Hely Dutton, in his survey of County Galway in 1824, wrote: “In every considerable town there is a market for fat cattle and sheep once a week. The earliest cattle fairs in Galway were held at Fairhill (hence the name ) but in the 19th century, they moved to Eyre Square. It was where the farmer sold his product to other farmers, to butchers and to visiting dealers. It was where town and country met, where the rural people would come to town to sell, then buy whatever necessities they needed before returning home."
J Stirling Coyne, a visitor to Galway in 1842, wrote: “It was market day when I arrived, and the large square in front of the inn was thronged with hundreds of people, shoeless and stockingless, but all with their 'top-hamper' as a sailor would say, of the gayest of colours. Not only in dress however, but in gesticulation, and in a certain massiveness of feature, the Galwayians struck me as different from all the other Irish I had seen. The noise of the potato and pig traders was perfectly deafening, and there seemed the prospect of a fight in every group engaged in traffic. I wandered among the baskets and the carts.”
Our photograph was taken about 100 years after that observation and was given to us by the Museum of Country Life in Turlough, Co Mayo. It shows a busy pig fair in the Square where there is nobody shoeless or stockingless. Some farmers may have had to walk their animals into the fair, and if they did not sell, walk them home again. The farmers in our picture were more upmarket with their horses and carts. The photographer was probably standing on a cart like those in the photograph. The pig was very important in rural life, it often helped pay the rent or feed a family through the winter.
Fairs and markets were an important part of life in Galway — there was a basket market and a potato market in Woodquay, a turf market at the Small Crane, an egg and butter market on Church Street, a sock market on Eglinton Street, a vegetable and fowl market in front of St Nicholas’, a fish market at the Spanish Arch, buttermilk was sold in Buttermilk Lane, a hay market in Eyre Square, which was also the location for horse fairs, cattle fairs, sheep fairs, and pig fairs. Saddest of all was the ‘labour market’ where spailpíns used to gather at the railings in the Square hoping to be hired.
If you have not been to the Museum of Country Life, then you should go. It gets better with every visit. It focuses on the lives of ordinary people, mainly in rural Ireland, in the last couple of centuries, brought to life through the display of objects that they made and used. The display is of interest to people of all ages, as is a book the museum has published titled Happy Days and Hard Times, a collection of memories and stories told by visitors to the museum. It is compiled by Joanne Hamilton and is superby illustrated by images of objects from the museum’s collection, and is an ideal gift, especially for parents or grandparents. Both the museum and the book are highly recommended.
This afternoon at 4.30pm, President Michael D Higgins will unveil a plaque in memory of the late and much loved teacher, old Galwegian and raconteur, Donal Taheny. The ceremony will take place near the gates of St Patrick’s Boys School and all are welcome.