Bill McStay writes on how work was found on Ulster farms a century and a half ago
Come all ye loyal heroes and listen unto me,
Don’t hire with any master till you know what your work will be,
For he will rise you early from the clear daylight till dawn
And you never will be able for to plough the rocks of Bawn.
The Rocks of Bawn, a Cavan song set to a traditional air, is one of the many about the practice of hiring labour, and the experiences of the men and women who found work through Ireland’s hiring fairs.
For virtually 200 years, until they tailed off during the first half of the 20th century, these fairs took place in as many as eighty locations throughout the Province of Ulster.
They were held mostly around the twelfth of May and November. They were often combined with market days, and they made towns and villages into places of bustling activity, excitement and indeed family tears. Venues and dates were set out in the immensely popular annual Old Moore’s Almanac.
On a typical Fair morning, young persons of both sexes, many of them as young as ten, assembled at a known meeting place in the town. They carried their personal possessions wrapped up in a bundle. Prospective employers, mainly farmers, would approach them.
When a deal was struck-for an agreed amount, plus free board and lodging for the six-month hiring period, the new employee would receive an ‘earnest’, amounting to a shilling or more, and would hand over the bundle with the promise to meet the employer later in the day. The contract was now legally binding.
Workers rated employers by the quality of the table they kept. Always popular was one reputed to keep ‘a good meat house’. He would have no difficulty in hiring workers. One such was old John who farmed in the Glens of Antrim, even if he was a strict Presbyterian with a strong work ethic, and ruled his little kingdom with a rod of iron. He allowed only the Bible only to be read on Sundays. He disapproved of wakes and the Orange Order.
When the priest called to enquire about members of his flock among the workers, he was ceremoniously brought into the parlour ‘to take a glass’ with his teetotal host.
By contrast, Robert’s employer in the same county was a hard taskmaster. Not satisfied that his hired boy walked horses all the way to Belfast market and back again, he sent him out to cart manure till bedtime, with only some bread and tea to break his fast.
One of the most prominent fairs in Ulster was held in Strabane, and continued until 1949. It served not only the immediate hinterland, but drew workers from as far afield as Tory Island in Donegal.
On a Fair day, the town pulsated with activity. Eating houses competed for custom, providing cheap and substantial meals of potatoes, bacon and turnips. Stalls lined the streets, selling farm and household utensils, clothes and knick-knacks.
Musicians, confidence tricksters and amusement booths beguiled the crowds. Young men and women converged on the town for days beforehand, arriving by the Donegal Railway, or walking for many miles barefooted and carrying their footwear for use only on the fair day. The hardship of those days is recalled by Donegal writers like Paddy the Cope Gallagher and Patrick McGill of Glenties.
Despite the hardship and the drudgery, dramatically reduced after the Dromore-born Harry Ferguson invented the tractor (which bears his name) just before the Second World War, hired young people found time for jollification and even romance.
Lizzy Scott, hired at twelve in Limavady Fair, had to rise at six, and face a day of feeding pigs, milking cows and making butter. But she was fed plentifully on porridge, potatoes and buttermilk, enjoyed dancing in the rare breaks from work, and married a fellow-worker when she was twenty-four. Lizzie became an important member of her local community, called upon to assist at a birth or to lay out the dead.
Tyrone’s Killeter Fair is celebrated in song as the author’s meeting place with his future wife:
She stole my heart completely boys,
The truth I do declare, And the first
place that I met her boys
Was in Killeter Fair.
A Fermanagh man recalled the priest’s advice in a Sunday sermon before Roslea Fair. He called on his young listeners to be faithful to their religion and cautioned against the dangers of dancing and runaway marriages.
Despite advice like this from many a pulpit, the call of the heart usually prevailed, as in the case of the young Tyrone girl. She resisted her parents’ wish that she marry a settled gentleman they approved of, eloped with her sweetheart, married him, and now writes that:
‘With pleasure and contentment I never will deny, I’m living in America with my father’s servant boy’.