Home > History > Donegal Town Fair

The Fair Day held on the second Friday of each month was an occasion in the town as the streets were always thronged with farmers who came along to buy and sell their stock; travelling dealers, who were known as "Cantmen"; and the revellers who were just there for a day out. Cattle sales took place on the Cow-Market the area on which the present fire station and Aodh Ruadh School are built. This was once commonage, part of 70 acres of land set aside for common pasturage under grant from James I when the town was incorporated in a borough. The commonage was closed around 1765 but a space was left for a fair green and it was on this area that the cow markets were held for well over two hundred years until fairs disappeared with the introduction of Livestock Marts in Donegal in 1967. The horse fair was always held on the green at Bridge-end but this was moved to the Diamond early in this century.The weighing of produce always took place on the Diamond in full view of the public. This was not just a chance arrangement. The same borough charter made it incumbent on the patentee to appoint a weight-master to ensure that all goods between buyer and seller be weighed, charging a halfpenny for every draught under a hundred-weight and a penny a draught for every hundredweight over that with the exception of potatoes which had to be weighed free of charge. There was an iron triangle which was a permanent fixture bedded into the ground on the Diamond and the scales were suspended from this. It was about six feet high. The scales and weights were kept in the yard, or shambles, behind the market hall and wheeled out to the Diamond on Market Day. Sam Glenn became lessee of the markets and Diamond in 1890 and the family held the lease until around the 1930"s when the old iron triangles were replaced by a "floating" weighbridge suitable for weighing carts of coal and lorries loaded with merchandise. The charter also contained a prohibition against all persons buying or selling within three miles of the castle, "except such persons as should be planted or should tarry or reside within the town of Donegal, on pain of forfeiture of the goods bought or sold". Permission was given for a market day to be held each Thursday and a fair on St. Peter"s Day and the day after. Over the years these regulations were disregarded and a fair was held every month - usually the last day of the month with two fairs in May, September and November and a fair on St. Patrick"s day.In the past hundred odd years right up to the time they ceased, fairs were held on the second Friday of each month, with the May Fair and the Harvest Fair being the really two big fairs of the year.
With the passing of time the fair became a more festive occasion with families making it a day out. When dealing was over friends and relatives usually adjourned to the pub of their choice to drink each other"s health. For others who perhaps had taken more drink than they should it became an occasion to settle old scores and many a bloody fight ensued. The trick-o-the-loops had a field day as many a poor lad was persuaded to part with his few hard earned shillings in a hopeless attempt to "find the lady" or the right loop in a loosely folded leather belt. The men and women selling apples and dilisk did a roaring trade. In later years the best known of these were Granny Martin, Mrs. Connolly, James Harkin and Jamie McHugh. The men selling delph assured us that they were not there to sell but simply to advertise and there was always a gasp when Frank Washington tossed a china cup high into the air and caught it on the saucer on the way down. He was never known to break a cup. There was admiration too for the six feet odd "coloured" man with hair down to his waist who was selling Crocodile Oil "guaranteed to make your hair grow as long as mine". Tummulty, that"s the only name we knew him by, had his own particular line - stain remover. Tumulty spent most of his time around Donegal and bought his raw materials locally - a few bars of soap which he cut into squares and wrapped in the paper he had printed for his product. He always demonstrated it on an old felt hat which he kept for the occasion. When the stain remover dried out Tumulty was left with more stains than his hat could accommodate, but he had usually disappeared before that happened. The cant men selling second-hand clothing were never without customers.Those were days of economic stress and the cant provided a source of cheap working clothes. When times improved and people became more affluent second-hand clothing stalls gave way to the present day market stall selling new clothing. Fashion played little part in the choice available. It was a case of "take it or leave it" and if a jacket was too big the cantman would grab the loose folds at the back and gather them in his fist until the garment took some kind of shape assuring the man "it fits you like a glove". In the last years of the fairs "Cheap John" was always the main attraction at the fairs in the North-West. John, who hailed from the Kinlough area, dealt exclusively in ladies wear and his prices were absurdly low. He always had an ancient gramophone perched on the stall and occasionally, in between his very humorous banter, lilted out the ballad being played.The ancient method of conducting a cattle sale was in itself a lesson in psychology. A middleman always intervened to help both parties complete a sale and there was a lot of hand slapping between the parties before a price was finally struck. When a figure was reached that all parties sensed was nearing finality the middleman would declare "Here split the difference and don"t break my word". This could go on several times before a suitable price was arrived at. Luck-penny too was a very important part of the deal and both sides had already mentally built this into the price before bargaining had even begun. Luck-penny was the amount returned to the buyer after the sale was completed.Boys and girls from outlying areas strutted around the town casting "glad-eyes" at each other and striking up friendships. The tea-houses and shops did a brisk trade. Coming towards evening the trek to the station began and there was much hustle and bustle as parcels were checked to see that nothing was left behind and husbands a bit under the weather were persuaded not to go back to the town as there was no later train that evening. Horsecarts, side-cars and traps were yoked up for the journey home. Hackney-car owners had their regular customers too. And the Fair Day was a welcome diversion for the youngsters of the town too because the schools were always closed for the day.