Ballinasloe Horse Fair: An Old Irish Tradition (2023)

County Galway, Ireland –One80,000 peoplerecently came to Ballinasloe in County Galway, Ireland for one of the oldest horse fairs in Europe.

Nine days a year, this small town of 6,600 people comes alive with stalls, dog shows, music, fairground attractions and people from all over the world looking to buy and sell horses.

An annual event since1700er, the fair became famous afterwardsNapoleonIt is said that Bonaparte bought a horse here and rode it at Austerlitz in 1805, one of the most decisive battles of the Napoleonic Wars.

But today the fair is better known as a meeting place for members of the Irish Traveler community who, along with farmers and other buyers and sellers, have attended for centuries. Travelers, sometimes referred to as Pavees, are a itinerant ethnic group who live primarily in caravans in camps. Horses have long been the focus of their nomadic lifestyle, and while they no longer have to travel around, many travelers still keep and breed them.

Payvary, but according to the Irish Traveler Movement website, there are currently more than 25,000 travelers in Ireland, 10,000 in the United States and over 15,000 in the UK.

At this year's fair, there were concerns that it could be permanently canceled afterwardsdisturbancesin earlier years.

Al Jazeera spoke to a few visitors who gave us a glimpse into their culture and what the show means to them.

It's not our tradition to go to school for a very long time.

Ballinasloe Horse Fair: An Old Irish Tradition (1)

Diana O'Leary and Maria O'Donnell from County Carlow in Ireland are both 16 years old.

“We are here with our families who have been coming for years. It makes a lot of fun. The boys drink after fooling around and then the girls get 'caught',” they explain, referring to a practice where an unmarried boy expresses his interest in an unmarried girl by trying to kiss her, but custom and values dictating to the community that they cannot retaliate.

"It's traditional. Still, we don't get drunk. Traveling girls don't drink. Perhaps we will find our future husbands here. Lots of people do.

“But we are allowed to find our own husbands. In many families he is chosen for you, which I would not like very much. I'd rather meet her here," says Diana.

"We don't hang out with boys until we're married. We're not in school. It's not our tradition to go to school very long," she adds.

"We stay at home and take care of the household," explains Maria. “We left school when we were 14. That's how some Traveler girls feel.”

“Working with horses is awesome”

Ballinasloe Horse Fair: An Old Irish Tradition (2)

Jim Cronin, 58, is from County Clare, Ireland and works with horses.

“People come here looking for workhorses. There used to be a great tradition of people using these horses for ploughing, carting and working in the fields, but these days they are rare because machines have taken over,” he says.

"I hope to find great horses myself."

“There is an ability to get the best out of them. It was passed down from generation to generation but never written down - only by word of mouth. Working with horses is awesome.”

"I remember when the horses used to come by train"

Ballinasloe Horse Fair: An Old Irish Tradition (3)

Frank Flanley is 68 years old and works as a part-time job on a farm. He has been coming to the fair for more than 50 years.

"Many traveler traditions at the fair are dying out," he says. "There are too many restrictions here now."

“People used to stay in the caravan all week, which was parked in the field with horse-drawn carts. There used to be dances at night and we would join in and there was a little courting but not too much,” he says.

“The fact that people cannot stay overnight definitely affected the atmosphere of the fair.Now people have to stay in hotels that are fully booked.”

“You used to see a lot of plumbers making and selling cans. I remember when the horses came by train from all over Ireland. You would fit six in a carriage.”

“Lots of entertainment”

Ballinasloe Horse Fair: An Old Irish Tradition (4)

Elizabeth Stuart McGuire, 36, traveled to the horse fair from Scotland to sell horses. Although she is not a traveller, she has been to the fair many times.

"You should see this place at night," she says.

"The Traveler girls dress really smartly and there's a lot of entertainment and a fight or two."

"There's a guy singing from a truck, and rides and things like that. This is where travelers meet their future husbands.”

"During the day people watch show jumping or tug of war."

“You can also buy more than just horses - ducks, chickens and dogs in cages are sold. It's crazy."

I've been here since I was a child

Ballinasloe Horse Fair: An Old Irish Tradition (5)

Godfry Worrow is a horse salesman from County Kildare, Ireland, in his fifties.

“I am sitting in a gypsy caravan. I like to take the horses out on the weekends. People used to live in these gypsy caravans, but not me. I live about an hour from here now.You don't see that many of them anymore.They're worth a bit of money - they can cost up to €20,000," he explains.

“I have a heavy accent which is sometimes difficult to understand. I've been here since I was a kid and I hope the rumors aren't true they get rid of it. It is an important annual event for us, part of our culture. This is a highlight for many. I'm going home tonight because the caravan isn't that comfortable."

"The trade fair is part of everyone's life"

Ballinasloe Horse Fair: An Old Irish Tradition (6)

John Paul Delaney and Billy Delaney, both five years old, have been attending the horse fair every year since they were born. You are here with your father, Michael Delaney.

"The boys are 'trapped' - it's a traditional carriage popular with travelers," explains Michael.

"It's over 100 years old. However, we have no idea who made it. The Shetland pony is called Shelly.”

"We heard they are canceling the fair but I don't think they can do that. It's part of everyone's life.”

Many of us use wooden and handmade hiking poles. It's part of our tradition.You will see many of them over the next week. They will also be made at the fair.”

“We have a different pace of life out here”

Ballinasloe Horse Fair: An Old Irish Tradition (7)

Willie Jones, 62, is from Sligo in western Ireland. He says he has been to the horse fair every year for over 40 years.

“I have about 30 horses out west. I'm a millionaire, you know. I'm just here for fun [Irish for fun]."

“We have a different pace of life out here. People don't watch TV or don't know what's going on in the world. I don't know who Napoleon is. We only take care of the animals and the piece of land.”

"The fair took place during the Great Famine," he says, referring to a period of mass starvation, disease and immigration in Ireland from 1845 to 1849.

"There used to be a lot more gypsy caravans with nice people in them."

“Many travelers are leaving Ireland”

Ballinasloe Horse Fair: An Old Irish Tradition (8)

17 year old Nicole McGinley from Athlone in central Ireland is at the horse market with her husband.

"I got married six months ago. I am a housewife. My husband works in different jobs. The boys are in their 20s when they get married.

“The girls mostly stay at home and take care of the household and the babies. We had a big wedding and hundreds of people came. I wore a huge dress. However, the community is getting smaller and smaller. Many travelers leave Ireland for Australia or America. We noticed that this year.”

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