By Eugene Kielt
In Ancient Ireland, Fairs were essentially social gatherings. People would come together from a wide area for community festivities. By the twelth century their fairs had expanded to become very commercial events because traders recognised that fairs produced ready made crowds of customers. The business of fairs was directly related to the farming calendar. Farm produce including cattle and horses were traded but there were also lots of sideshows and general entertainment. Fairs were associated with holidays especially those few times in the year when farmers and farm workers took a break.
By the eighteenth century fair days had become a vivid expression of the economic, social and cultural life of the Irish town. Perhaps the best known in the North was the Auld Lammas Fair in Ballycastle. In an area of extensive agricultural production, it was natural to have regular convenient place where people could meet to trade and to keep in touch with each other and talk about the latest local news. Fairs therefore provided a unique opportunity for both Farmers and labourers to come together and arrange employment. And so the traditional fair expanded to include the engaging of farm servants and labourers. As the practice of public hiring became more widespread, people began to refer too particular fair ideas as 'hiring fairs.' The hiring fair was really an outdoor employment exchange where men, women and children made themselves available for temporary service. Farmers would come from throughout the district. and indeed from neighbouring counties to employ workers, usually for six months at a time, or a 'term' as it was called.
People went to be hired because of poverty or limited employment opportunities at home. Farmers with very small or poor holdings often couldn't support themselves off their own land and were compelled to work for larger farms. Another reason was that parents with big families couldn't support them all and also would have needed help to pay for food and rent, so they sent their children to be hired. Some of these children were as young as seven. From a farmers point of view there were great advantages to hiring. For a start it was cheaper to pay a person a six-month fee rather than a weekly wage. Moreover, by assuming total responsibility for keeping the labourer or servant the farmer had much greater control over him and could get more working hours out of him or her. The hiring fairs were most common in Ulster.
By the late nineteenth century more than eighty Ulster towns held hiring fairs twice a year, around the twelfth of May and twelfth of November. These dates coincided with times in the farming calendar when the workload was heaviest and extra labour was required. The May Fair would have been the most important because workers hired then would avail of the much longer hours of daylight during the summer months, to the obvious delight of the farmer.
The May Fair was therefore the busiest and most crowded. The hustle, bustle and general excitement of the occasion are vividly portrayed in Magherafelt May Fair, an old traditional song, which probably still sounds as fresh today as when it was first written. Pat Hoe McKee. a senior citizen and a native of Magherafelt remembers well those fair days that are recalled in the song: "There was always a terrible crowd in the town for the May Fair.
People came from miles around. Boys or Girls who wanted to get hired stood at the Diamond. They had to have a wee parcel under their arm and then people knew they were looking for a job. There might be some clothes or food in the bundle, or maybe nothing at all, but as long as they had the parcel it was a sign that they were looking for a job. If the person was hired the bundle was handed over to the farmer. The farmer would look the young lad or lassie up and down and then ask a series of questions: 'Can you plough? Can you milk? Are you an early riser? If the farmer was sitisfied then the person was hired. The going rate was six pounds for the term. But on the day, the farmer would give the servant or labourer that was hired a shilling. This was what they called an 'earl'.
This was a deposit or down payment by the farmer and meant that the young person was contracted to them for the next six months. Some of them were treated well but some were more like slaves. The hiring usually took place in the morning. This meant that the person hired was free to see the sights of the fair and maybe relax a bit before starting his or her term of work. One of the sideshows that were very popular was Johnny Barr's shooting gallery on the Diamond. There was generally a lot of tomfoolery and rowdies and sometimes things got out of hand and the police had to move in. I remember when I was very young, a young girl from Tyrone getting trampled to death at
the Mayfair. The Mayfair was often a place where boys and girls first met and then maybe eventually got married.
A lot of trading was done then, and cattle and horses were brought and sold at the Fairhill. The hiring fair would have went on into the thirties." One of thise who grew up after the hiring fairs had ceased but had nevertheless encountered them through the song Magherafelt May Fair was the poet Seamus Heaney. A few years ago he was the guest speaker at a famous American University's graduation ceremony held on May 12th. During his speech to the graduates and their families he recalled often hearing thisballad when he was growing up at Mossbawn in South Derry of hearing how the young women sets out with high hopes of romantic adventure on the 12 day of May, to Magherafelt May Fair. How like the heroine of a thousand other ballads, she has roamed out on a May Morning to encounter whatever fortune puts in her way. Heaney told his audience, that over the years she has become to him
'the guardian angel of all such moments of faring forth' facing the world with spirit and a sense of keeping going and getting started again. That was his advice to those young people that day- to trust themselves and 'to make their
entry in to adult experience an adventure rather than a penalty.'
And so the days of the hiring fair may have passed-some will say good riddence. But there is no doubt these occasions form an important part of our cultural heritage and have become deeply etched in our folk memory.
Many of then have been immortalised in literature like Strabane hiring fair, which Patrick McGill wrote about, and Monaghan Fair, which was described by Patrick Kavanagh. But who among us could have thought that a song about Magherafelt May Fair would provide such powerful inspiration for a Nobel Laureate and moreover become the highlight of a Graduation Day in Carolina USA.