In Ancient Ireland, Fairs were essentially social gatherings. People would come together from a wide area for community festivities.
By the twelth century their fairs had expanded to become very commercial events because traders recognised that fairs produced ready made crowds of customers. The business of fairs was directly related to the farming calendar. Farm produce including cattle and horses were traded but there were also lots of sideshows and general entertainment. Fairs were associated with holidays especially those few times in the year when farmers and farm workers took a break.
By the eighteenth century fair days had become a vivid expression of the economic, social and cultural life of the Irish town - it was natural to have regular convenient place where people could meet to trade and to keep in touch with each other and talk about the latest local news. Fairs therefore provided a unique opportunity for both Farmers and labourers to come together and arrange employment. And so the traditional fair expanded to include the engaging of farm servants and labourers - the Hiring Fair was born.
As the practice of public hiring became more widespread, people began to refer too particular fair ideas as 'hiring fairs.' The hiring fair was really an outdoor employment exchange where men, women and children made themselves available for temporary service. Farmers would come from throughout the district. and indeed from neighbouring counties to employ workers, usually for six months at a time, or a 'term' as it was called.
People went to be hired because of poverty or limited employment opportunities at home. Farmers with very small or poor holdings often couldn't support themselves off their own land and were compelled to work for larger farms. Another reason was that parents with big families couldn't support them all and also would have needed help to pay for food and rent, so they sent their children to be hired. Some of these children were as young as seven.
From a farmers point of view there were great advantages to hiring. For a start it was cheaper to pay a person a six-month fee rather than a weekly wage. Moreover, by assuming total responsibility for keeping the labourer or servant the farmer had much greater control over him and could get more working hours out of him or her. The hiring fairs were most common in Ulster.
By the late nineteenth century more than eighty Ulster towns held hiring fairs twice a year, around the twelfth of May and twelfth of November. These dates coincided with times in the farming calendar when the workload was heaviest and extra labour was required. The May Fair would have been the most important because workers hired then would avail of the much longer hours of daylight during the summer months, to the obvious delight of the farmer. The May Fair was therefore the busiest and most crowded.
And so for many years, the hiring fairs were in full swing - but eventually in the late 1930's they were in decline and the Strabane hiring fair ceased in the 1940's.
Compiled and narrated by Claire Cunningham
Produced by Bill Meek
First broadcast 1st February, 1995.
An Irish radio documentary from RTÉ Radio 1, Ireland - Documentary on One - the home of Irish radio documentaries