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More than 20,000 throng to Auld Lammas Fair

Irish News 1938

FROM an early hour yesterday morning the great annual trek began from city, village and remote mountain cottage to Ballycastle for Ulster's famous festival 'The Auld Lammas Fair'. They came - holidaymakers, sturdy farmers, bronzed fishermen, labourers, village urchins and cailins by the score - by all form of transport including the old-fashioned jaunting car and donkey and cart.

By noon the attendance was estimated at upwards of 15,000. Later in the afternoon it had well exceeded the 20,000 mark. The Mecca of the crowd was the Diamond, a large open space in the centre of the town.

Here, from numerous stalls, loud-voiced vendors boomed forth their wares to the medley accompaniment of barrel organs, gramophones, violins, the blare of loudspeakers, the shriek of motor horns and the melodramatic shrill of the old-time ballad.

Nearby, the business end of the fair took place. Over 7,000 sheep were penned. Trade was slow and prices showed a decrease of up to fifty per cent on those of last year. Reason was said to be a glut on the market due to a tremendous increase in the number of sheep reared this year. At night the Diamond, still thronged, presented with its multi-coloured decorative lights, a most attractive and gay appearance.

The fair has a most interesting history. It owes its origin to the MacDonnells who in the early part of the sixteenth century, when in conflict with the McQuillans for supremacy of the Route, brought over their supplies from Scotland. Emerging victorious, the clansmen occupied themselves with farming and other peaceful pursuits and consequently supplies were not necessary. However, the people of the Isles still kept up the custom which resolved itself in barter.

In 1606 Sir Randal MacDonnell, then living at Dunamanie Castle, the remains of which are still apparent in the Clare Park grounds in Ballycastle, obtained a charter to hold six fairs annually. One of these took place on the last Tuesday of August - at Lammas time in the Celtic calendar.

When a new castle was built at the Diamond in 1625, where a church now stands, this fair was held there and so it has gone on to the present time. Formerly lasting a week, it has dwindled down to one day but still retains in large measure its wonderful public appeal, which in recent years has been greatly accentuated by the influence of a song, The Auld Lammas Fair, composed in its praise by a well-beloved native of the town, the late J H MacAuley.

This magnetic lyric was sung at last year's Royal Command Performance in the Palladium, London before the King and Queen.

The fair is nothing like what it was in the old days, at least in the opinion of the town's oldest resident, Bobby Bell, now nearing his century. "Them were the days", he said, adding, "I remember when the fair lasted a week and sometimes longer."

A market was held at the Quay then, to dispose of the fish brought over by the Islay luggers. Ballrooms and bars were open all night and none thought of going to bed.

Mr Bell retains a vivid memory of a fair nearly seventy years ago when a political riot took place over a band. Some things never change!