I read this lovely story in Listowel Connection last week and I thought that you my readers might think it equally captivating. I remember the ‘Big Fair’ myself. Being a ‘townie’ I was terrified of the ‘cows’ and we had to wend our way to and from school through the mayhem, cattle sliding and skittering through the puddles, the shouting and back slapping, not to mention the overpowering smell of porter (Guinness).
Delia O’Sullivan (nee McAuliffe, Lixnaw) was a nurse in London until she returned to live in Ballybuion. Together with ten or twelve others, she is part of the Ballybunion Writers’ Group facilitated by Marian Relihan and John McGrath. They contributed to ‘Striking a Chord‘ – a fundraiser in aid of Árus Mhuire Community Hospital, Listowel.
By Delia O’Sullivan in Striking a Chord
‘The big fair day in Listowel, the October fair, was the topic of conversation among the farmers for weeks afterwards. Exaggerations and downright lies were swapped outside the church gates and continued at the holy water font, to the fury of the priest. It finished over a couple of pints in the pub. None of them could be cajoled into giving the actual price, always sidestepping with,”I got what I asked for,” or, “I got a good price.” There were tales of outsmarting the cattle jobbers – an impossible task.
The farmers on our road set out on foot for thwe seven mile journey at 4 a.m. It was their last chamce to sell their calves until the spring. Now nine months old, these calves were wild and unused to the road. Traffic confused them, so their only aim was to get into every field they passed to graze or rest. Each farmer took a helper. Those who had decided to wait until the spring fair would go along later to size up the form.
The battle would commence at the Feale Bridge where the farmers were accosted by the jobbers- men trying to buy at the lowest price. These offers were treated with contempt and a verbal slagging would follow. “You’ll be glad to give them away before evening,” or, more insulting, “Shoudn’t you have taken them to Roscrea?”
(Roscrea was a meat and bone meal processing plant where old cows that could not be sold for meat were sent for slaughter.)
The shopkeepers and publicans in Listowel were well prepared for the influx; trays of ham sandwiches sitting on the counter of each pub where most of the men finished up. The jobbers, being suitably attired, would have their dinner at the hotel and the farmers who wanted to avoid the pubs would go to Sandy’s for tea and ham. The shopkeepers kept a smile on their faces when calves marched through their doors upsetting merchandise and, sometime, leaving their calling card. The bank manager was equally excited, greeting each man as “Sir”. He found trhis was the safest approach as it was hard to distinguish them. They all looked alike in their wellingtons, coats tied with binder twine and the caps pulled well down on the foreheads.
My father arrived home late. It was obvious he was in a bad mood though he didn’t arrive home with the calves. He said he was cold and hungry and sat in silence at the table, while my mother served up bis dinner which had been kept warm for hours over a pint of hot water. As he was half way through eating his bacon and turnip, he looked at my mother saying, “I’ve never met such a stupid man in all my life.” The quizzical look on her face showed she didn’t have a clue wht he was talking about and didn’t dare ask. It took the mug of tea and the pipe of tobacco to get him started again.
My uncle Dan, my mother’s brother was his helper. Dan was a mild softly spoken man who had little knowledge of cattle. It was a a sluggish fair; prices only fair. My father held out until he was approached by a man he had dealt with often in the past. They followed the usual ritual arguments- offers, refusals, the jobber walking away, returning with his last offer. This was on a par with what my father was expecting so he winked at Dan, which was his cue to say, “Split the difference.” . Instead Dan winked back. My father gave him a more pronounced wink. This elicited the same response from Dan. The day was only saved by a neighbor, who, on noticing the problem, jumped inn, spat on his palms and shouted, “Shake on it, lads, and give the man a luck penny.”
Over a very silent pint and sandwich Dan mournfully remarked, “If Mike hadn’t butted in you’d have got a better price for the calves.”’
It’s lovely to see Delia’s account of an institution in Listowel getting a wider audience. Such fairs were once a feature of all country towns. Striking a Chord is a valuable repository of local social history.