at the table was more effective at curtailing the activity. Among the entertainers there was a fire eater, who filled his mouth with paraffin and exhaled a burst of flames. Another man placed a rock on his chest and invited watchers to smash it with a sledge hammer.
In 1948 a committee of local people came together to revive the May Fair. It was to grow in the following years to become a week long Festival which began with the Mayor’s Parade.
In 1949 Sharples Amusements were in the Square with dodgems and chair-o-planes. In 1953 torrential rain just about wiped out the May Fair Day while 1957 brought the hottest ever weather. Across Northern Ireland the idea of towns holding a festival week to promote good community relations, was catching on. More features were added each year with a fancy dress parade and floats on the opening Saturday and a pipe band contest adding a colourful ending to the week.
By the late Fifties the local papers were reporting that the May Fair was attracting 20,000 people to the town. Certainly all approach roads were lined with cars as far as the eye could see. The character of the Fair was changing to a week of carnival although the traditional horse trading still took place on May Fair Day.