The Hiring Fairs

Hiring Fairs - Image Courtesy of the Donegal Public Art Office
Hiring Fairs - Image Courtesy of the Donegal Public Art Office

Between the 17th and 19th centuries hiring fairs became widespread throughout Ireland. However, this practice survived in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal and in Strabane County Tyrone into the 1940s.

All over the Ulster province – from Donegal Town to Ballycastle hiring days took place in major towns. Many fairs were held in places situated between an area of poor rough land from where the labourers came and an area of good farming land where labour was needed. The main centres in the North-West were at Strabane, Derry and Letterkenny with smaller fairs being held in Limavady, Cookstown, Ballybofey and Omagh.

People went to be hired because of poverty and limited employment opportunities in agriculture. Smallholding farmers often couldn’t support themselves off their own land and were compelled to work for larger farms. There are many stories in the Irish folklore commission relating to how the young girls and boys would line the market squares to be inspected by potential employees. Another reason for children being hired out was that parents with big families needed help to pay for rent and food, so they sent their children to be hired. Paddy ‘The Cope’ Gallagher was one of them as he recalled in his memoir:  ‘I was ten years of age 1881. The year before had been a bad one for work in Scotland and my father hadn’t enough money to pay the rent and the debts. It was the same with the neighbours. A crowd of us were got ready for the hiring fair at Strabane’.

Workers who succeeded in finding a position were generally hired for 6 months – or a ‘term’ as it was called. This saved employers having to pay weekly wages to employees during times when there was little farm work or labouring work to be done. Amidst the hustle and bustle of the hiring fair, various signs and symbols were used to show availability for work. For example, men carried straws, sticks, tools or a bundle under their arm whilst women wore aprons and string bags. All those hired went through the ritual of being examined and questioned about their ability to milk cows, thresh or carry out other farm or household chores. The importance of bring an early riser was also emphasised. Weak or sickly individuals were simply passed by or ignored as they stood hopefully in line. Treatment of hired hands varied. Many slept in attics or occupied a tiny room in the big house, others were relegated to outhouses and barns.

During the 1930s Irish farming underwent major social and economic changes. It was inevitable that these changes would cause both the hiring fairs to fade out and the practice of hiring to decline. The introduction of benefits in the early 20th century also meant workers increasingly wanted to work and be paid on a weekly basis; whilst new legislation began to push youth into education rather than work. By 1942 it was all over. One or two people turned up at the Letterkenny hiring fair that year.

Pat ‘The Cope’ Gallagher was hugely influenced by his experience of hiring fairs. Long hours, poor accommodation and low pay encouraged him to found a co-operative movement to create employment in Donegal.

The Hiring Fair, 1994

The picture accompanying this article shows work commissioned through a open competition. The Hiring Fair sculptures are life size, made from bronze and is located in the Market Square, Letterkenny, Co. Donegal