Our Community Historian Brendan Matthews relates the history of the famous Horse Fair held in Drogheda on 12th May:
The great May Fair of Drogheda, held around 12th May, was an annual event for centuries that was held in the Boyneside town. In the days leading up the fair people would flock to Drogheda from all over the country and from abroad; farmers, labourers, horse dealers, merchants, gentlemen, tricksters, travellers, tinkers, hawkers, musicians, knights of the road, pedlars, etc. would be seen on all roads leading to the town and disembarking from an array of boats and ships along the quay.
The horse stables at the rear of Keapock`s and Symcock`s hotels in West Street would be full to capacity with livestock while the hotel rooms and Inns throughout the town would also be overcrowded, such was the fame of the Great May Fair. Fine horses would be seen galloping at a breakneck speed along West Street to show off their quality, while the parade ring to exhibit and examine the animals was positioned in the vicinity of the West Gate.
Georges St. Fair St. and the Fair Green areas would also be thronged with folk buying and selling sheep, pigs, cattle, fowl and horses, while the hawkers, tinkers, musicians, singers, storytellers, etc., would be seen at various locations from Chesters Lane (Fair Green) to the West Gate to the Tholsel.
During the 19th century and after the introduction of the Irish Constabulary Police Barracks to Drogheda in 1837 the great May fair began to be more disciplined and organised; however drink and fighting was still prevalent and arrests were frequent among the thousands that attended the fair. Great horses were sold at the May fair and there are many references to the fact that buyers came from all over Ireland and from abroad to purchase these animals for the English and French armies, the landed gentry buying for their coaches, horse trainers buying for potential racing champions, the farmer and his labourer buying for their strength and ability to work the land and the gentlemen to purchase the purebred stock.
Another side event of the occasion was the hiring of men, women and children to work on the land and as domesticated servants, which was carried on outside the tholsel. Young milking maids would stand around with a milking stool in their hand to indicate the type of employment they sought, herdsmen stood with a wisp of straw in their mouths, shepherds would hold a crook or a piece of wool, servants would hold mops and so on.
The hirers would then walk up and down viewing the height, weight, appearance, age, ability, etc., of the people for hire and then a deal would be struck up between hirer and employee, which was usually a oneyear contract of employment with the benefits of some monetary wage along with bed and board. In one incident, back in May of 1870, a young lad by the name of Edward Arnold was hired by a farmer from the Twenties area of Drogheda at the tholsel during the fair to work at the milking of cows and to attend to the forthcoming harvest.
A deal was struck between the two whereby the lad was to be hired for the following year with a payment of £5 and ten shillings plus food. However, after only two months the young lad packed in his employment which enraged the farmer because the reaping of the harvest was upon them and so as a result the farmer took a court case against the boy for breach of contract.
The court case went ahead at the tholsel in September of 1870 and during the hearing the young lad told the court that he left because of the small amount of food that was given to him which included bread and water, some herrings and some Indian stirabout at night for his supper. He also told the court that he would go back to his employment if the farmer agreed to improve his food. The court made the decision that the boy should return to his place of employment and that two months' pay should also be deducted from his wages and that if he failed to return they would have no option but to commit him to the jail at Scarlett Street. The Great Drogheda Horse Fair of yesteryear and not a sight nor sound of any tourist board or 'sub-committee'!