October Fair—“Europe’s Oldest International Horse Fair”
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN IRELAND
LAST week this was a peaceful, sleepy little town where people quietly went about their business. But this week it is bedlam. The town is crammed to bursting as some 6,000 local inhabitants play host to upwards of 50,000 visitors. What really catches the eye, though, is not the heaving mass of people or the many market stalls or even the colorful street entertainers. It is the horses! They are everywhere!
Where are we? At the small town of Ballinasloe, located about 90 miles [140 km] west of Ireland’s capital city, Dublin. What has brought such dramatic changes to this normally peaceful location? It is what the organizers describe as “Europe’s oldest international horse fair,” the October Fair.
What makes the October Fair so popular? Awake! interviewed George, a local farmer who has sold many horses here. “At Ballinasloe,” he says, “anyone—the rich and the poor alike—can bring any kind of horse to sell. It is as simple as that.” But why is that so different? “In many other places, horse dealing is a very restricted and regulated activity,” George explains. “Some public sales feature only one breed of horse. And there is usually a lot of detailed paperwork involved in the sale. There are not too many horse fairs around where anyone can turn up with a horse, lead it onto the fair green, and simply sell it! Here at the October Fair, horse trading still takes place in much the same way as it has for the last two or three hundred years—by straight trading without any formality, right here on the fair green.”
‘How,’ we wondered, ‘did Ballinasloe become the center of such frenetic activity? Why did dealers come from as far away as Russia to buy horses here?’ A little trip back in history provides the answer.
Some of the high kings of Ireland used to rule at Tara, located about 20 miles [30 km] northwest of Dublin. This was a religious, and later political, center in Ireland. People went to Tara to pay their taxes and to hear about new laws that had been introduced. What is Tara’s connection with Ballinasloe? Well, Ballinasloe grew up around a river ford on one of the natural routes to Tara from the west. Travelers to and from the royal residence found this river ford, which was about one day’s horse ride from the west coast, a convenient place to exchange news and goods. There is, say the organizers of the October Fair, ‘evidence of horse trading in the area as far back as the fifth century C.E.’
In more recent times, Ballinasloe’s strategic location made it an ideal place for the large official fair that was established here early in the 18th century. Some farmers would set off a month or so ahead of time in order to walk their cattle to this market to sell them, even though for some this meant a journey of 150 miles [200 km]. In time, horses became the main attraction here.
The land around Ballinasloe is very fertile and is perfect for raising livestock. It produces strong-boned, healthy, productive animals. “Irish horses,” explains author Mark Holdstock, “are well known for their sturdiness.” He continues: “Breeds such as the Irish Draught have thrived for hundreds of years in this landscape, becoming tougher and tougher down the centuries.”
The Need for Horses
Today the main item on the agenda is horse trading! What made horses so important? In the 18th and 19th centuries, farmers throughout Ireland used horses extensively to work the land. They needed strong, dependable horses to pull plows on what was often wet, boggy land. But there was another huge demand for horses. Armies needed strong horses that would not be frightened by the noise of battle and that would have the strength and stamina to transport heavy supplies across rough terrain. The Irish Draught had all these characteristics and so was much sought after. Crossing it with a Thoroughbred produced a brave, athletic horse that was ideal for use in the cavalry.
Horses by the thousands, as well as soldiers, were casualties in war. To replace those lost in the many battles fought in Europe, army representatives from many European countries, even from as far away as Russia, were willing to make the journey to Ballinasloe to purchase new, dependable bloodstock. By the middle of the 19th century, the October Fair had become “the largest horse fair in Europe.” “Rumour has it,” says Holdstock, “that half the horses at the Battle of Waterloo were bought at Ballinasloe.”a
Horse Trading Techniques
That particular demand for horses, of course, rapidly diminished during the 20th century. Military vehicles replaced cavalry, and tractors took the place of horse-drawn plows. In fact, trading almost stopped at Ballinasloe. About 40 years ago, however, this fair was revived.
How did George, mentioned earlier, go about trading horses here? “I just went onto the fair green with the horses that I wanted to sell,” he says, “and sooner or later someone would come up to me and ask what price I wanted.” George then explains some of the secrets of horse trading: “We would barter for a while, often very aggressively. If the buyer really wanted my horse, he would be careful not to show too much interest, being afraid that I might keep the price high. He might go away and return later, hoping that no one had made a better offer in the meantime. He might even send a colleague to argue with me and keep me occupied, to prevent others from making an offer. Eventually we would agree on a price and seal it with a handshake. Usually, he would just pay in cash, and the horse would change hands then and there. As there was no central body regulating any of this, once the money was handed over, there were no guarantees!”
An outsider might find it difficult to know which horse was for sale and which was not. “If it is on the green,” George says, “it is for sale.” Then he mentions some of the local customs: “In the past—and sometimes even today—a lump of earth was placed on the horse’s hindquarters if it had been sold. Otherwise, it was just led away by its new owner. Following another old tradition in horse dealing in Ireland, the seller used to hand back ‘luck money’ after the buyer paid for a new horse. This was a small sum of money given back after the main transaction was over. It was supposed to give the horse ‘good luck’ with its new owner.
“You need a really good knowledge of horses and their worth,” warns George. “You normally get what you pay for, and most people leave the fair satisfied. But even experienced horse dealers have to be wary. I know of a dealer who sold a horse and then went to the bar for a few drinks before going home. Meanwhile, the new owner combed and trimmed the horse’s hair, dramatically altering its appearance. The ‘new’ horse was presented to the original owner, who promptly bought it back for a much higher price, thinking it was a different horse!”
There are other drawbacks besides the danger of making an unwise purchase. “Be careful where you stand!” George advises. “Don’t forget that with this many horses standing so close to one another—perhaps for hours on end—and with all this activity going on around them, many will be nervous and liable to kick. I have seen many a frightened horse rear up, even when being handled by an experienced horseman.” He continues: “Oh, yes! Wear a good pair of Wellingtons [rubber boots]. That might not be mud you are stepping in!”
a The Battle of Waterloo was fought in Europe in 1815. It involved several armies totaling about 185,000 troops. It seems likely that there would have been thousands of horses used for cavalry and transport.
[Picture on page 16]
A piebald cob waiting to be sold
[Picture on page 16, 17]
The fair green at Ballinasloe on opening day
[Picture on page 17]
This breed is a cross between an Irish Draught and a Thoroughbred