BY JUDY ENRIGHT
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
The Irish work very hard to make sure that their homeland is all things to all visitors. Festivals, sports, genealogy, art, music, theatre, and cultural events, available for all ages, can be found everywhere. There’s scarcely an activity you might enjoy that is not offered somewhere in Ireland.
COUNTRY FAIRS -As the weather cools and leaves change, the thoughts of many Irish turn to the country fairs that dot the island at this time of year.
If you enjoy mingling with the Irish, watching varied farming skills, a vintage tractor parade, or the pride of a teenage farmer whose ram has taken top prize, then you can’t do better than to attend one of the many fairs or festivals. Three especially fun and interesting fairs we’ve attended are the Ballinasloe in Co. Galway, the Maam Cross at a Connemara crossroad between Oughterard and Clifden, and the Achill Sheep Show outside Patten’s Bar in Derreens on Achill Island in Co. Mayo.
I have been in Ireland for the traditional Sheep Show (scheduled for 10 a.m. on Oct. 13 this year) and enjoyed every minute, especially seeing the rams with their amazing horns. Details on this year’s event – the 27th annual show – are still pending from Achill Tourism (achilltourism.com.)
BALLINASLOE - The first Irish country fair I ever attended was years ago in Ballinasloe and it is billed as “Europe’s Oldest International Horse Fair.” Dr. Damian Mac Con Uladh, who runs a website about Ballinasloe (ballinasloe.org), says, “Very little is known about the origins of the Ballinasloe October Fair, as there is little in terms of documentary evidence referring to its early development. In the past, fairs and markets were such a common feature of life in Ireland that contemporary observers perhaps felt little need to make special reference to them.
“The Ballinasloe October Fair is one of the oldest fairs in Ireland, at one stage renowned as the largest and greatest in all of Europe. While now predominantly associated with the horse, in its heyday the October Fair was an agricultural event of much greater significance, serving as a market for the sale of cattle and sheep by the farmers of the West to their counterparts in the East of Ireland.
“Indeed, in the London Times of 1801 and 1804, the October Fair was referred to as the ‘Great Cattle Fair’ of Ballinasloe. It is only since the early 20th century that the fair has become exclusively associated with the horse,” he writes.
The fair lasts for a week (this year Sept. 28 to Oct. 6) and has different events each day – for all ages.
The year I was there, the Fair Green in the town was jam-packed with horses, horse boxes (we call them trailers), riders of every age and ability, owners, shoppers, and thousands of onlookers. The town’s streets are packed with vendors, all sorts of market stalls, food stands and entertainers. Some years, there are more than 80,000 in attendance during the weeklong run.
The Ballinasloe Fair, like most of the country fairs, is a slice of old Ireland and absolutely fascinating. This is the real deal, as they say. Horsemen from all over Ireland and Europe attend with an eye to buying future champions and to meeting up with other buyers to compare notes, successes, and failures from past fairs. And, because it’s known as a horse fair, there are numerous opportunities for the buyers to judge conformation and gait in the many show rings and classes that include mare and colt, brood mare in foal or “with foal at foot,” pony lunging, and more.
If you happen to be in Co. Galway through Oct. 6, the Ballinasloe Fair is great fun and well worth attending.
MAAM CROSS- The Maam Cross Fair is held annually outside Peacocke’s Hotel and complex at the intersection of the N59 and the R336 routes. This year, the fair is Tues., Oct. 29. Several times when I’ve attended the fair, I’ve stayed at Peacocke’s Hotel but it is not always open, so now I stay at Lough Inagh Lodge Hotel, which is nearby and an elegant, small hotel in the Inagh Valley.
In August, Connemara Pony enthusiasts from around the world visit Clifden for the annual Connemara Pony Show. Many of those same buyers and enthusiasts also shop the Maam Cross fair, which stems from the tradition of local farmers selling extra produce at the Maam Cross crossroads. Over the years, the fair has evolved into a major event in Connemara with all kinds of food, equipment, clothing, toys, animals, and more for sale.
The first time I attended Maam Cross, horses and vendors lined the major route (N59) in front of Peacocke’s, but safety concerns prevailed and the fair is now relegated to the side road (R336) so emergency vehicles can pass along the main road if need be.
There were cages of ducks and geese, chickens, and even ferrets for sale. It was an amazing sight to see vendors grab a duck by its neck, pull it out of a cage and stuff it into an empty plastic grain bag to be taken away by the purchaser. Also for sale were horses, ponies, donkeys, goats, and sheep.
This year’s fair has horseshoeing demonstrations and a horseshoe throwing competition in addition to the usual offerings.
>WINTERAGE WEEKEND -If you haven’t had a chance to visit the Burren in Co. Clare, the Winterage Weekend (Oct. 25-27) would be a perfect time to enjoy livestock and food fairs, music, walks, a cattle drive and more, and celebrates Ireland’s farming heritage.
For details, visit burrenwinterage.com. The Burrenbeo Trust, which raises funds to educate the public about the magnificent Burren in an effort to protect this priceless Irish treasure, organizes the weekend. This spring, I stopped by their Kinvara office, joined the group for a small membership fee, and picked up a copy of their beautiful and informative magazine, Burren Insight.
While you’re in that area, be sure to stop by the Burren Heritage Centre (burrencentre.ie) in Kilfenora, Co. Clare, to learn all about the Burren flowers, fauna, and wildlife. Also find time to visit the Kilfenora Cathedral, next door to the Centre. The church has one of the biggest concentrations of high crosses in Ireland, with the Doorty Cross the most famous. The carvings are wonderful too.
NEW TOURISM ROUTE- There is now a tourism route through the Boyne Valley that was designed to attract the “culturally curious” visitors to the area. Heritage sites at Newgrange, Trim Castle, Monasterboice, Slane Castle, and Mellifont Abbey are among 22 historic attractions on the drive. The Boyne Valley Drive is about 225 km and runs through Meath and Louth. Signage is provided along the route.
GREAT WESTERN GREENWAY- We were delighted recently to see a story in the New York Times’s travel section that included Mayo’s Great Western Greenway – “3 Favorite Journeys on a Bike.” The segment about the Greenway was reported by Doreen Carvajal, who wrote, “We were well aware that the renamed Great Western Greenway — an off-road cycling trail of 26 miles from Westport toward the dunes of the Atlantic coast — is a grand Irish experiment to turn a derelict railroad into an engine of bicycle tourism at a time when the nation is struggling through an economic crisis. The transformation since 2010 has proved so successful that Ireland is planning a national cycling network, and other countries are pondering imitations.”
I laughed when I read her line, “If only they could also control the incessant rains of County Mayo.” As the Irish say, their country isn’t described as 40 shades of green for nothing – and you need rain for those 40 shades!
TRAVEL- Enjoy Ireland whenever you visit. Fall is considered off-season and rates are better than during the summer high season. Visit your favorite travel agent or hop online to find the best airfare and ground packages.