Ballinasloe Horse Fair: An ancient Irish tradition

One of Europe’s oldest horse fairs, it’s also a meeting point for members of the Irish Traveller community.

A young member of the Traveller community at the Ballinasloe Horse Fair in County Galway, Ireland [Barbara McCarthy/Al Jazeera]
A young member of the Traveller community at the Ballinasloe Horse Fair in County Galway, Ireland [Barbara McCarthy/Al Jazeera]

County Galway, Ireland – Around 80,000 people recently descended on Ballinasloe in County Galway, Ireland, for one of Europe’s oldest horse fairs.

For nine days each year, this small town of 6,600 people comes alive with stalls, dog shows, music, fairground attractions and people from across the world who want to buy and sell horses.

An annual event since the 1700s, the fair became famous after Napoleon Bonaparte allegedly bought a horse here and went on to ride it in 1805 at Austerlitz, one of the most decisive battles of the Napoleonic wars.

But today, the fair is better known for being a meeting point for members of the Irish Traveller community, who, alongside farmers and other buyers and sellers, have been attending it for centuries. Travellers, who are sometimes referred to as Pavees, are an itinerant ethnic group who live mostly in caravans in encampments. Horses were long central to their nomadic lifestyle and, although no longer needed to travel around, many Travellers still keep and breed them.

Figures vary, but according to the Irish Traveller Movement website, there are currently more than 25,000 Travellers in Ireland, 10,000 in the United States and over 15,000 in Britain.

At this year’s fair, there were concerns that it could be permanently cancelled following disturbances in previous years.

Al Jazeera spoke to some of the visitors who allowed us a glimpse into their culture and told us what the fair means to them.

It’s not our tradition to go to school for very long’ 

Diana O’Leary and Maria O’Donnell say they might meet their future husbands at the fair [Barbara McCarthy/Al Jazeera]

Diana O’Leary and Maria O’Donnell from County Carlow in Ireland are both 16 years old.

“We’re here with our families who have been coming for years. It’s good fun. The boys go drinking after the wheeling and dealing and then the girls get ‘grabbed’,” they explain, referring to a practice where an unmarried boy expresses interest in an unmarried girl by attempting to kiss her, but custom and the values of the community dictates that she cannot reciprocate.

“It’s a tradition. We don’t get drunk, though. Traveller girls don’t drink. We might find our future husbands here. Lots of people do.

“We’re allowed to find our own husbands, though. In lots of families, he gets picked for you, which I wouldn’t like that much. I prefer to meet them here,” says Diana.

“We don’t hang out with boys until we’re married. We’re not in school. It’s not our tradition to go to school for very long,” she adds.

“We stay at home and look after the household chores,” explains Maria. “We left school at 14. That’s just the way it is for some of the Traveller girls.”

‘Working with horses is brilliant’ 

 Jim Cronin is at the fair looking for horses [Barbara McCarthy/Al Jazeera]

Jim Cronin, 58, is from County Clare in Ireland and works with horses.

“People come here looking for work horses. There used to be a great tradition of people using these horses for ploughing, carting and working on the land, but they are few and far between these days because machines took over,” he says.

“I hope to find some great horses myself.”

“There’s a skill to getting the best out of them. It was passed on from generations, but never written down – just by word of mouth. Working with horses is brilliant.”

‘I remember when the horses used to arrive by train’ 

 Frank Flanley has been coming to the fair for more than 50 years [Barbara McCarthy/Al Jazeera]

Frank Flanley is 68 years old and works doing odd jobs on a farm. He has been coming to the fair for more than 50 years.

“A lot of Traveller traditions at the fair are dying out,” he says. “There are too many restrictions here now.” 

“People used to stay all week in the caravan, which was parked on the field with horse-drawn wagons. There used to be dances at night and we’d go along and there would be some courting, but not too much,” he says.

“The fact that people can’t stay over has definitely had an effect on the atmosphere of the fair. Now people have to stay in hotels, which are booked out.”

“You used to see a lot of tinsmiths around, too, making tins and selling them. I remember when the horses used to arrive by train from all around Ireland. You’d fit six in a carriage.”

‘There’s loads of entertainment’ 

Horse Fair [Barbara McCarthy/Al Jazeera] 

Elizabeth Stuart McGuire, 36, travelled to the horse fair from Scotland to sell horses. Although she isn’t a Traveller, she has been to the fair many times. 

“You should see this place at night,” she says.

“The Traveller girls get really dressed up, and there’s loads of entertainment and the odd fight.”

“There’s a guy singing from a lorry, and amusement rides and that kind of stuff. It’s where Travellers meet their future husbands.”

“During the day people watch show jumping or the tug of war.”

“You can buy more than just horses too – there’s ducks, hens and dogs in cages being sold. It’s mad.”

I’ve been here since childhood’ 

Godfrey Worrow is a horse seller [Barbara McCarthy/Al Jazeera] 

Godfry Worrow is a horse seller from County Kildare, Ireland, and is in his 50s.

“I’m sitting on a gypsy wagon. I like to take it out at the weekends with the horses. People used to live in these gypsy wagons, but I don’t. I live about an hour away from here now. You don’t see that many of them around any more. They are worth a bit of money – they can cost up to 20,000 euros [$22,000],” he explains.

“I have a strong accent, which is hard to understand sometimes. I’ve been here since childhood and I hope the rumours aren’t true that they’re getting rid of it. It’s an important annual event for us, part of our culture. It’s a highlight for many people. I’ll be heading back home tonight because the caravan isn’t that comfortable.”

‘The fair is part of everyone’s lives’ 

John Paul Delaney and Billy Delaney sit in a 100-year-old ‘trap’ [Barbara McCarthy/Al Jazeera] 

John Paul Delaney and Billy Delaney, both aged five, have been to the horse fair every year since they were born. They are here with their dad Michael Delaney.

“The boys are in a ‘trap’- it’s a traditional carriage, popular with Travellers,” Michael explains.

“It’s over 100 years old. We have no idea who made it, though. The Shetland pony is called Shelly.”

“We’ve heard talk of them cancelling the fair, but I don’t think they can do that. Its part of everyone’s lives.”

A lot of us use walking sticks made out of wood and handcrafted. It’s part of our tradition. You’ll see a lot of them around for the next week. They get made at the fair as well.” 

‘We have a different pace of life out here’

 Willie Jones at the Ballinasloe Horse Fair in Co Galway, Ireland [Barbara McCarthy/Al Jazeera] 

Willie Jones, 62, is from Sligo, in the west of Ireland. He says he has been to the horse fair every year for more than 40 years.

“I have around 30 horses back out in the west. I’m a millionaire you know. I’m just here for the craic [Irish for fun].”

“We have a different pace of life out here. People don’t watch the telly or know what’s going on in the world. I don’t know who Napoleon is. We just look after the animals and the bit of land.”

“The fair went on during the Great Famine,” he says, referring to a period of mass starvation, disease and immigration in Ireland from 1845 to 1849. 

“There used to be lots more gypsy caravans here with lovely people in them.”

‘Lots of Travellers are leaving Ireland’ 

Nicole McGinley is at the fair with her husband [Barbara McCarthy/Al Jazeera]

Seventeen-year-old Nicole McGinley, from Athlone, in central Ireland, is at the horse fair with her husband.

“I got married six months ago. I’m a housewife. My husband works in different trades. The boys are around 20 when they get married.

“The girls mostly stay home and look after the house and the babies. We had a big wedding and hundreds of people came. I wore a huge dress. The community is getting smaller, though. Lots of Travellers are leaving Ireland and going to Australia or America. We noticed it this year.”

Source : Al Jazeera


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