Friday, August 13, 2010

The Harvest Fair

One of the trends of recent years has been the "packaging" of culture, usually urbanised Belfast stuff, which is assumed by its' packagers to also apply to rural market towns of Ulster and so is then exported to those places with little consideration or thought. Following the Ulster Workers Strike of 1974, those towns were infected by the more unsavoury aspects of Belfast life due to the big population shifts and subsequent housing estates that were spawned by "The Troubles". In most cases this catastrophic Housing Executive policy didn't dilute the paramilitary influence but spread it wider. We all know too well the estates of Newtownards, Bangor, Dundonald, Lisburn, Carrickfergus, Glengormley, Antrim and Ballymena which suffer still.

These "mercat touns", and many like them, are mostly - historically at least - Ulster-Scots and so they have their own histories, stories and vocabularies. The song below was given to me many years ago by the late George Holmes (to give him his full title Dr George Holmes MBE, PhD FIPSM [Bel], FSA Scot, FHS [GB&IRE], FIHC, MICTM). He and I spent a cold night in the directors box at Windsor Park and talked about songs and local traditions throughout, not really paying attention to the match. It is sad that George passed away earlier this year - he had much knowledge accumulated and was generous to me with much of it. This oul Newtownards song he gave me, called "The Harvest Fair", is a simple telling of what was once the big date in the annual calendar. It also marked the date when blackberries had to be picked - any picked after Harvest Fair day were likely to be full of wee worms. Nae use for making jam in a pillow case - but that's another story, and who makes their ain jam now anyway?

On September 23, will ye come alang wi me
An we'll go an' pay a visit to the Square
Everybody gathers in – tall and short and fat and thin
To join in the fun and see the Harvest Fair

There’ll be William James from Scrabo Hill and Hugh from Ballyhay
Mary Jane from Carrowdore and Sam from Drumawhey
Margaret Ann I’ll leave ahin, she disnae seem tae care
For there’s none would take a pension for to miss the Harvest Fair

There’ll be piles of Yellow Man and we’ll buy some if we can
For the childer nearly ate the stall and all
Candy floss stuck on a stick, candy apples you can lick
We’ll enjoy ourselves beside the Oul Town Hall

You can buy a pound of pears or some second-handed chairs
You can listen to the preacher give the word
You can have your fortune toul by a gypsy brown and oul
You can pay 3d to see a four legged bird

If we talk to Farmer Fred he’ll say “The Fair is dead”
He’ll puff his pipe and nod his head and sigh
But he’s talking through his hat, aye I’m certain sure of that
For we’ll mind the Fair until the day we die

The spellings are as they were given to me, but it's easy to imagine that these have been "English'd" over the years and that the original version would have been a much fuller Ulster-Scots. My favourite part is where the oul farmer, even back when this was written maybe 70-odd years ago, was unimpressed by the state of the Fair and that it was no longer as good as it once had been. Some attitudes never change.


Charlie Reynolds said...

A wee gem Mark and what a sad loss George was to us all especially the Ulster Scots community.