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Fairs in the Eighteenth Century

During the minority of Henry, eighth Earl of Thomond, his mother, Lady Henrietta O’Brien, being in severe financial difficulties, sold off much of the Thomond property in County Clare. In 1712 Francis Gore obtained a fee farm grant of the lands, fairs and customs of Clonroad, [22] making him, for all practical purposes, outright owner of the fairs. It was an ownership the Gores were to retain for more than one hundred and fifty years. Clonroad continued as the venue of the largest livestock fairs in County Clare. In John Watson’s, The Gentleman’s and Citizen’s Almanack, Dublin 1741, the two fairs of Clonroad are listed among the principal fairs of Ireland and indeed Clonroad Fairs were advertised in all the Dublin directories until the end of the eighteenth century.

In the years 1740-41, a diary kept by a Mr. Lucas of Drumcavan illustrates the use the people of the rural hinterland made of the fair. Lucas, a descendant of a Cromwellian settler, lived in the parish of Ruan about eight miles north of Ennis. He attended fairs within a fifteen miles radius of his farm. Along with the Clonroad fairs, he attended fairs at Clare, Ennis, Quin, and Spancilhill. In preparation for the July fair of Clonroad, Lucas had his servants drive his cattle from his out farm at Balingaddy, north of Ennistymon, to his home farm at Drumcavan. The evening before the fair he sent 30 two-year-old bullocks by three of his servants to Clonroad. Men and cattle travelled through the night to be on the fair green in the early morning. At the fair Lucas sold the 30 cattle to Mr. Morgan Thrimble at £1.13s.9d. per head, which in total amounted to £50.12s.6d. Having received his money, Lucas immediately paid off his bills in Ennis. He paid £4 to the tanner, James Armstrong and £9 to the merchant, Robert Chrow. Interestingly because of a shortage of coinage, Chrow was unable to give Lucas the 4s.2d. he owed him in change. On such occasions Lucas also purchased implements for his farm. He bought a scythe and whet stone for his servant James Kitchen at a cost of 2s.11d. [23] Lucas was not always so fortunate at the fairs. He sent twenty cattle by his servants to the October fair at Clonroad in 1741 but failed to sell a single animal. After the fair Lucas lodged overnight at the inn of William Crafford, where he spent 1s.7d. on his night’s entertainment. [24]

By the 1750s a discrepancy of eleven days had arisen between the old Julian calendar used in Ireland and Britain and the new Gregorian calendar that had been in use in the rest of Europe since 1582. To bring Britain and Ireland into line with the continent it was decreed by an act of King George II that 2 September 1752 should be followed by 14 September. This resulted in the dates of all the fairs being changed. The summer fair at Clonroad was changed from 21 July to 1 August and the autumn fair from 3 October to 14 October. The new dates of the fairs continued in use into the twentieth century.

Due to the prolonged period of peace the cattle trade in Ireland had greatly expanded by the second half of the eighteenth century. The trade received a tremendous boost in 1759 when the ban on the export of Irish cattle to Britain, which had been in existence since 1671, was finally lifted. The number of fairs in Ireland increased. In 1771 the Dublin trade directories advertised that two new fairs on 8 May and 3 December would be held at Clonroad. [25] A patent, however, was not obtained for the new fairs until 1775. The new patent was not taken out by the Gores, but rather by George Stacpoole, barrister at law of Ennis. The patent granted to Stacpoole the right to hold two fairs a year at Clonroad, the right to collect tolls and customs and the right to establish a court of Pie Power. [26] It is likely that the taking out of the new patent was a hostile act, an attempt by Stacpoole to cash in on the expanding cattle trade and was done without the agreement of the Gores. If so, Stacpoole would have been obliged to provide the ground on which the new fairs could be held.

The revolutionary wars, which began in France in 1793 and ended with the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, brought prosperity to Irish agriculture. High wartime prices ensured that the livestock trade flourished. The ending of the war, however, signalled the beginning of an economic depression and was followed by a sharp decline in agricultural prices. It was during this inauspicious time for Irish agriculture that Francis Gore purchased from John Stacpoole the 1775 patent for the fairs of Clonroad. Gore agreed to pay Stacpoole £60 per annum for the two fairs. [27] The sum seems enormous when compared with the 6s.8d. per year Stacpoole, as the original patent holder, paid in crown rent. The transaction illustrates just how lucrative an income could be had from fairs. Agricultural prices, however, continued to decline and the following year, 1816, the editor of the Clare Journal complaining about the languid state of agriculture commented on the most recent Clonroad fair:

The fair of Clonroad on Thursday last exhibited a fine show of black cattle, milch cows were in demand and a good share of business was done, but at low prices. [28]

In a schedule of the tolls and customs levied at the fairs and markets of Ireland, carried out by the government in 1823, Robert Leech, clerk of the peace for County Clare, made the following return for the Clonroad fairs: [29]

  May and December Fairs August and October Fairs
Horse 6½d. 10d.
Milch cow 6½d. 8d.
Dry cow 4d. 6d.
Bullock 6d. 6d.
Heifer 3d. 4d.
Yearling 2d. 3d.
Pig 3d. 3d.
Sheep 1d. 1½d.
Ass 4d. 4d.
Hawker’s standing 5d. 6½d.
Tent or booth 3s.4d. 7s.6d.

Clonroad was the only fair in the county where two separate sets of tolls were levied. The tolls for the old fairs in August and October were substantially higher than the new fairs held in May and December. It is possible that different individuals leased the old and new fairs. The Ennis fairs and markets had the same schedule of charges as the new fairs of Clonroad. The Ennistymon fairs at 8d. per horse and 8d. per milch cow were slightly dearer than the new fairs yet cheaper than the old fairs of Clonroad. Kilrush fairs were the cheapest at 6d. per horse and 4d. per milch cow. There were no charges for hawkers’ standings at Kilrush. Apart from the charges at the old fairs of Clonroad, the dearest fairs in the county were held at Spancilhill, where horses were levied at 10d. and milch cows at 8d. [30] It is clear that the most popular fairs had the highest toll charges. The tolls were quite a substantial charge on animals and it is easy to see why sellers tried to avoid them and why disputes often arose over their imposition.

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