Beautiful North Kerry
All the Fun of the Fair
The Horsefair is a big event in the life of Listowel and many people have written about it and photographed and painted the fairs. Here I bring you a few photos from fairs through the years and an account of the January Fair 2017 by Billy Keane.
The man selling the manic Indian Runner ducks and the pointy- beaked, big red hens came all the way from Macroom to the horse fair in Listowel. There were goats, too, and puppies, horses and ponies, a llama called Larry and donkeys with sad eyes. Noah must have left the gate open.
The street was thronged and I had forgotten all about the day that was in it. The custom is to hold four horse fairs in our town on the first Thursday of each quarter. No one knows exactly how long the horse fair has been going on here in Market Street. Hundreds of years, I would say. There's a story going that Napoleon's horse Marengo was bred in a field down by the River Feale. He was sold at Listowel Horse Fair and again at the great fair of Cahirmee to the French.
My mother and father opened up our pub 63 years ago on the day of the January horse fair. It was their first wedding anniversary. They had no money and the pub was very busy, which gave them a great start.
Gerard O' Leary's family own a poultry operation in Macroom and he travels all over Ireland with laying hens. It seems to be a big thing now for townies to keep a hen or two for the eggs.
I was wrong about the ducks. They are placid enough, Ger says. There wasn't a quack out of them. It was just the insane eyes that scared me, and one duck kept staring at me like she was a witch in disguise. I woke up later that night after a terrible dream. There was the Indian Runner sitting at the end of the bed, staring away. I jumped out of the bed, but she was gone. As my old friend Frank Galvin used to say, she was a hollocollution - Frank's word for hallucination. It was then I got to thinking the duck with the stare might have picked up a bad scent from me. I checked the pillow and it was full of feathers.
The Indian Runner ducks are teachers. Says Ger: "Ducks are like sheep in that they stay in tight groups. The ducks are used to train young collies who aren't able for the big sheep."
We meet a crude man with a few drinks in him, who told us he's gone from the wife. "She's too old to breed," he says, "and too wicked to keep as a pet."
"You can't say that," I say.
"I can say whatever I want," says he.
There were just a few donkeys at the horse fair. A few years back during the boom, a dealer told me he was getting a grand a donkey but now the donkey sanctuaries are full again. I always felt very sorry for the donkeys. There's an old, faded holy picture hanging up over the place I'm writing in right now. The little donkey has bony legs as thin and knobbly as rosary beads. He's carrying the Holy Family across the desert and on to safety.
I think the happiest moment of my life was when I was being returned to the mother and father after a lovely adventurous month in the country with our cousins, the Looneys. Bill Looney let me drive the donkey and car down Church Street. My friends saw me and I shook the reins to get the donkey flying as we galloped on at full speed. I was the proud boy.
Miley Cash is the main man at the horse fair. His big white lorry was parked along the street. Several horses were tied to the side of the lorry. He says: "I bought those ones at Kilmichael, where the ambush took place and another at Doneraile. I'll be calling to Tipperary on the way home to Monasterevin to pick up another one."
Miley is a broad, blocky man. You couldn't put an age on him, but he told me he has been coming here to Listowel for more than 60 years.
He is here to support the fair and the way of life for the people who come here.
"Do you see that man over there with the pony?"
An old man holds his pony on display. The dappled brown and white pony looks like he could easily pass for an Apache's mount in a cowboy picture.
"Well", continues Miley, "he bought her for €1,100 and he kept her for year. Now he'll sell her for the same money. There's no money in this for these people. He put new shoes on her and had her clipped and tagged. The horse people never count the expenses when they figure out the buying and selling. They love the idea of having a horse. He sold him to me for €1,100 and there was a tenner luck."
Several pony men parade their stock nonchalantly by Miley, as if they were taking the ponies for a walk and the walk happened to pass the dealer. Miley gives the parade no more than a glance. That's all he needs. The Cashes were reared to this game. He sells his purchases on to Germany, Holland and France.
Just then, a small Traveller boy walks past us with a Shetland. The kid can't be any more than seven or eight. And isn't he the proud boy. The Travelling people are at their happiest on days like this. Horses are in their blood.
This man approaches Miley and he's whispering. There's a lot of whispering going on at horse fairs. I listen in. "Don't tell him you know me," says the pony whisperer.
What was it all about? Your guess is as good as mine, but somehow you feel that horse fair people wouldn't be happy unless there was a bit of bargaining to be done, with plenty of subterfuge and walking away in a huff if the price isn't right. No different to trade unions and employers, if you think about it.
The-nephew-and-uncle team of Johhny Cahill and Daniel Riordan are selling an unbroken Welsh pony and a Stewball, which is another breed of blocky pony.
"How much will ye get?"
Uncle Johnny whispers: "About 300 for the Skewball. And 150 for the pony."
The two have a lovely way with the horses and each other. The Welsh pony rears up and Daniel leads off to walk the friskiness off of her. Walks him past Miley, that is. "She's a nice cob," says Johnny. Miley nods, but no more than that. The bargaining pre-play sets up the process.
I couldn't see any sign of mistreatment or of neglect at the horse fair. There have been problems with animal welfare at other fairs. But the majority are in love with the idea of owning a horse, donkey or a pony. The tourists love the tangling, the vibrancy and the colour of it all. This is a tradition worth keeping.
I went back then, after a long walkabout among the pony people, to open up the pub for year 64.