The hiring fairs was part of the Irish scene for at least two hundred years up to about the late 1940s. Hiring fairs were held in two centres in County Limerick in the grounds of the railway station at Kilmallock, and in the Square at Newcastle West.
The hiring fairs in Kilmallock commenced on the first Sunday in March, and continued on successive Sunday’s up to Saint Patrick’s Day.
In Newcastle West the hiring fairs were held on Thursdays and I assume at the same time of year as those in Kilmallock.
Almost all of those offering themselves for hire at Kilmallock, as servant boys or servant girls (the demeaning terms used at that time) were from the areas of poor and mountainous land in Kerry or North-west Cork.
Having come by train to Kilmallock station, they would assemble in large numbers at the nearby hiring fair. The farmers, who also would have assembled in very large numbers at the hiring fair, viewed those on offer, judged them for their likely strength of limb and wind, and finally struck a bargain and hired them.
Wages were poor, work was hard, and in some cases the servants were treated badly. The period of employment ran out on Christmas Eve. A substantial number of those who came to work on farms around Kilmallock married and settled down in the area, and were known for their honesty and their capacity for hard work.
In the current issue of the Ballyguiltenane rural journal, Frank Phelan has an article on the hiring fairs of Newcastle West. At that time he says: “nearly everyone had patches on the knees of his trousers that would be a fair indication that she was a good worker.
If on the other hand, the so-called labourer had a couple of good big patches on the seat of his pants, the farmer shied away from him, as if knowing straight away what he was good for. Beside every boy and girl there was a little pack made up of their belongings, in other words their everyday working gear – clothes, boots, towel, shaving gear etc. Thus they were ready for the road and ready to fall into their new work routine almost immediately.
There was nothing romantic about the hiring fairs, and many people nowadays are appalled at the thought of boys and girls having to offer their labour for hire in a kind of human market place.
References to the hiring fair in contemporary songs are far from complimentary. There is the well known eighteenth century Irish song about An Spailpin Fanach, he itinerant labourer.
Go deo deo aris ni raghad go Caiseal,
Ag diol no ag reic mo shlainte,
Na ar mhargadh na saoire im shui cois balla,
Im scaoinse ar leataoibh sraide,
Bodairi na tire at tiochta ar a gcapaill,
Da fhiafrai an bhfuilim hiralta,
O! teanam chun siuil, ta an cursa fada,
Seo ar siul an Spailpin Fanach,
These lines might be translated as:
Never, never again will I go to Cashel,
Selling myself to the hired out,
Nor to the hiring fair, seated by the wall,
Or lounging on the side of the street.
The churls of the countryside coming on their horses,
Asking if I am hired;
O let us get going the road is long,
And off goes the Spailpin Fanach.
Having decided that never again will he go to the hiring fair of Cashel, risking his health.
Ag suil an druchta go moch ar maidin,
Is ag bailiu galair raithe,
(Walking the dew in the early morning and contracting every seasonal illness).
The Spailpin Fanach tells us how he sees his future as a soldier of the Irish Brigade fighting in the service of France.
Ach ni fheicfear corran im laimh chun bainte,
Suiste na feac beag ramhainne,
Ach colours na Frainc os cionn mo leabthan,
Agus pice agam chun saite.
Never more will be seen a hook in my hand of reaping,
A flail or a small-handled spade,
But the colours of France above my bed,
And a pike for fighting.
There is also a well known song in English which tells about a spalpeen who hired a farmer at a hiring fair, it is called the Galbally Farmer. We don’t know the name of the author of An Spailpin Fanach, but we do know the name of the author of the Galbally Farmer. It was Diarmuid O Riain or Darby Ryan.
Darby, who was born in Bansha in 1777 died in 1885 was also the composer of the words of the Peeler and the Goat, and of a number of songs in Irish, including Dan Molta na hEatharla.
I am always a little reluctant about publishing the words of the Galbally Farmer lest anybody should think that the Darby O’Leary mentioned in it is, or was, in any way typical of the people of the Galbally countryside.
Darby O’Leary was not, or is not typical of muintir Ghallbhaile.
Suffice is it to say that when good men were wanted, Galbally was not lacking. Anyhow here are a few verses from the Galbally Farmer.
One evening of late as I chanced for to stray,
The town of Tipperary I struck on my way,
For the parties to dig and go by the day,
I hired with the Galbally farmer.
The hire that was going, a shilling a day,
Had to take it | own, though shameful to say,
With spuds for my grub, no mention of tay,
Or a pint for the road from the miser.
Said the crusty old codger on mounting his steed,
To the Galbally mountains we’re posting with speed,
My feelings, don’t doubt it, were gloom indeed,
As I struck at a trot out behind him.
In all there are twenty-three verses in the Galbally Farmer. Frank Roche of Elton, musician, music, teacher and publisher of traditional music, made a fine Irish translation of it.