One of the earliest associations of Eyre Square with the horse was the jousting competitions that went on there in the middle ages. There were also horse fairs held in the Square where one could buy and sell horses, these were usually held outside the railings and on the streets. Before motorised machinery was invented, the horse provided people with their main type of transport: the work horse was an invaluable part of the farm used to pull the plough or haul the farmer and his cartload of produce into town. Horse racing was always a popular sport and the first Galway Horse Show was held in the Square in 1892.
Horse fairs were an integral part of life in Galway, a regular important social and economic event where people from east of the city often came to purchase animals from the west such as the Conamara pony. It involved dealers and drovers, farriers and saddlers, blacksmiths and genuine equine lovers who felt that the horse was not just a disposable war machine.
Some seventy years ago an English writer described the scene thus “All around were the buyers, coat-tails flying, ash sticks waving, “handlashing” for the bargain, looking like enemies but agreeing good-naturedly on “luck money”, the part that’s given back. “I’m doing you a good favour and you don’t have the sense to see it. Mind you, tis a fair price” stormed the tall man while a peaceable little man listened patiently with his hand on his horse. Casual observers suddenly whispered to the buyer and pulled him back as he started off in great disgust. Then, arm in arm the two sealed their bargain. “They’ll argue for ten bob and drink up a pound” said a man at my elbow.
During the nineteenth century, the British Army bought up a lot of the horses on offer at these fairs, all to be used in various campaigns such as the Crimean War, the Boer Wars or World War 1, at which time they also commandeered most of the horses used to pull the Salthill tram which more or less finished off that business. By that time, motorised trucks were taking over from horse-drawn vehicles and the horse was being replaced by the tractor on the farm, and so horse fairs became less and less frequent in the city.
There were other types of fair also held in the Square, cattle fairs, sheep fairs, pig fairs as well as hay markets, turf markets and saddest of all, a market with no dignity, a hiring fair where spailpíns were hired out to farmers. There were also potato markets in Woodquay and the Small Crane, a banbh market most Saturdays at Queen Street, an egg & butter market at Church Street, the fish market at the Spanish Arch, the small basket market in Woodquay, a sock market in Eglinton Street and the fowl & vegetable market in front of St. Nicholas’ Collegiate Church.
Our main photograph , taken c.1950, was kindly given to us by The Museum of Country Life in Turlough, Co. Mayo. It shows the hustle and bustle of the fair with people checking out the health and soundness of the horses while looking for a bargain. It also makes you think of the clean-up operation that the Corporation had to do after this event. Our second image is of two men who look as if they are on the point of sealing a bargain and dates from c.1920.
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