SOME POSSIBLE ORIGINS OF THE LAMMAS FAIR
On the last Tuesday of August each year the famous "Ould Lammas Fair" of Ballycastle is held. It is a real old time festival, the main characteristics of which have been wonderfully preserved down to the present day. There are seventeen or eighteen fairs held annually in Ballycastle, but in size and importance none can vie with the Lammas Fair. With the exception of the monthly fairs on the second Tuesday of each month, all of which are of comparatively recent origin, most of the remaining fairs date at least from Plantation times.
The exact origin of the now famous Lammas Fair is uncertain. One theory is that it began as a result of the occupation of the Route and Glens of Antrim by the Macdonnells of the Isles. In the early part of the sixteenth century, this powerful clan apparently chose the district where Ballycastle now stands as its headquarters. The ancient name of Ballycastle was Port Brittas, now represented by the present boatslip.(1) It was from this port that the Dalriadans sailed for Britain when they colonised Scotland, and from which it is said Fergus the Great sailed in A.D. 502 taking with him to the Scottish shore the celebrated Lia Fail, or stone of Fate, on which Irish Monarchs were crowned at Tara, and which in 1296 was brought by Edward I from Scone to Westminster Abbey.
In old rentals of the Antrim estate the term "Port Brittas" frequently occurs. It was convenient to this port, to the north west of the present town and within the existing town boundary, that the Macdonnells had a stronghold called Dunanynie Castle.(2) Here Sorley Boy Macdonnell—greatest chieftain of his clan—was probably born in 1505, and certainly died in 1590. His whole history was connected with Ulster, even his marriage with an Irish wife and his burial in an Irish grave. " When driven occasionally by reverses from every other foot-hold on the coast," says Hill, " Sorley clung with unyielding tenacity to the lands of the two territories (the Tuoghs of Munerie and Garey), now represented by the parishes of Ramoan and Culfeightrin, which meet at Ballycastle. The adjoining bay afforded him greater facilities than any other inlet on the Antrim coast. His residence of Dunanynie overlooked its waters ; his galleys bringing soldier settlers from Cantire and the Isles floated in its little harbour ; and the lower, or Northern Glens, first sought and occupied by the Scots who came on former periods, had in Sorley's time many friendly hearths to welcome his fresh companies as they arrived."(3) From the fifteenth to the seventeenth century, the tide of immigration from Cantire and the Isles to the Glens of Antrim flowed very fully, particularly on those occasions when disasters or certain other circumstances overtook the Macdonnells, or Clandonnell South in Scotland. There were at least seven such periods :
(i) After the marriage of John Mor to Margery Bisset, a civil war ensued between John Mor and his brother Donal na Heile, Lord of the Isles. The chief outcome of this dispute was that John Mor met with defeat, and he and his adherents were compelled to make a hasty retreat to the Antrim Glens. This immigration took place during the first quarter of the fifteenth century.
(ii) In 1431, after the great battle of Inverlochy, many of the Clandonnell South emigrated to Antrim.
(iii) On the formal surrender of the Kingdom of the Isles, 1476 (which, however, did not actually cease to exist as such until 1493), there came a third company of settlers.
(iv) A large number of settlers arrived in the closing years of the fifteenth century, and in the years succeding the execution in Edinburgh (circa.1500) of Sir John Cathanac Macdonnell and his sons. Many of these settlers formed part of Alexander Macdonnell's army of eight thousand men which came to Antrim in 1532.(4)
(v) Colla Macdonnell, whose ruined castle of Kinbane is one of the most picturesque sights of the Antrim coast, brought over bands of Highland kinsmen from the Isles.(5) These followers were to play an active part in extirpating the clan Macquillan from the Route (6)
(vi) It is by no means unlikely that a larger number of Highlanders came to North and East Antrim during the chieftaincy of Sorley Boy than at any previous period. “The year 1569." says Hill, "was remarkable in the annals of Ulster as witnessing the arrival of greater numbers of Scottish forces in the North than any previous year. Indeed, the hardy soldiers of Argyllshire and the Isles came in such numbers, under the leadership of Sorley Boy as to overcome all opposition."(7)
(vii) In the early years of the seventeenth century, when Sir Randal Macdonnell, afterwards first Earl of Antrim, and son of Sorley Boy, entered into possession of the vast family estates of the Route and Glynns, he encouraged large numbers of Scots to settle on his lands in North East Ulster.
In the early stages of the struggle between the Macdonnells and the Macquillans for possession of the district known as the Route, it was found necessary to have provisions and equipment sent from the Isles to those engaged in fighting in these parts. After harvest time each year, and before winter set in, supplies of dried fish, grain, wool, clothing and other commodities were landed at Port Brittas in quantities sufficient to tide the forces of the clan through the winter.
As the Macdonnells became firmly established in the Route (particularly after the Battle of Aura in the reign of Queen Elizabeth) and Glynns, and so could make use of the fertile land and stock of the territory they occupied, this importation of provisions was no longer a necessity so far as military operations were concerned; but the custom continued, possibly on a smaller scale. It eventually resolved itself into a form of exchange or barter between the clansmen in the Isles and their kinsfolk in the northern parts of Antrim. It also provided an opportunity for exchanging greetings and gossip between the families of the clan. Moreover, it is on record that Sorley Boy Macdonnell ordered the celebration of public games at Ballycastle to celebrate the coming of age of his nephew Gillaspick. son of his brother Colla, of Kinbane. (8)
Ballycastle was then referred to as " the town of Sombairle, which is Baile Caishlean " or as "Sarhirly Boy his town."(9) Thus it was in some such circumstances that the Lammas Fair had its origin.
In 1606, Sir Randal Macdonnell obtained a charter entitling him to hold six fairs annually at Dunanynie. One of these was to be held on the last Tuesday of August. Licence was also granted Sir Randal to hold markets and fairs in other parts of the vast Macdonnell estates which stretched from " the Cutts of Coleraine to the Curran of Larne." These included a fair on St. John Baptist's Day at Clough ; on Michaelmas Day at Dunkerd ; a Saturday market at Dunluce; a Tuesday market at Dunanynie and a Thursday market at Glenarm.(10)
I am strongly of the opinion that at the time of this grant, the Lammas Fair in some shape or form was a well established event in the district. Dunanynie means " the fort of the assembly or fair." and it was to the south of the old fortress or stronghold that the markets or fairs were held. Here we may find another of the possible origins of the Lammas Fair. Six years after the grant was obtained—in 1612—Port Brittas was considered of such importance that Sir Randal, in appointing a certain Hugh MacNeile, constable of his castle of Dunanynie reserved the custom duty on " wynne, oill, and acqua vitae (whiskey)."(11)
In 1625 Sir Randal, by order of James I, erected the castle of Ballycastle. of which not a single vestige remains.(12) Thereupon, Dunanynie became less important, and like Dunluce Castle at a later date, was entirely abandoned as a place of residence. The castle of Ballycastle was erected adjacent to the site of the present Ballycastle Church, and on the grounds to the south of the castle—now the Diamond or Square—the fairs are held to the present day. The Lammas Fair is now so large that only a mere fraction of those attending it could possibly be accommodated on the Diamond.
Why this fair should be held at the end of August, rather than at the beginning, August 1st being Lammas Day, is uncertain. ''Lammas Day" is one of the regular quarter days in Scotland, and in England it was the day on which, in Anglo-Saxon times, the first fruits were offered. In other places where Lammas Fairs are held, the date is much nearer Lammas Day than in the case of Ballycastle. The ordinary monthly fair in August, held on the second Tuesday, is sometimes called the first Lammas Fair, and it is thought that the festivities connected with the "Ould Lammas Fair" are held nearer the end of the month because of the later harvest in the district.
That this fair can claim an uninterrupted existence of at least three hundred and sixty years is well-nigh certain. Some possible origins are:--
(i) The circumstance that the word Dunanynie connotes an association with a fair or assembly. This association must date from very early times. There can be little doubt that the constant use of Port Brittas as a point of departure and landing place to and from Scotland also contributed even to a greater degree to the observation of this time-honoured festival. This intercourse with the Isles took place mostly at the end of the harvest, before winter weather made the voyage to and from Ireland impossible.
(ii) Were not the Islay "luggers" anchored in Ballycastle bay below the heights of Dunanynie the nautical descendants of the Macdonnell galleys of earlier times? (13)
(iii) Is it too much to assume that the celebrations that took place in Ballycastle in 1570 to mark the coming of age of Sorley Boy's nephew, Gillaspick MacdonnelI, formed a sort of precedent for the festivities commonly associated with the fair in bygone days?
(iv) The fact that the fair unquestionably dates from the time of the Macdonnell grant in 1606, but it is extremely probable that this grant merely perpetuated or stabilised what was then a well-established institution.
The now ruined castles of Dunluce, Kinbane and Dunanynie on the Antrim Coast were all Macdonnell strongholds.(14) it is natural to assume that fairs and markets would arise in the immediate neighbourhood of these castles, just as in earlier times they were located in the vicinity of crosses. In the 17th century, Dunluce Castle was easily the largest building in North Antrim. The "Lord of Antrim for Dunluce Hall" was returned as possessing nineteen hearths in the Hearth Money Rolls for 1669.(15) Not only was there a market at Dunluce, some of the merchants of which had tokens to facilitate their trade, but there was a village nearby containing between thirty and forty houses. The course of history has been such that the fair or market of Dunluce has fallen into the limbo of forgotten things, whereas the Lammas Fair, with its associations with Dunanynie, continues until the present day.
1. See, diagram of Ballycastle for approximate position of Port Brittas.
2. The headland, on which the ruins of Dunanynie Castle stand, rises abruptly from the sea to a height of more than three hundred feet. Only small portions of the castle now exist, but these remains plainly indicate a remote period of erection.:- Preliminary Survey of the Ancient Monuments of Northern, Ireland, pp. 6, 7. "About half a mile from Ballvcastle," says Hardy, "are the ruins of Dunanynie Castle, of which the outer wall of a tower alone remains standing (1830)" - The Northern Tourist Stranger's Guide to the North and North West of Ireland, p. 289.
3. Hill, The Macdonnells of Antrim, p. 121.
4. Burke Dictionary of the Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage, (Year 1886) p. 43.
5. Colla McDonnell built Kinbane Castle in 1547. He was succeeded in 1550 as chief of the Irish Macdonnells by his brother, Sorley Boy. - Preliminary Survey of Ancient Monuments, .N.I, pp. 6 and 7.
6. Curtis. E. - "The Macquillan or Mandeville Lords of the Route" in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Vol. XLIV, Section C, No. 4. (1938) p. III.
7. Hill. G., • "The Macquillans of the Route." in The Ulster Journal of Archaeology, (First. Series) Vol. IX. p. 67.
8. Ibid, p. 54. When Gillaspick attained his majority, it is stated that his uncle, Sorley Boy, in order to mark the event in a manner worthy of the young chieftain's rank, ordered the celebration of public games at Ballycastle, and that among other amusements. bull fighting or bull baiting was introduced on the occasion. Unfortunately, an infuriated bull broke loose, and rushed upon Gillaspick, inflicting a mortal wound before any of his attendants could interpose. This tragedy bears a marked resemblance to that which took place at the signing of the Treaty of Cateau Cambresis in 1559. The long war between France and Spain was over, and during the festivities which were held in honour of the peace, the young King Henry II of France, like young Gillaspick MacDonnell, was killed during a tournament.
9. Ibid, p. 121,
10. O'Laverty, Diocese of Down and Connor. Vol. IV. p. 32.
11. Ibid. pp. 399-400: 415-417,
12. The ruin, of the ancient structure from which Ballycastle derives its names, and which belonged to the Mcdonnell family, were still to be seen when the well-known novelist. W. M. Thackeray, visited the town in 1843. Thackeray refers to this visit in his Irish Sketch Book. The ruin was removed in 1848. – O’Laverty. Diocese of Down and Connor. Vol. IV, p. 414.
13. This aspect of the fair is dealt with more fully in Chapter III.
14. "The whole seaboard of North Antrim,” says Dr. Chart, "abounds with old forts and castles; naturally so, for it was a coast exposed to hostile landings from the opposite Scottish shore." - A History of Northern Ireland-, p. 90,
15. Boyd. H. A. - A History of the C. of I. in Dunluce Parish. p. 16.