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  • The Fair at Letterkenny, Co. Donegal

The Fair at Letterkenny, Co. Donegal

Transcribed by Jane from the Londonderry Sentinel 10 October 1889.

Our Northern Fairs


[From our special correspondent.]

“A great market town, and standeth well for the King’s service,” is the description given by an old chronicler of the town of Letterkenny. As regards its importance as a fair and market town the description is still true of Letterkenny. About the other matter perhaps it need only be said that to a great extent “old times have changed, old manners gone,” since the loyal burghers of Letterkenny sallied forth to uphold the King’s cause. The history of the Letterkenny fairs and markets runs back nearly three hundred years and is marked by many vicissitudes and changes. But to this day it is an important centre for the disposal of agricultural produce, and in that respect is likely to increase rather than diminish in importance in the future. The modern town of Letterkenny appears to have been evolved in the course of years from a number of small hamlets and petty strongholds that existed in the locality.

For instance, at the date mentioned by the old chronicler referred to it is recorded that “Sir George MARBURIN dwelt there (in Letterkenny), and there were forty houses all inhabited by British tenants.” It is probable these did not occupy the exact site of the present town. There is still an “old town” lying close to the larger town, consisting of half-a-dozen houses, which have nominally a separate existence and are, curiously enough, dignified by an annual fair all to themselves, of which more anon. It is certain that near the present town were the ancient English settlements of Drummore and Lurgagh, comprising about 2,000 acres, with a bawn of brick and a castle of stone in a strong position, also a village at some distance, in which were 29 British families able to muster 64 men-at-arms, and Dunboy, a territory comprising 1,000 acres, where at the time of Pynmar’s Harvey in 1619, Mr. John CUNNINGHAM had a strong bawn, 70 ft. square and 14 ft. high, defended with two lofty towers, with a castle and 26 houses and a mill within the enclosure, the houses tenanted by British families able to muster 50 armed men. The ford and castle were on the river Scilly, opposite the rectory of Glendoan, and within comparatively recent times the stones of the castle were removed to make a ?arry on the river!

From these different centres of military and trading activity Letterkenny as it is to-day has been gradually produced. Fifty years ago it was a town of 416 houses, with 2,100 inhabitants, while at the last census the number of houses had fallen to 373, and the inhabitants of the township had risen to 2,128, or an increase of 28. In the course of its chequered history the town has changed hands frequently. The CUNNINGHAMs, CRAWFORDs, and the SEMPHILLs had a good deal to do with it. The nominal head landlord of the greater portion of the town is now Viscount SOUTHWELL, but for the last 100 years the township, or Manor of Semphill, has been in the possession of the family of Mr. John BOYD, of Ballymacool. Mr. BOYD’s ancestor, who purchased the manor, was a gentleman of zealous loyalty and activity. In 1798, when Napper TANDY landed, at the head of French troops, in the Rosses, 30 miles from Letterkenny, Mr. BOYD, at the head of the Letterkenny Yeomanry, went to meet him, but found when he arrived that the French had already put to sea again. Another body of Loyalists, called the Conwall Volunteers, also existed in the neighbourhood, and attested to the military spirit of the inhabitants of the district in those days. The locality abounds in interesting reminiscences. A relic of a remote period in its history was discovered some fifty-two years ago on Mr. BOYD’s property, in the shape of a gold fibula. This was picked up in a field outside the old church and burying-ground at Conwall. This field abuts on the road from Glanswilly to Letterkenny, along which the defeated troops of Sir Phelim O’NEIL fled after the battle of ???erfolis (or Scariff Hallis), on 11th June, 1650. Such is the brief sketch of the history of Letterkenny, one of the most important towns of one of the largest counties in Ireland. It is a port for vessels up to 150 tons burthen.

A recent writer says that “decidedly a lively, prosperous little town is Letterkenny.” It so happened that he visited the town while it was gay with military, and on a fair day, when the market-place was alive with bustling, chattering, and chaffering country folk, when “smartly-dressed young damsels tripped in and out of the neat well-filled shops,” when “in front of a row of semi-detached villas, like a suburban London terrace, on the hill opposite Hegarty’s, a German band smote the air with discordant fury,” and when swarms of pedlars were vending old clothes. It is not always that Letterkenny is so busy, but the appearance it presented on Tuesday last, the monthly fair day, certainly showed that there is no want of business activity and briskness of trade on these occasions.

The patent under which fairs are still held was granted in the year 1604, at the time of the Ulster settlement, by James I., and afterwards confirmed by Charles I., to William SEMPHILL, his heirs and assigns, to hold a market on every Friday, certain fairs, and a Lost Court. Mr. BOYD’s family acquired the rights under this patent, and the old fairs continued to be held in the old-fashioned way until within recent years. The holder of the patent was empowered to collect tolls, but owing to the disorder, tumult, and even bloodshed which often resulted from their enforcement, Mr. BOYD’s father gave them up. The days of the old fairs were a puzzle even to the inhabitants, so irregular were they. They were ten in number, one was held on the first Friday in January, another on the first Friday after St. Patrick’s Day, another on the 12th of May, another on 8th June, another on 10th July, another on the third Friday in August, and another on November 5th. It was impossible to follow this chronological enigma in fairs. Mr. John H. BOYD and Bishop M’GETTIGAN arranged on alteration of the Good Friday Fair in order to avoid the scandal of the disturbances that generally arose, and the new fair was called the Bishop’s Fair in consequence. Sixteen or eighteen years ago new monthly fairs were fixed by the Town Commissioners for the last Friday in each month, but, as the old irregular fairs were still continued, the new fairs very soon died out, and things reverted back to the old arrangement.

Five years ago, after the opening of the railway, the matter was again taken up, and a complete new set of fairs established, to be held on the 8th of the month. These were inaugurated at a bad time, when the cattle trade was very low, and they have not yet quite recovered from the depression which marked their commencement. There is still this difficulty in regard to the holding of the fairs on the 8th of the month, that they interfere with the weekly market on Fridays. For instance, when the 8th falls on a Thursday or Saturday it is found to be rather inconvenient for the country folks to make two visits to the town so soon after each other. The publicans, of course, don’t object to the arrangement, which makes two markets in the week instead of one; but the farmers complain, and it is probably that some arrangement may be come to for holding the fair on Fridays as well. The weekly butter, pork, oat and flax (recently established) markets, which are held in substantial and commodious buildings, are well supplied with these commodities, but the oat market suffers from the absence of Derry buyers. As regard the fairs, it is strongly felt in the town, and among the farmers and dealers who are in the habit of attending these, that the railway company would do much to increase their importance if they would run a special train on each fair day, as they did on Tuesday. The ordinary first train is far too early for people who have to walk or drive three or four or six miles to the station, the mid-day train leaves too early, and the evening train is too late. Owing to the special on Tuesday there were farmers and dealers at the fair who would not otherwise have attended, but who would come regularly if they had the accommodation train as suggested. It is to be hoped the company will try the experiment. They are showing their desire to facilitate the livestock trade by erecting excellent cattle pens, with concrete floors, at the Letterkenny Station. If they would put on the special it is considered certain that eventually it would have the effect of developing the fairs, and adding largely to the company’s revenue. The Town Commissioners are evidently anxious to do their part in encouraging the fairs. At their last meeting they instructed their clerk to have the fair ground improved, and Mr. STORY has already taken steps to that end. The ground was surveyed after Tuesday’s fair for the purpose of adjusting the levels, &c., and the work of draining and levelling it will be proceeded with at once, and it may eventually be enclosed. It is certainly not without need of attention, as it was in a terrible condition of mud on Tuesday, but before the next fair it is likely to present a different appearance. The fair ground occupies an extensive triangular area under the Sentry Hill, so called from the fact that this rocky eminence was used as an outlook for the sentries when troops were stationed in Letterkenny in ’98. A wag has remarked that Letterkenny ought to be a good fair because it is approached by Church-lane, and is bounded on three sides by the church, the chapel, and the meeting house. From the Market-square access is obtained to the fair ground through Southwell-terrace. Only eleven of the twelve monthly fairs are held here, the twelfth, the great 8th of June fair, still retaining its immemorial habitat at the Old Town, where it is held on the public road, but it is likely to be removed up to the town in course of time.

Tuesday’s fair was a good average one. Including the stock sold by auction at the Market-square there were, perhaps, 800 or 900 head of cattle in Letterkenny, and from 1,000 to 1,500 head of sheep, besides a large number of pigs. The cattle were mostly stores of the small mountain variety, while the majority of the sheep were of the black-faced breed, also for store and feeding purposes. There was very little beef or mutton, and what there was fetched very high prices. The sellers held out all through for stiff figures for all descriptions of stock, with the result that considerable numbers remained unsold. The stock exposed came from a radius of from ten to twelve miles, and even farther. There were cattle and sheep from near Milford, Kilmacreagh, Creeslough, Churchhill, from Glenswilly, the Stranorlar and Raphoe districts, from the whole of the Lagan, and from Manorcunningham, Newtowncunningham, and the lough side of Ramelton. It is a pity that in this immense area there does not appear to be a larger proportion of a good class of cattle. Many of the bovine specimens in the fair were such that it is a waste of time and money to rear and feed them, whereas the infusion of a little fresh blood would produce animals worth double or treble the value. Of course a great proportion of them came from poor districts, where they have little to feed upon except the scanty mountain grazing. Butchers and dealers were disappointed at not getting beef cattle, while farmers complained of the almost total absence of springers of a good class. Some of the latter sold at over £14. Stores also sold well, considering quality, from £5 to £9. Sheep brought about 5s more than they did last fair. During the ? the scene in the fair ground, as viewed from the elevated point of the Sentry Hill, was a very animated and interesting one, the frieze coated peasantry of the remote mountain districts (many of them speaking Irish) mingling with the substantial well to do farmers of the Lagan and the fertile plains and valleys lying between Derry and the Swilly.

The great feature of the fair day was the big auction of cattle conducted by Mr. John ROBINSON in the Market-square. This novelty had the effect of diverting interest and attention from the Fair Queen, and the verdict of some “old hands” who have attended Letterkenny fair for half a century was that the auction is a more profitable method for disposing of stock than the bargaining in the fair. Considering that the bulk of the cattle offered were mountain bred and mountain fed, and that they had never seen a turnip nor tasted an ounce of cotton cake, the prices were wonderfully satisfactory to the seller, while Mr. ROBINSON sold nearly £900 worth of stock in a shorter time than £30 worth would be disposed of by the ordinary hand-spitting and hand-slapping process. The draft of cattle from Glenvaigh belonging to Mrs. ADAIR consisted of seventy-nine wild, hardy-looking animals, which were all sold. They were all small in size, and not in very high condition, but showed more or less of the effects of the introduction of West Highland, polled Angus, and Kerry blood. The Glenveigh stripper cows averaged £7 11s; three-year-old heifers, £9 7s 6d; and two and three-year-old bullocks, £7 2s 6d. Mr. HEWETSON, J.P., Loughveigh House, had a really fine lot of ten three-year-old bullocks, which brought an average of £14 each. Mr. C. MURRAY’s lot of six two-year-olds fetched £7 each, and a fifteen-months old polled Angus bull belonging to Mr. LANGAN realised £11 5s. A bullock belonging to Mr M’KINNEY was knocked down at £9 17s 6d.

Eighty-five sheep were penned, of which sixty-five were sold, vis.: – Thirty-seven for Mrs. ADAIR, nine for Mr M’MONAGLE, and nineteen for Mr. John DOHERTY. Mrs. ADAIR’S black-faced ewes averaged 19s; wethers, £1 2s; and lambs, 14s. Mr. M’MONAGLE’s Sh??p ewes, £1 7s 6d; ram, £2; Mr. DOHERTY’s black-faced wethers, £1. Altogether, ninety-eight cattle and sixty-five sheep were sold. The total amount realised for Mrs. ADAIR’s seventy-nine cattle and thirty-seven sheep was £614, and for the rest of the stock £280 — total of the two hours’ sale, £894. Mr. ROBINSON conducted the sale in his usual genial and efficient manner, and it is tolerably certain that if such good prices continue to be obtained at stock auctions he and his brethren of the hammer in the North West will soon have their hands full of work.