In Kerry, the summit of Gleannsharoon is about a thousand feet above the sea: to the north is mainly bogland. To the south you can see what people call The Heart Of The Kingdom. Bertie Ahern said that even though he has travelled the world, it is still his favourite view. There was a time when it mightn't have been: it was made up mostly of woodland and high grass. Then the Normans came and built a castle on the northern bank of the river. There was an abundance of limestone and never-failing water. Their soldiers built houses near the castle.
Shopkeepers and publicans inevitably came. The town began to grow. The Chieftain's name was Geoffrey de Marisco: most of his soldiers were from France. And of course they spoke their own language. French is known as a Latin language and that probably was why the old town became known as the Latin Quarter. Some people wonder why the main street is so wide. The answer is simple: Geoffrey de Marisco saw that Oilean Chiarrai would be a perfect place for fairs and markets.
The widest part is around the middle. The street gets narrower as it goes to the east. Part of the top is kept on fair days for horses and ponies and mules and jennets and donkeys. It can be a hazardous street to cross, especially if some of the horses are thoroughbreds. They can kick with their front legs as well as the back.
The great body of the street is kept for cattle. Down at the very end, where the Tralee road begins, there is a small space kept for sheep. Castle Island has been described as a street amidst the fields. It is still true. Most of the houses have fields coming up to their back. And nobody is surprised to find a hare eating his cabbage at dawn. The rabbits come too, but rabbits prefer lettuce. There was a time when wolves roamed the streets, but by the end of the 19th century the wolves had been wiped out.
The pavements on the southern side of the street were kept for pigs and bonhams. The houses gave them shade from the sun. At the end of the street there is a huge building called the Market House: it sells a range of clothing and a fair amount of agricultural machinery. It now contains a travel agency.
It also has the town weighing scales: there you can weigh a lorry-load of turf or a donkey and cart. There in the old days all the butter was collected and sent to Cork to be exported, mainly to England. Some country people made two kinds of butter, one to be exported and one to be kept for special customers. Dawson City, the capital of Alaska, was a gold town; so Castle Island was a butter town. It hasn't changed much.
The fair began at no official time. It was a question of your own choice. If you went in at five o'clock in the morning, you could be certain that there was someone there to buy your calves. Being out in the morning chasing your cattle was hard on the humans because they hadn't time to have a decent breakfast.
The full Irish breakfast consisted mainly of a few slices of bread and butter and a mug of tea. They were hardy people in those days. And they weren't given to complaining. Sometimes the demand at the fair might be poor and you had to take your cattle home. There was no need to drive them. They went willingly. The markets were held every Thursday and there you could buy almost anything from a tree down to an instrument for picking pebbles out of horses' hooves. The town prospered.
Donkeys were very much in demand in those days because when the men on the farm were using horses, the women could go shopping with their donkey and cart. Mules were hardly ever used because they were too slow. They were bred to be sold to the British army and many a mule that came into the world in the country around Castle Island could end up in some far-flung battle.
Jennets were very useful animals: they couldn't draw big loads but were quick. Then at a later date a big change came in the culture: the fair gave way to the marts. These meant the men driving the cattle could stay in bed until about eight o'clock and partake then of the full Irish breakfast -- plenty of tea and bread and butter and black pudding.
It was almost civilised, but some people missed the old part of the culture. They thought that being out in the very early hours was more romantic. It was, but it meant you suffered a very long day. And men who had been out so early were easily overcome by drink. And by about three in the afternoon you could see fistfights breaking out here and there, but they were harmless because the combatants were too weak from hunger to inflict any punishment on each other. They made great viewing for schoolboys and they were sad when the marts came in their place.
A song called She Moved Through The Fair was very popular for generations:
And homeward she went with one star awake
As the swan in the evening moved over the lake
Will we ever hear a song about a girl moving through the mart...
Fogra: Our old friend Colin Costello is making a comeback to racing. Last week, he won a 5km cross-country race in Meath. Well done.