The fair of Muff

By Máire O¹Donoghue

On August 12th each year, all roads leading to the little village of Muff are thronged with excited and expectant hordes of fun-seekers, bargain-hunters and social beings. They come from far and near. For it is on this day, that the famous traditional traveller horse fair of Muff is held.

There are other annual horse fairs in Ireland in places like Killorglin, Ballintubber, Ballinasloe, Ballycastle and Ballyduff but the fair of Muff has a special magic of its own.

The annual fair of Muff survives from the 17th century. It is conducted on the conventional carnival style, retaining much of its traditional popularity and continues to attract a large crowd. Sometimes called the pattern or patron fair, its origins may be traced to the year 1608 when King James 1 granted to Garrett Fleming of Cabragh, a licence to hold a Tuesday market at the Castle of Clanchye in Co. Cavan and a fair on the 1st August and the two following days. This may have been the revival of an earlier O’Reilly fair. However, it is said that Fleming’s interest was chiefly to secure the customary tolls.

But how did the date change from August 1st to August 12th. This alteration may be explained by the change in the calendar which became legally effective in Ireland and England in 1752, when eleven days were omitted, hence the old style and the new style systems of computation occasionally occurring in monumental inscriptions. For example, the Battle of the Boyne was fought on July 1st, but its celebration is now eleven days later.

There was not always fun and laughter and hard bargaining at the fair of Muff. In the early decades of the 19th century, when faction fighting was the order of the day, the fair was often the scene of riot and tumult, resulting often in loss of life.

On Thursday 12th August 1830, a shooting affray at the fair led to the deaths of two men named Fitzsimons and O’Reilly from Kilann parish. This affray is traditionally referred to as the “Battle of Muff”.
A contemporary newspaper, The Dublin Evening Post, in the 17th August 1830 issue, reported that “at the fair of Muff a desperate riot took place in which two men were killed.” The shots were fired from the local Orange Lodge but it was afterwards ascertained that the occurrence was due to a misunderstanding. The joint funeral of the two victims, marshalled and led by Colonel Cruice of Cruicetown is said to have been attended by 100,000 people. It is the subject of a lengthy elegy which is still remembered in the district.

Up to the mid 1900s, the fair of Muff lasted for a week or more. Each day a sale for different livestock took place. However, from then on the fair became just a one day event and the only livestock sold was the horses.

In the olden days the travelling folk would come to Muff a week before the event and each family would camp in the same place as the previous year. Their piebald horse drawn caravans were a sight to behold, each one a gaily coloured wonder. Today, to take a jaunt around Killarney in such a caravan would cost the tourist dearly. At night-time many village folk would join the travellers around their fire for a sing song and at that fire many was the tall tale told and old scores settled.

The famous traveller singer Margaret Barry often made an appearance at these camp fires and her singing warmed the cockles of many a heart.

When the great day arrived the roads of Muff would be lined with horses of all breeds, shapes and sizes - Irish draughts, hunters, drays and Connemara ponies to mention but a few.

At the fair itself, which was held at the Cross in Muff, the horses would be vetted up and down many times by potential buyers, many of whom would not make an immediate decision.

They would go away, look at other horses come back and again vet their original choice, making them gallop and run, watching the strength of their legs and their sinews rippling under their glossy coats. More haggling would take place, tempers would sometimes flare until eventually, owner and buyer would come to an agreement. Hands were spit upon and then shaken to seal the price and often the children of both would benefit from the luck penny.

George Gartlan owned the bar tent in those days. He was also the owner of the thatched pub in the village. In that tent many a thirst was quenched, a bargain sealed and a row started. The guards always had a busy time at the fair of Muff.

Nowadays, the travellers just come and go on the same day. There are no horse drawn caravans now, instead mobile homes all decked with chrome and towed by Hiace vans. Even the breed of horses have changed, the draughts and the drays are no longer needed to pull the heavy load. The horses and ponies come in lorries, the hoof-beat on the roads, a thing of the past.

The bar tent is long gone. The bar area is a permanent structure now built by George’s son Jim, an area famous for its drinking, singing and dancing. One of the best stalls nowadays is the I.C.A. one. Their home made marmalade and soda bread are two very popular buys and you’re always sure of a cup of tea and a sandwich.

The hawkers come early, some the day before, to set up their stalls along the road. The children are delighted with the candyfloss, toys, games, sweets, drinks and ice-creams, chocolate, tapes, rings and lucky dips. The chip vans always do a brisk business.

The fair even stretches over to the quarry grounds nearby where a lot of gambling takes place. Bets are placed on the ground and many’s the fortune that is won and lost at the tossing of a coin. Indeed you might see a certain individual trying to evade the law playing his three card trick on his table with the velvet cloth.

There is a skittles competition, a penalty shoot-out and horse-shoe throwing. Every year there is a raffle for a pony and the lucky winner can take him home that evening.

A special atmosphere prevails at the Rock of Muff nearby. It is there that people sit, eating and drinking and watching the neighbours dance to rousing beat of the band. Many revellers will, I’m sure, echo the words of Kevin Connell when he says,

“Since boyhood days, I’ve climbed the braes.
I would not miss that day
I’d rest my feet in Mickey’s street
Beside the Lough-in-Lae.
In sun or rain great joy I’d gain
Though the mountain road is rough
I love to join the happy crowd
At the pattern fair of Muff.

As years go by, many patrons die
And leave the ones they love
I hope they’re up there, in the sky
With our heavenly Queen above.
And when each year, as the Fair is held
St Peter kindly will puff
As he draws the Screen to let Friends be seen
On the Dancing Deck, at Muff.

Taken from Breffni Blue
April 2001