Thursday, September 22, 2011

"On September 23..." The Harvest Fair in Newtownards

Yes, tomorrow is Harvest Fair day in the Square in Newtownards. What was once the big event of the year is nowadays not much different than the regular Saturday morning market. There are some great photos of it here from the 1950s and 1960s - I can remember we used to take the afternoon off primary school in the late 1970s to go up to it, and my uncle William had a candy floss and toffee apples stand at it for a few years.

Its origins are hard to trace. Unlike the other towns in Ulster which had been granted a Royal Charter in 1613, the charter granted to Hugh Montgomery's Newtownards did not specify a particular date for the annual fair. Maybe King James I was happy to let Montgomery run Newtownards his own way with minimum interference.

By the time that the Newtownards Chronicle and County Down Observer was first published in 1873, the Harvest Fair was embedded in local culture. The report of that year's fair is entitled "The Rowdies at the Harvest Fair" and tells the story of a group of drunken townies from Belfast creating disturbances after the Fair was over, including fist fights at the bus station and a few arrests - as well as a wee Ards woman who rolled her sleeves up and gave them a taste of their own medicine.

There's an interesting reference to the Fair in the famous local poem The Man from God Knows Where by Bangor poet(ess) Florence Mary Wilson, which is set in the years before and after the 1798 Rebellion:

"Well 'twas gettin' on past the heat o' the year
When I rode to Newtown fair;

I sold as I could (the dealers were near -
Only three-pound-eight for the Innish steer,
An' nothin' at all for the mare!)
I met M'Kee in the throng o' the street,
Says he, 'The grass has grown under our feet
Since they hanged young Warwick here."

It's hard to know how much creative license the writer used, but this implies a harvest fair existed in Newtownards around 1798. But let's be honest, there have been harvest fairs worldwide ever since harvesting began. And, as ever, the major commercial harvests in the Ards go back to the Scottish settlers of 1606 and 1607. The Montgomery Manuscripts record that:

"Now the harvests 1606 and 1607 had stocked the people with grain, for the lands were never so naturally productive since that time... to the degree that they had to spare and to sell to the succeeding new coming planters, who came over the more in number and the faster... the millers also prevented the necessity of bringing meal from Scotland"

A great local song, written sometime in the mid 20th century, tells the story of the Harvest Fair's heyday, but a heyday which even back then some regarded as a comedown from former glories:

On September 23 will you come alang wi me
And we’ll go and 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’ll leave the hens, 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

I don't think I'll be able to go to it tomorrow, but I know many folk of the older generation who still make a point of going. In our age of local produce, food miles and 'artisan' producers, there's a job for somebody to give the Harvest Fair its special status back again. Meanwhile here's a video clip of me playing the song's melody on the mandolin.