Valerie Thorington Former President of the Agricultural Show and indeed former national Director of the Irish Shows Association, took some time over the lockdown to do some decluttering of her late father’s papers and books and fascinatedly came across a 1920 Autobiography of one Joseph Tatlow.
Of a Train family, the Railway Gazette published his witty and reflective memoire in 1920 after he rose to the position of Director of the Midland Great Western Railway and served a member of the Dominions Royal Commission 1912 – 1917.
Chapter 14 reflects his first visit as Manager to the Fair in 1891 and the railways role .Thackeray the famous travel writer commented that Ballinasloe Fair where cattle and sheep assemble in greater numbers, than at any other livestock fair in the United Kingdom upto the Napoleonic Wars.
“On the first Monday in October, 1891, to a special train of empty carriages run by the Midland from Dublin for the purposes of this fair, a vehicle, called the directors’ saloon was attached, and in the chairman of the company, most of the directors and the principal officers travelled to Ballinasloe, there to remain until the conclusion of the fair at the end of the week.
The saloon merits a word or two. It was built in the year 1844, was originally the property of William Dargan, the well-known contractor and the promoter of the Dublin Exhibition 1853, whose statue adorns the grounds that front the Irish National Gallery.
Ballinasloe fair has two specially big days – Tuesday and Friday – the former devoted to the sale of sheep and the latter to cattle, though in fact its commerce in cattle, sheep, horses, pigs, calves, rams and goats, not to mention donkeys and mules, goes on more or less briskly throughout the whole week, Saturday being remnant day when jobbers spick up bargains. For a hundred years ago, in Peggy O’Dowd’s time, in the west of Ireland it was the great event of the year, not only for the sale of flocks and herds, but also for social gatherings, fun and frolic, so at least I am told by the oldest inhabitant. An older account still, says these fairs were a time for games and races, pleasure and amusement, and eating and feasting, whilst another record describes them as places “where there were food and precious raiment, downs and quilts, ae and flesh eat, chessmen and chess boards, horses and chariots, greyhounds and playthings besides.” It is curious that dancing is not mentioned, but dancing in the olden days in Ireland was not, I believe, much indulged in. Eighty years ago over 80.000 sheep entered the fair and 20.000 cattle.
Arrived at Ballinasloe we established ourselves in quarters that were part of the original station premises. These consisted of a good sized dining room.
In the creature comforts provided at Ballinasloe the working staff was not forgotten. Adjacent to the station as a large room in which meals were provided for the men, and another large room was furnished as a dormitory. Two long sleeping carriages had also been built for the accommodation of drivers, guards and firemen, which were used also for other fairs.
Ballinasloe was never new to me, and I felt not a little anxious concerning the working of the fair traffic, which I knew was no child’s play, and which I was told was often attended with serious delays. Early on Tuesday morning I was awakened, long before daylight, by the whistling of engines, the shunting of wagons and the shouting of men. My friend Atock and I rose early, went along the landing banks where we found the work in full swing and one special train loaded with sheep ready to start. The entraining of sheep, not so difficult or so noisy a business as the loading of cattle, is attended with much less beating of the animals and fewer curses; but there was noise enough, and I can, in fancy, hear it ringing in my ears now.
Throughout the day I was besieged by grumbling and discontented customers: want of wagons, unfair distribution, favoritism, delays, were the burden of their complaints, and I had to admit that in the working of the Ballinasloe fair traffic all was not perfect. The rolling stock was insufficient; trains after a journey to Meath not Dublin with stock had to return to Ballinasloe to be loaded again, which was productive of much delay; and what added to the trouble was that everyone seemed to have a hand in the management of the business. It gave much to think about. Before the next year’s fair I had the whole arrangement well thrashed out, and when the eventful week arrived, placed the working of the traffic under sole control of my principal outside men, with excellent results.
Under Thomas Elliott’s management, the work at Ballinasloe has for many years been conducted with clock-work regularity.
In 1891 there were 25.000 sheep at the fair, 10.000 cattle and 1.500 horses, and the company ran 43 special trains loaded with stock. The sheep fair is held in Garbally Park, on the estate of Lord Clancarty, and the counting of the sheep through a certain narrow gap, and the rapidity and accuracy with which it is done, is a sight to witness.
The hospitality part of the business was attended with the success deserved, and helped to smooth the difficulties of the situation. I remember well our dinner on the Tuesday night. On the Monday we dined alone, directors and officers only, but on Tuesday the week’s hospitality began. That night our table was graced five or six guests, one being Robert Martin, of Ross, a famous wit and raconteur, and the author of Killaloe.
Another delightful guest was Sir George (then Mr.) Morris, brother of the late Lord Morris, the distinguished judge.
Whilst Sir Ralph remained chairman of the company, which he did until the year 1904, the directors annual stay at Ballinasloe and its attendant hospitality continued. But time inevitably brings changes; for some years now the old hospitality has ceased, the rooms at Ballinasloe are turned into house accommodations for one or two of the staff, and the great fair is worked with no more ado than a hundred other fairs on the line. Not many complaints are made now, for delays and disappointments are things of the past. Yet I dare say there are some who, still attending the fair, look back with regret on the disappearance of the good old days”.
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