Famous Old Ballabuidhe Horse Races
The ‘Aonach Mor’, or the Big Fair, was the centrepiece of the business, sporting and social life of the Irish people from a long way back. Down the centuries, these Big Fairs shone out in their respective districts as the big event of the year. Next to Christmas itself they were looked forward to.
The people of Dunmanway and district should feel proud that they and their people before them have kept alive, and cherished, one of the last of these great fairs. I refer of course to the ancient and time honoured Ballabuidhe Horse Fair, which has withstood all these challenges and has flourished to the present day.
The name Ballabuidhe grips the imagination of everybody, but it’s more than imagination, it’s fact – fact that conjures up history, folklore, nostalgia, tradition and memories – memories of generations past, now gone to their last, long happy Ballabuidhe. Being of the enquiring mind type, and living within a stone’s throw of the famous, original Ballabuidhe Fair Field, I have taken more than just a passing interest in its history since my school-days, and have gleaned much about it from the ‘old stock’ of the district.
The question that has been asked many a time; How old is Ballabuidhe. Statistics tell us that it started in 1615 A.D., when a charter was granted to Randal Og Hurley (The Chieftain of High Renown) of Ballinacarriga Castle ” to hold a fair at Beal an Atha Buighe.” The fact of the matter is that Ballabuidhe is much older than that and the older school of historians claim that it is nearly a thousand years old; and one is inclined to agree with them, because it is only the very ancient fairs have survived, that means fairs which had their origin and were established by the Irish people themselves, long before any foreign invasion took place.
I’ve been repeatedly asked the question; Is there a townland called Ballabuidhe or Ballyboy? The answer is a very definite ‘no’. It forms part of the townland of Nedineagh West. In bygone days large townlands were sub-divided into what were known as ‘ploughlands’. Ballabuidhe or Ballyboy therefore is a ploughland of Nedineagh and a little later in this article I will give the resaon why it was so called. As most of us know, the old parish name of Dunmanway was the parish of Fanlobbus (and still is); situated about two miles east of Dunmanway and consisting of many townlands – even the Tidy Town of Dunmanway is itself a townland of Fanlobbus parish.
Immediately adjacent to Fanlobbus is the big townland of Nedineagh. Nedineagh is bordered on one side by the Bandon River, and the main road on the other, with an intersecting road at its western end. We must remember there were no roads in those times, but narrow clearings known as bridle paths, and Mass and funeral paths, the latter obviously leading to the church and burial ground at Fanlobbus. This other intersecting road or path that I mentioned led to the Clonakilty country, and all the south and south-west tor that matter, and it intersected the River Bandon at a very shallow point or ford (there was no bridge then) known in English as the Mouth of the Yellow Ford, but in the native tongue ‘Beal an Atha Buifhe’, hence the name of the ploughland mentioned; and it was here at this spot that the first ever Ballabuidhe Fair was held.
Due to bad travelling conditions the journey to Ballabuidhe would be measured in days or maybe weeks rather than miles. These ‘inchas’ also provided a much needed fresh bite for the horses, after their long trek( as regards refreshments for man himself I will mention later). The other facilities were the easy access to it ( even in those days) and the shallow crossing in the river.
The Fair Field itself was a large sloping field with a southern aspect covering an area of between six and eight acres, with two different types of views. On the upper side one could sit on nature’s grandstand and look over all the stirring and motley scene, to view the dense throng of people, a moving mass of humanity, all, as the song says, “pushing and shoving,” but seemingly enjoying themselves to the full. On the lower side from across the river, the view was even more picturesque. It was like looking at some Biblical epic like ‘Quo Vadis’ or ‘Ben Hur’ through some huge wide panoramic cinemascope screen. Or we could just put it briefly and simply; The plan and elevation of a natural fair field.
The bridle paths leading to the fair became good, fair class roads, and its fame started spreading from year to year, and from parish to parish, and eventually from county to county. All this a-growing was taking place a long time before the town of Dunmanway (and indeed other towns as well) was ever heard of. In fact Ballabuidhe was old enough to die before Dunmanway was born, but die it did not, and the founding of Dunmanway only added to its momentum. Actually with the founding of Dunmanway, as with every new town, plenty employment was provided, and even though wages were small, so was the cost of living, so that people were able to save up a ‘feirin’ to spend at the big event of the year. By the early 1800’s Ballabuidhe had reached the pinnacle of its fame.
For a week or two before the fair, the build-up was taking place. Buyers and sellers were making preparations to be there. Horse dealers were getting ready their strings of horses. Other enterprising characters were erecting, stocking and preparing to man their beer tents, which would be well patronised for the week to come. Dray loads of ale and porter were being hauled in large casks to the Fair Field, and of course the odd cask was conveniently ‘lost’ in transit, to be enjoyed at a later date, when the festivities would have died down.
On the outskirts of the field and far beyond it, the travelling people had set up camp, with their gaily coloured caravans, and covered wagons, which contained “a thousand and one” items. The houses of Nedineagh were transformed into temporary guesthouses, free of charge for visitors – cousins from distant areas, first cousins, second cousins and 31st cousins, and as Goldsmith said, “they all claimed kindred there and had their claims allowed.” (In fact the hospitality of Nedineagh lingered on for generations afterwards, even after Ballabuidhe was transferred into the town). But back to the fair; for a couple of days before the fair itself the Horse Fair was going on. It was easy to know the horse buyers.
From the early hours of the morning of the fair, hundreds of people started arriving, and by mid-day it was thousands. During the most of the first day, business was the chief engrossment, but towards evening and the following day, pleasure was the the pursuit. To visitors there for the pleasure it must have been a wonderful sight. As they would enter the fair at any end they would meet caraven after caraven, cart after cart and troops of horses tied head to tail; with groups of those wild and peculiar looking people that were as necessary to fairs as flowers are to summer.
The beer tents now crammed to overflowing proportions were doing a roaring trade. At other stalls, purchases of apples, oranges, sweets and buns for the children were made, and of course the ever popular pigs crubeens and ‘moibhan’ (a raw, edible type of seaweed, now being still sold I believe as a “processed delicacy” known as ‘carrigeen moss’)
The evening and following day was known as the gig-fair, where the better-off came driving in their gigs, to see and be seen. Often there were gig races to, and from, the fair, perhaps for a considerable wager. But the less fortunate, which was the vast majority of the people, organised their own trotting races, between a dozen or more ‘fancied’ horses, there were no prizes of course and doubtful if there were any wagers, but just the honour of having the best horse, and so with this bit of friendly rivalry – and sometimes not too friendly – the ‘Smart Set’ and their gig races, was seen the birth of the “Ballabuidhe Races.” Though not as old as the fair itself, they have played a major part in keeping Ballabuidhe in the healthy state which it is ; due to the joint efforts of both race and trotting committees, who are doing trojan work in keeping the old tradition alive to the present day.
The grand finale, or the last round-up, to the festivities of Ballabuidhe was the open air Ceili Mor. It must have been a sight to behold to see this Ceili Mor in full swing, to the strains of hundreds of musicians, mostly fiddles and bagpipes, as melodians at the time were regarded as “foreign.” One piper in particular at the time that everybody wanted to listen to, and dance to, was Concubhar O Buacalla (An Piobra Dall), a blind piper, who held sway at Ballabuidhe for over fifty years, and entertained three generations of fair and pattern goers. An Piobra Dall was known as the prince of all pipers, and tradition tells us he played the ‘Ceol Sidhe’ or fairy music. He has been immortalised in a poem by the well-known bard and historian, the late Diarmuid O Mathuna of Castletown-Kinneagh. “For no piper could equal by fair means or foul the beautiful playing of An Piobra Dall.”
Not alone have we still got Ballabuidhe, but we also have our local traditional dancers and musicians, whose fame has spread from Fair Head in Antrim to Mizen Head in Cork. It’s a long way from Ballabuidhe to Ballycastle, the home of ‘The Ould Lammas Fair’, but distance was no object to the Dunmanway branch of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri, who travelled all the way to Ballycastle, Co. Antrim, to represent their parish and county in the All-Ireland traditional set-dancing competition- dancing the same type of set dance that was danced at Ballabuidhe from time immemorial.
So down the years Ballabuidhe kept rolling on, despite many a setback.
The most stunning blow it got was the Famine, and many a thriving event like it faded away like the Irish people themselves during that black period. In the years that followed it suffered another major setback when the Cork, Bandon and South Coast Railway, on its way to West Cork, was constructed right through the Fair Field. It was thought for a while that the railway would be an advantage, but somehow it began to decline, little by little, because another assailant was lying in wait for it.
Towards the end of the last century a new word was creeping tnto the dictionary, a word that was going to knock everything rural before it, and Ballabuidhe was going to be no exception. That word was centralisation. The towns and cities were growing, and the railway had come to stay, and the age of steam had arrived; in fact centralisation was getting to the people as well. Then around the turn of the century a very enterprising and far-seeing committee made a sad but wise decision to transfer Ballabuidhe into Dunmanway town, where it got a new lease of life, and even though it had no fixed abode for a while, the name “Ballabuidhe” still drew the crowds.
There was an air of sadness, particularly among the older generation, when the change took place , and there was much lamentation because they genuinely thought it was the end of Ballabuidhe. One old horse dealer who had been coming to the fair for over 40 years was said to have remarked, “Ballabuidhe will never be the same, since it left the old inches.” Another distinguished old gentleman of the parish put it in rhyme;
“Ochon, ochon, poor Ballabuidhe,
It once did rival famed Cahirmee,”
If that old gentleman was around to-day, he could very well say; “It still rivals famed Cahirmee.”
Special passenger and freight trains were laid on for the event, as its popularity in its new surroundings grew. Thousands of day-trippers came on these excursions. Bank holidays and bank holiday week-ends became a fairly frequent occurrence, and one of those bank holiday week-ends coincided with the date on which Ballabuidhe was traditionally held, August 4th, therefore on that account August week-end, which usually centres around the 4th, became the new date for this great annual event.
The 1940’s and 50’s saw Ballabuidhe reach an all time high, because it was the first time in all its long history where ancient and modern times met. Travel was becoming much easier, motor cars were becoming more plentiful, but there was still an abundance of horse drawn vehicles. World War Two caused a temporary lull in the motor trade when the horse and cart and pony and trap had their finest hour and for that brief period Ballabuidhe enjoyed old times once more, but they were short-lived – the motor car was back on the road again, this time for good.
The old cross road dances and ceilis gave way to “The Ballroom of Romance” and there are many people around to-day who must have nostalgic memories of Ballabuidhe night at the “Broadway Cinema.”
Framed within Ballabuidhe were our local exiles:( and there were many of them in the 40’s and 50’s when emigration was at its peak) in London, New York, Brooklyn, or foreign far flung places, or even our own Irish cities, who never forgot the old town or the old name. Our exiles in Britain in particular returned year after year to take part in these annual celebrations, further afield. They would even forego a Christmas visit to make it for Ballabuidhe.
It’s a long way indeed, and a big change from the bridle paths and the shallow crossing, to the Boeing jet, the video cameras and local radio, but the basic human approach to Ballabuidhe is still the same. As I watched the whole proceedings on a glorious August evening last year, I couldn’t but wonder how such an event could be enjoyed by so many people of different tastes. But the fact is they do enjoy it, enjoy it immensely, as judged by the expression on the faces of the faor ladies with their smart dresses, the various types of visitors, or the horse dealers with their rugged handsome faces, even the horses themselves seemed to be aware of their importance of being part of one of Ireland’s oldeat fairs, in this modern age. A person standing near me remarked “This is Ballabuidhe.” I again couldn’t help thinking of a poem of my schooldays;
The ancient spirit is not dead;
Old times thought I are breathing there;
Proud was I that my country bred
Such strength, a dignity so fair.”