Memories of the Ballyclare May Fair by local author Janette McKendry shared in her book 'Ballyclare Remembered'
If you joined us at the 'Archie Reid Cinematic Revival' in The Picture House at Ballyclare Town Hall on Saturday 19 May, you'd have heard local author Janette McKendry read a wonderful recollection of some of her memories of Ballyclare May Fair from her book 'Ballyclare Remembered'. Such magical reminiscences so well captured. For those who were there and enjoyed her reading or those who missed it, this is Janette's May Fair story. 'Ballyclare Remembered is available to buy online, or copies may be available in The Paper Shop in Ballyclare.
A few weeks before the May Fair, the cars pulling the shiny cream caravans of the travelling people would arrive. These would take up positions at the bottom of the Square and behind the Town hall. Then the horse-drawn, gaily painted traditional vans of the Gypsies would come. One sometimes sat in front of the Town Hall but, more often than not, they all parked along The New Line (Victoria Road). Here their horses could eat their fill of the lush growth along the edge of the hedgerow, while the washing could be strewn over the hawthorn to dry. The children from the travelling families went to school with us locals just as their parents had done years before, but the gypsy children never joined the rest of us in the classrooms.
A week before ‘The Fair’ Sharples amusements would arrive and oh the excitement of watching the dodgems and the chair-o-planes going up, balanced on broken bricks and blocks of wood. The dodgems were above the Town Hall on the upper part of the Square, with the hobby horses, great dancing things with carved curly manes and tails, dressed over the trappings of reds and yellows, greens, blues and gold, at the top corner, opposite Bob Fleming’s grocery shop. Sadly this shop was pulled down. Now we have a little garden where his shop and a few houses once stood.
Behind the Town Hall, squeezed in between the caravans, were the swing boats. The kind where two children sat facing each other, holding crossed over ropes which were pulled to make the boat swing.
At the bottom of the Square was my favourite, the Noah’s Ark. It was full of different animals, each with a velvet seat on its back and handles on its decorated head, for little hands to grasp as the animals whizzed round and round on the undulating track.
Beside this sat the ‘Lion’ and the ‘Tiger’, two great steamboats each holding about forty folk. A set of sturdy wooden steps led to a platform, which allowed the paying voyager to climb into the great brutes. The heavy smell of oil and steam, combined with the jerking swing was responsible for more than a few green or ashen faces at the end of the ride.
Dotted between these and other amusements were the roll-a-penny, the hoopla and ‘find the lady’. Most popular of all was the Peacock where all sorts of prizes, from tea sets to teddy bears could be won, if the golden bird with the multi coloured light bulb tail lit up the number on your ticket.
For a few years McFarland’s amusements came to town. They were erected on a site off Main Street, opposite the Reo, between the river and the disused railway line, where once a narrow gauge train ran from Doagh and the Paper Mill to the harbour at Larne.
A dirt path sloped down from the street to where the stalls sat on a triangle of soil, blackened by soot and firmed by cinders from trains. Here there were chair-o-planes, dodgems and kiddies swing boats.
There was also a speed track where cars went round on an oblong race track. Here too was a stall with prizes, where the numbers lit up, but here there was no mechanical peacock, with a multi-coloured bulb tail, to bring delight to childish eyes of lift the senses soaring away from the cold and wet of a May night, into the fairy tale world of fantasy.
Tuesday was the biggest day. This was when the horses and dealers came in and the man with the monkey and camera who always tried to take your photograph. There were trinket stalls bright with shiny mock gold and silver chains, rings with all the colours of the rainbow in their sparkling glass stones and beads and brooches of sunshine yellow, blood red and emerald green.
The gardening stalls were the biggest of all. The gardens round Ballyclare took on a new lease of life in the days following the fair. Then there was also the chance to buy fluffy yellow chicks or goldfish.
Stalls selling hard nuts, dulse and yellow man did a brisk trade. Nearly everybody had a brown paper bag in their hand. Jimmy and Harry McKeen each had his ice-cream van manys an argument there was among the townsfolk as to whose was the best.
Then there were the one man gambling tables and the man who swallowed swords and chains. There were fire eaters, the two headed calf and the world’s smallest man, dressed in an evening suit and bow tie.
Vying with these and the loudest of all, were the preachers, who stood in the Square, opposite the Town Hall, beside Hugh Gardiner’s shop and belted out revivalist hymns in competition with teh fairground music.
Some gave testimony and told how they too had once lived a life of sin, but now were saved and on a better road than sinners like us, who had better repent and join them.
We sinners looked and vaguely listened, ate ice-cream and candy floss and drifted back into the warmth of the unjudging and welcoming crowd.
Not to be missed was a visit to Madam Lee where for half-a-crown your future would be laid for you.
A journey, a sea to be crossed, old life would go new life would come. One who loved you, one who hated you and marriage to someone with an A, D, E or C in his name and oh the thinking and wondering.
Who could it be? The tale was cheap at the price.
Friends not seen from one year to the next, called and shared sandwiches, broth or stew, followed by trifle or buns and tea. All save the tea were made the night before. In the evening the weans, sleepy and happy would troop off to bed, clutching a fur and plaster monkey on a elastic string, or a wooden man climbing a ladder, a whirly windmill or some other treat off the stalls.
The older folk were glad to recover from all the traipsing around with a cup of tea by the fire. The in-betweens ended up at the Abbey Hall, or as in my case, at the dance held upstairs in the Town Hall, where the floor was so swell sprung that it could be felt moving gently up and down beneath our feet.
The night was danced away with no thought of rising early for work in the morning. At two o’clock the dance ended and what more perfect way to finish the day than a walk home in the fresh dark of night, with the stars and current love for company.
The May Fair Day was over for another year.