“How are you getting on, Owenie?” we asked. It’s a beautiful summer afternoon at the Fair of Muff and the elderly farmer in question, is fresh off the dance floor in the bar. He wipes the sweat from his brow and throws his eyes up to heaven. “Sure, they’d leap across you”, he complains in his thick Cavan accent. While feigning dismay at having to swing his female neighbours around the dance floor, he busily surveys the crowd for his next partner. Zoning in on a group of women by the door of the farm shed; it seems Owenie has already found his next bothersome woman. And before we know it, he is gone, pushing his way through the crowd towards his target. It is my first time in Cavan and it doesn’t disappoint. Ever since I had seen a picture of wild bearded man sitting on a bale of straw at the Fair of Muff a few years previous, I had wanted to see the famous annual event for myself. As luck would have it, a friend of mine was visiting relatives in Kingscourt and she kindly invited me along. Our road trip turns out to be the perfect Irish holiday. Not only do I get to visit the Fair of Muff, but I discover beautiful places in Cavan such as the summit trail of Loughanleagh mountain, where up to 14 counties are visible on a clear day and Dun na Rí forest park on the banks of the river Cabra. There isn’t enough time to explore the rest of Cavan on this visit, however listening to the locals and all of their suggestions for beautiful spots to photograph, it is clear that I’ll be coming back. This trip is all about the Fair of Muff. As we circle back through the bar, we pass Owenie en route, heading back out to the dance floor, with a new woman in tow.
The crowds begin to filter their way down from the crossroads, where the fair takes centre stage. The bar is nothing more than a farm shed without doors, however the interior has all the trappings of any good pub in Ireland. A “No Smoking” notice, painted in large white letters directly onto the interior brickwork, has the patrons warned. Smokers find sanctuary out the back in a small cave like area, where they are swallowed into darkness, away from the sun. The walls inside the the bar, are lined with all manner of seating; a kitchen chair, an old couch and an antique chaise longue. But it doesn’t matter; this place is not designed to seat people. It’s designed to let them dance. People of all ages jive nimbly to the band music as everyone else looks on, waiting for their turn. The energy in the room is static. With the music in full flow, the locals pair off and swirl round the floor. Numbers swell as more locals arrive after work, filing in for a quick drink, dance, catch up or game of skittles out the back. At one stage a man wearing a cowboy hat sitting on a horse, with a little dog tucked into his leather waistcoat, strides through the bar. No one bats an eyelid.
The field out back is set up with games and entertainment for all ages. The skittles attract the most attention. Money changes hands and each participant steps in front of the eager crowd, ready to throw their stick at the wooden skittles. Technique is everything. This is not a game for fun; the spectators expect a certain level of proficiency. A less than valiant effort generates murmuring disappointment in the onlooking crowd. A young girl shakes her head in disgust, as one contender launches her stick into the crowd.
The Fair of Muff dates back over 400 years, and is said to be the oldest traditional fair in Ireland. It was originally a celtic celebration linked with the Loughanleagh Festival of Lunasa (August). Official records of the fair trace back to 1608, when King James I granted a licence for the three day fair at the start of August. Since the calendar change of 1752, the horse fair is now held on August 12th each year. As it was then, it is now. Each year, vendors, buyers and horses from all over the country, congregate at this narrow crossroads, at the base of Loughanleagh mountain, near Kingscourt town in Cavan. All types of horse stand on display; stallions, mares, foals, geldings, ponies, donkeys, cobs, trotters, hunters, full and half breeds. Some are beautiful while others appear more weathered. However, every character of horse is on display at this fair; feisty, shy, cranky, friendly and even wild.
The Fair of Muff is one of the last fairs where age old traditions still stand. Men haggle and negotiate while trying to iron out a deal. Horses are poked, prodded, inspected or watched from a distance. Some horses stand patiently while others twitch nervously. The game is played as buyers and sellers waltz to and fro. A deal is struck and made official with a spit and handshake. Impatient owners hop on their horses and canter through the crowd to show off their steeds. Visitors are brushed aside swiftly by a trotting horse or the swish of a tail. Others jump sideways to duck kicks from cranky horses.
In olden days, traders and buyers would have arrived by horse drawn caravan, as was the traditional mode of transport. Today, it’s all mobile homes, jeeps and horse boxes. The artery road between the crossroads and the bar is lined with all kinds of offerings on various stalls, such as power tools, mops, paintings, balloons, antiques, jackets, mirrors, clocks, t-shirts, DVDs and carpets, to name but a few.
The vendors at this fair start young. Two pioneering entrepreneurs drag a white goat around the crowd trying to sell it to anyone who will listen. With striking confidence, the two young boys deliver a practiced monotone sales pitch, leaving no gaps for questions or rebuttals. If there is no sign of interest, they quickly move on, often leaving mid conversation, pushing the goat in front of them. A young girl of no more than 6, negotiates with an elderly man over the purchase of five hens. He offers her a discount if she takes all five and asks her what she thinks. With a flick of her hair and an about turn, the negotiation falls flat as she quips “Not at that price!”.
Big burly men line the ditches with smaller horses while the bigger beasts stand on parade in the middle of the crossroads. Three goats chew their way through a bush, disappearing into the undergrowth, as if nibbling their way to freedom. Cages of nervous hens, try to sleep with one eye open. They look physically exhausted. Every sound wakes them and sends them shuffling in rotation to comfort each other as one stays on lookout. The ducks on the other hand are the complete opposite. They are too busy watching everything. No nerves here, just a ‘yeah you……look at me’ attitude.
There’s a reason that this fair has stood the test of time for over 400 years. It is more than just the buying and selling of horses. It is the sheer entertainment and social value of the event. The horses are not the real stars of the show, the people are. And it is these same people who help maintain the tradition and culture of this important social event. Long may it continue.
Note: This blog was transferred from my old website. Therefore the publishing date is not the original date for this piece. The blog above refers to the Fair of Muff in 2015.