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At a Wicklow Fair

The Place and the People

A YEAR or two ago I wished to visit a fair in County Wicklow, and as
the buying and selling in these fairs are got through very early in
the morning I started soon after dawn to walk the ten or twelve
miles that led to Aughrim, where the fair was to be held. When I
came out into the air the cold was intense, though it was a morning
of August, and the dew was so heavy that bushes and meadows of
mountain grass seemed to have lost their greenness in silvery grey.
In the glens I went through white mists were twisting and feathering
themselves into extraordinary shapes, and showing blue hills behind
them that looked singularly desolate and far away. At every turn I
came on multitudes of rabbits feeding on the roadside, or on even
shyer creatures--corncrakes, squirrels and snipe--close to
villages where no one was awake.

Then the sun rose, and I could see lines of smoke beginning to go up
from farm-houses under the hills, and sometimes a sleepy,
half-dressed girl looked out of the door of a cottage when my feet
echoed on the road. About six miles from Aughrim I began to fall in
with droves of bullocks and sheep, in charge of two or three dogs
and a herd, or with whole families of mountain people, driving
nothing but a single donkey or kid. These people seemed to feel
already the animation of the fair, and were talking eagerly and
gaily among themselves. I did not hurry, and it was about nine
o'clock when I made my way into the village, which was now thronged
with cattle and sheep. On every side the usual half-humorous
bargaining could be heard above the noise of the pigs and donkeys
and lambs. One man would say:

'Are you going to not divide a shilling with me? Are you going to
not do it? You're the biggest schemer ever walked down into
Aughrim.'

A little further on a man said to a seller: 'You're asking too much
for them lambs.' The seller answered: 'If I didn't ask it how would
I ever get it? The lambs is good lambs, and if you buy them now
you'll get home nice and easy in time to have your dinner in
comfort, and if you don't buy them you'll be here the whole day
sweating in the heat and dust, and maybe not please yourself in the
end of all.'

Then they began looking at the lambs again, talking of the cleanness
of their skin and the quality of the wool, and making many
extravagant remarks in their praise or against them. As I turned
away I heard the loud clap of one hand into another, which always
marks the conclusion of a bargain.

A little further on I found a farmer I knew standing before a
public-house, looking radiant with delight. 'It's a fine fair,
Mister,' he said, 'and I'm after selling the lambs I had here a
month ago and no one would look at them. Then I took them to
Rathdrum and Wicklow, getting up at three in the morning, and
driving them in the creel, and it all for nothing. But I'm shut of
them now, and it's not too bad a price I've got either. I'm after
driving the lambs outside the customs (the boundary where the fair
tolls are paid), and I'm waiting now for my money.' While we were
talking, a cry of warning was raised: 'Mind yourselves below there's
a drift of sheep coming down the road.' Then a couple of men and
dogs appeared, trying to drive a score of sheep that some one had
purchased, out of the village, between the countless flocks that
were standing already on either side of the way. This task is
peculiarly difficult. Boys and men collect round the flock that is
to be driven out, and try to force the animals down the narrow
passage that is left in the middle of the road. It hardly ever
happens, however, that they get through without carrying off a few
of some one else's sheep, or losing some of their own, which have to
be restored, or looked for afterwards.

The flock was driven by as well as could be managed, and a moment
later an old man came up to us, and asked if we had seen a ewe
passing from the west. 'A sheep is after passing,' said the farmer I
was talking to, 'but it was not one of yours, for it was too wilful;
it was a mountain sheep.' Sometimes animals are astray in this way
for a considerable time--it is not unusual to meet a man the day
after a fair wandering through the country, asking after a lost
heifer, or ewe--but they are always well marked and are found in the
end.

When I reached the green above the village I found the curious
throng one always meets in these fairs, made up of wild mountain
squatters, gentlemen farmers, jobbers and herds. At one corner of
the green there was the usual camp of tinkers, where a swarm of
children had been left to play among the carts while the men and
women wandered through the fair selling cans or donkeys. Many odd
types of tramps and beggars had come together also, and were
loitering about in the hope of getting some chance job, or of
finding some one who would stand them a drink. Once or twice a stir
was made by some unruly ram or bull, but in these smaller fairs
there seldom is much real excitement till the evening, when the bad
whisky that is too freely drunk begins to be felt.

When I had spoken to one or two men that I wished to see, I sat down
near a bridge at the end of the green, between a tinker who was
mending a can and a herd who was minding some sheep that had not
been sold. The herd spoke to me with some pride of his skill in
dipping sheep to keep them from the fly, and other matters connected
with his work. 'Let you not be talking,' said the tinker, when he
paused for a moment. 'You've been after sheep since you were that
height' (holding his hand a little over the ground), 'and yet you're
nowhere in the world beside the herds that do be reared beyond on
the mountains. Those men are a wonder, for I'm told they can tell a
lamb from their own ewes before it is marked; and that when they
have five hundred sheep on the hills--five hundred is a big
number--they don't need to count them or reckon them at all, but
they just walk here and there where they are, and if one is gone
away they'll miss it from the rest.'

Then a woman came up and spoke to the tinker, and they went down the
road together into the village. 'That man is a great villain,' said
the herd, when he was out of hearing. 'One time he and his woman
went up to a priest in the hills and asked him would he wed them for
half a sovereign, I think it was. The priest said it was a poor
price, but he'd wed them surely if they'd make him a tin can along
with it. "I will, faith," said the tinker, "and I'll come back when
it's done." They went off then, and in three weeks they came back,
and they asked the priest a second time would he wed them. "Have you
the tin can?" said the priest. "We have not," said the tinker; "we
had it made at the fall of night, but the ass gave it a kick this
morning the way it isn't fit for you at all." "Go on now," says the
priest. "It's a pair of rogues and schemers you are, and I won't wed
you at all." They went off then, and they were never married to this
day.'

As I went up again through the village a great sale of old clothing
was going on from booths at each side of the road, and further on
boots were set out for sale on boards laid across the tops of
barrels, a very usual counter. In another place old women were
selling quantities of damaged fruit, kippered herrings, and an
extraordinary collection of old ropes and iron. In front of a
public-house a ballad-singer was singing a song in the middle of a
crowd of people. As far as I could hear it, the words ran like this:


As we came down from Wicklow
With our bundle of switches
As we came down from Wicklow,
Oh! what did we see?
As we came to the city
We saw maidens pretty,
And we called out to ask them to buy our heath-broom.
Heath-broom, freestone, black turf, gather them up.
Oh! gradh machree, Mavourneen,
Won't you buy our heath-broom?
When the season is over
Won't we be in clover,
With the gold in our pockets
We got from heath-broom.

It's home we will toddle,
And we'll get a naggin,
And we'll drink to the maidens that bought our heath-broom.
Heath-broom, freestone, black turf, gather them up.
Oh! gradh machree, Mavourneen,
Won't you buy our heath-broom?

Before he had finished a tinker arrived, too drunk to stand or walk,
but leading a tall horse with his left hand, and inviting anyone who
would deny that he was the best horseman in Wicklow to fight with
him on the spot. Soon afterwards I started on my way home, driving
most of the way with a farmer from the same neighbourhood.

J. M. Synge

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