The St Johnston Fair
There used to be a fair in days long forgotten in St Johnston. This was in keeping with the Irish tradition of the fair. The attraction of the fair was as much its being a time for people to meet together and have loads of fun as a time to do business.
Among the earliest of Irish laws was the right to have public gatherings such as those that took place at the fair.
From the time of the Normans, there was a move to bring people and businesses into the formation of towns and away from the age old tradition of people gathering near and on hilltops.
British reign introduced the law that fair days could only be organised upon reception of a licence from the reigning monarch.
The fair didn’t differ that much from place to place except in the numbers of traders and entertainers and people it attracted. We can get a picture of the St Johnston fair from how the fair took place in other towns.
The focus of the business end of the fair was the sale of sheep and cattle and other domesticated animals. The sale of crops took a lesser part.
The stands or stalls were introduced as people found the need for items such as baskets, delft and clothes. There were stalls for rope, twine and string. There were stalls for used clothing and new clothing. The latter stalls tended to be manned by local drapery businesses.
There were fruit stalls. At the meat stalls, you could buy meat that was preserved by salting or smoking. The salt was mixed with a little saltpetre to enhance its preservative properties. Smoking was another preservation technique. The meat was put in a well aired shed suspended on hooks over a fire so that the smoke could rise over the meat.
With the rise in the popularity of eating pigs, black puddings became popular and were made for sale at fairs. The puddings were made of pig blood mixed with oats and salt and herbs. The pig fat was chopped into tiny pieces and added to the mixture. The pudding was packed into a piece of pig intestine to prepare it for boiling.
The pig was very useful. Its bladder could be removed and with a strong pair of lungs to blow into it, it became a ball for the children to kick around! This kept them amused at the fairs when they were not helping the grown-ups!
Blacksmiths made items for the stand such as utensils and pots.
Sharp tools for sale were advertised by the trader shouting about how sharp they were as he sharpened them on the whetstone in case there should be any doubt! Another tactic was to cut things up with the tools.
Often instead of buying something you could trade in something you owned for it. If you wanted tobacco you might give the trader a chicken for it. Upon striking a deal the tradition of slapping the hand of the trader was the tradition.
The fair was a time for sporting activities some of which would be very much illegal today such as cock fighting and even brawling.
There were stands where games could be played and there was much music provided by the pipers and the fiddlers and other entertainers and there was a lot of dancing! Players of the tin whistle were rife at all fairs particularly those in the poorest areas.
Of concern to the police, was how fairs were so frequently marred due to the aggression and brawling due to the effects of the free flowing poteen.
Naturally the St Johnston fair did not take place in the middle of the village because of the form of the town at the time. The town was comprised of a Main Street, and a few side streets so the fair took place in a field or fields on the outskirts of the town. Farmers were willing to give their fields for the event because of the business it brought into the area and to themselves. And they got a fee for letting the fair be held on their land.
There is a deed in the Irish Registry Office. It is Deed Number 630 and dates from 20 Nov 1710. It records that Archdeacon Andrew Hamilton of Raphoe sold the corn mill in Carrickins, the then name for Carrigans. The price was £340. It was sold to William McClintock of Dunmore and included two houses in Carrigans in the possession of Archibald McClintock and Ambrose McCarter. William Harvey of Imlick was a witness. Corn from this mill would have been in big demand at the fair.
We know that on the 4th of November 1757 a fair took place in St Johnston and it was remarked that a huge number of cattle had been sold fetching good prices.
There was an agent for the Earl of Abercorn who lived in Lifford. The agent’s name was Nathaniel Nesbit and he visited the market at St Johnston on 20th April 1758. He said that £100 of green unbleached linen was bought. The townspeople told him they wanted horseracing and cock fighting. But as he didn’t want drunken people and idlers coming to these events he wouldn’t allow them. He then informed the Earl that the turf-cutting at Carrickmore, St Johnston had been stopped.
On the 17th November 1758, the same measures were taken to stop idlers being drawn to the St Johnston fair. These measures entailed the discontinuation of horse races and cockfights. It was endeavoured to keep the focus on sales of livestock and linen and other items of merchandise.
Cattle sales were impressive at the 25th November 1782 fair. It was so successful that another fair was required for Easter Tuesday in 1783.
It is tempting to imagine people standing at the half doors on the Main Street watching people arrive for the fair and horses and carts perhaps going through the Main Street to the fair. The street then would have been a lane that would muddy in wet weather and children and hens would be splashed by the wheels of the cart as they cut the puddles of water in two sending jets of water over those standing too close.