Sheep fair, Eyre Square

Like most towns and cities in Ireland, Galway had a lot of fairs and markets. They were a vital part of life and the economy of the city, helping to feed the local population and provide much needed cash for farmers in the hinterland.

Eyre Square was the location of many of these events. Hay was an essential commodity and the Haymarket was a major event in the days when people travelled on horseback or in horse-drawn carriages. Cart loads of hay usually began to arrive on Friday evening, and on Saturday morning the Square seemed to be covered in hay and there was very little space for doing other business. Young local boys often followed these laden carts as they made their way into town, and pulled armfuls of hay from the load, which they would subsequently sell to neighbours who had chickens, for a few pennies. The Haymarket began to decline when motorised transport arrived. Horse fairs were significant events in the Galway calendar, and regularly filled the Square.

The cattle fair, which was originally held at Fairhill, was also an important affair and often spilled out of the Square to Forster Street, Williamsgate Street, and Eglinton Street. It eventually moved to the Fairgreen. Pig fairs did not take up so much space, and usually took place in the area in front of where the Imperial Hotel is today. Regular sheep fairs took place, and possibly because the sheep invariably were driven in in flocks, and were more difficult to manage, the farmers needed more space to control them. Thus the sheep fair was more spread out. Our photograph shows two men (armed with their sticks ) discussing the quality of the animals on offer, while a young boy in plus fours keeps a watchful eye. It was a wet day, and if the sheep were not sold the farmer would have to drive them home again. On the left you can see sides of carts being used to pen the sheep up against the railings at the bottom of the Square.

Turf markets were important in providing fuel, and were held here and at Raven Terrace. Most market areas had a large scales… there was one opposite the County Club, another in Woodquay, where they had a potato market, and another in the Small Crane, where they also held a potato market.

At the top of the Square there was a sock market, and another in Eglinton Street. The Fishmarket was situated in front of the Spanish Arch, and of course the fruit and vegetable and poultry market still takes place in front of the Collegiate Church. Church Street used to host an egg and country butter market up to about 20 years ago. There was also, sadly, a fair which dealt in humans… a hiring fair where groups of spailpíns would gather at the railings opposite the Skeff hoping to be given work by farmers from east or south of the city.

The tree we see behind the men in our photograph achieved a certain notoriety when a local suffragette woman, Honor Todd, chained herself to it during the visit to the Great Southern Hotel of the Vice Lieutenant for Ireland. She did this to highlight the inequalities suffered by women and attracted a lot of attention. Indeed, the tree subsequently became known as the ‘Suffragette Tree’ and was a place of pilgrimage for Galway women. So there was a terrible furore 100 years ago on this day, April 1, when the Urban District Council had it chopped down.

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