The following is an account of Glenties Harvest Fair written and published in 1972 by the late Joe Campbell, Glenties.
In my young days and that’s not today or yesterday the Harvest Fair Day was a red-letter day in the history of the town. It was looked forward to by young and old for weeks before and remembered by many a long day afterwards. In fact, in those days it was a three-day event. First there was “the gathering” the day before; then there was the big day itself and then there was “the scattering” the following day.
It was a landmark for farmers for miles around. Any farmer who hadn’t his hay stacked and his corn safely in the haggard was considered, if he was single, a poor match for any girl. If he was married and had a family he saw to it by threats and promises that the above work was completed by the time the Big Day came round. How well I remember as a boy working by moonlight to get the last of the corn in so as to be free to attend the fair, with just a white sixpence in my pocket!
Those were the days – God be with them – when the train was the chief means of transport and the day before the fair the C.D.R. ran two special trains into Glenties, each engine dragging leisurely along long strips of empty, wagons to bring to Derry the following day for shipment to Glasgow and other Clyde ports the cattle and sheep bought at the fair.
In addition to the trains all kinds of vans and other vehicles – horse-drawn of course – could he seen wending their way slowly but surely along the country roads leading to the centre of attractions. These brought in the gamblers – “the three card trick” men, the “fire-eaters”, and hosts of others, as well as the vendors of all kinds of merchandise including green gooseberries, greener apples, currant buns, lemonade, and of course, second-hand clothing, for which there was a big demand in those days.
As each one arrived he immediately selected his “stand” by the sidewalk for the following day and marked it with a long wooden spar, or by parking his van there, and God help the individual who dare try to take possession of a spot thus marked. Each one then took himself off to “the Rock” to book in for the night in one or other of the three well-known boarding houses that were there.
The evening before would be active too, the sheep farmers from the Fintown area, from Shallogans, from the top of the Glen, and of course from the Croaghs. From The latter place would come the McLoone family-those five brothers, Eoin Mhicheails -with their huge flocks of mountain wethers, with their well trained dogs that could almost speak to you in Gaelic – like their masters, they knew no other language – and they always “penned” their sheep for the night in Hughie Mhor’s field at head the of the town (now Ard Connell) which field they had always rented in advance for the occasion. The other farmers got similar accommodation for their flocks in fields convenient to the town where they could easily collect them at daybreak next morning. They then wended their way homewards, to return again before cock-crow the following day with huge bundles of “braidins” – handmade grass ropes – with which to tie their sheep one to another down along the wall on the “Chapel Brae” along the wall of the R.I.C. barracks, or along the Market House.
And what about the cattle men? They would arrive, too at daybreak, and before, with their droves of well-fed cattle but the best of these were brought in by the landlord’s men from Downstrands who had fattened their cattle on the rich grasslands of Inniskeel Island or on Major Porter’s Roshine. These huge glossy animals were “beef” to the heel like a “Mullingar heifer” and would fetch anything up to £15 a head -a huge price in those days! The cattle were on display on the “Rock”, which was then and still is, known as the “Cow – Market”.
Around 8.00am business was in full swing, and what a din. The lowing of cattle, the bleating of sheep, the barking of dogs, the neighing of horses, the grunting and squealing of pigs, but above all, the shouting of drovers and the “bualadh Bhos” of the buyers and sellers trying to strike a bargain.
“How much for the “oul mincher””, one dealer would ask
“Go along ye bligard” would come the quick reply. “How dar’ ye call my two – year – oul springing heifer an oul mincher.”
“She hasn’t a tooth in her head”, would come the retort.
“Faith, then ye haven’t so many in yer own gob”, would come the reply.
And so it went on until around noon when all bargains were finished and buyers and sellers made their way to the main street and to one or other of the dozen odd pubs then in the town to settle their accounts and to squabble still further over the “lucky- penny” that each dealer had to receive before a bargain was complete.
And then the “fun of the fair”. The buyers and sellers were now joined by hundreds of young boys and girls from near and far who got the day off in return for many a hard day’s work in the harvest fields during the previous months. The young people sauntered up and down the street in groups, the girls by themselves and the boys by themselves, and many a shy smile exchanged as they passed and re-passed in their, to the inexperienced onlooker, aimless wandering. But was it aimless? Well many a courtship started at the Harvest Fair and ended in a happy marriage before that day came round again!
And what about the street vendors, the “three-card-trick” men, and the “trick of the loop” men? As the crowds gathered and the people began crowding round them, these became more vociferous and could be heard all over the town, each one trying to out-shout and outsmart his nearest rival in an attempt to attract as many patrons as possible. But the wee man from Ballybofey that had the second hand clothes stall was always the centre of attraction,
“What will ye bid me for the wee pair of pants, ma’am, made from the best King’s corduroy? (Although Victoria, of pious and immortal memory, ruled at that time!) Here they are to ye – Slapping them with his palm – 3/6? 3/-? Ah, give me half-a-crown. Will ye no’ bid me atal? What will ye do with wee Johnny when he’s’ ready for school? Blacken his “behind” (nothing so polite as that!) and send him out Barenaked?”
Above the din sometimes could he beard the sound of music. Never to miss a Harvest Fair was big Hughie Gallagher, the most famous of all the pipers in Donegal, Sligo or Leitrim. And there was Mickie (I’ve forgotten his last surname), the blindBall the way down from Castlederg. Mickie sang all the latest “come-all-ye’s” to his own accompaniment on the fiddle. I can still bear him sing “Killester Fair” in his own inimitable style. And then of course, there was Neddie Bab and his tin whistle being followed up and down the street by all the children in the town. But as the melody-makers visited the various pubs in the course of the day shriller because the singing and more discordant the music.
But then coming on to “closing time” the R.I.C. strongly reinforced for the day, began moving out in pairs from the barracks and marched up and down the street in their best military style, their black leather – cased batons dangling from their belts. This was the signal for the publicans to get their premises cleared and soon would happy, semi-mebriated (and not so semi!) burst onto the street gangs of boisterious men. (Women did not frequent pubs in those days!) Sometimes a row would start and the sticks would be raised and the crowds would surge from either end of the street to the scene of action to be told gruffly by the nearest constable to “get moving”. And move they did, many of them arriving home by midnight, foot-sore, tired and hungry at the end of a perfect day, and peace and quiet returned once more to the one-time hilarious village.
The fair was now over but was it? I said at the beginning that it lasted for three days, and so it did. Next day if approaching the town from the Fintown side one could meet droves of cattle being driven “ontheir on the hoof” by the same noisy drovers of the day before, either heading for the Stranorlar station or over Meenaroy to the Swilly station at Letterkenny. These were animals that could not he accommodated by the C.D.P.- the day before on their two special trains and were in the hope of reaching Derry before the cattle boat sailed.
And on reaching the town there was still a great deal of hustle and bustle. The hawkers and vendors of green apples of the previous day were rushing about packing up their wares and yoking their piebald ponies to their spring – vans in preparation for the journey home or to some other venue where another fair would soon be in progress, while out from O’Donnell’s yard came Hughie the Piper and out from Phelan’s arch came the blind fiddler from Castlederg each of them rubbing his eyes and feeling his trousers pockets gingerly and wondering was there enough to get him “a hair of the dog” that bit him so viciously the day before!
These are my recollections of the Glenties Harvest Fair of three score years or more.