THE LAMMAS FAIR IN BALLYCASTLE.
By LOUIS J. WALSH,
Author of "The Yarns of a Country Attorney," "Our Own Wee Town," "Twilight Reveries,"
"The Pope in Killybuck," etc., etc., etc.
"Away in the County Darry," as the Glensman used to say in the picturesque days of our youth, ere the monstrous motor had come to bring places together and thereby destroy the charm and adventure and romance of journeying in one’s own country, I once met a Ballycastle exile. The long summer days were beginning to shorten at the time, and as we clasped each other's hand with that warmth, that to the wanderers from Margie Town signifies such a wealth of common memories, I knew what our common thought was.
"Paddy," said I, "are you not thinking of going down to the Lammas Fair?"
"Ah ! Mr. Walsh," he responded in a tone of strange wistfulness, "sure, the savage loves his native shore!"
"And," I added, without giving him time to say anything more, "the Ballycastle man loves Ned's corner!"
So it is the world over. "In the far woods of Oregon or by the Atlantic wave, whether they guard the banner of St. George in Indian vales, or spread beneath the nightless North experimental sails," - I hope I am quoting a fine poem correctly,-when two Ballycastle men meet in a strange land, or a strange county, they are not long swopping memories till all the glamour and glory of the Lammas Fair, as they once saw it with the wonderful eyes of childhood, are shining before them illumined by fond memory's "light of other days."
I never actually saw the Ballycastle Lammas Fair with childhood's eyes. I was "man-big," as we say in County Derry, before I ever saw the Diamond shining like a fairy palace with the light from all the stands and stalls on a Lammas Fair night. And yet, now in retrospect, it is always illumined for me with the glamour of youth. I think the reason is that I knew the Lammas Fair long years before I ever took part in it.
In the yard of my father's hostel in "my own wee' town" there used to shelter the steeds of all those strange, mysterious men and women, who would, as it seemed to me, come driving out of a fairyland (which I afterwards learned to be Ballymena) on the evenings before our fairs with their carts full of those delightful things that next day would look so alluring when they spread them on their stalls, - John Starrs' wonderful toys and John Malone's ginger-bread horses and Mrs. McKeown's delectable "yellowman," and all these rest of the products of what appeared to me must be a land of everlasting delight.
"Joy and Excitement."
And sometimes, when they sat and smoked round the fire in the boiling-house, waiting for the water to boil to make the bran, these travellers, to whom the whole world with all its wonders must have been an open book (at least young Joe Loan, the yard boy, and myself thought), would tell us, who sat with wide-eyed wonder, of all the marvels of Ballycastle Lammas Fair, - how the whole world came there, even over the sea from Islay; and how unlike our common-place fairs, it started on Monday evening and they were never able to snatch a wink of sleep to the following Thursday; and of the joy and excitement and glory of it all.
And so it was that, though I was a struggling, disillusioned and, perhaps, hard-headed attorney before I ever saw a Lammas Fair, nevertheless when I beheld for the first time the Diamond thronged with the gay, clamorous, pushing throng, and the big, burly cattle dealers, and the Cushendall ponies, and the Islay and Raghery men, and the soft eyes of the maids from Glenshesk and Cushendun and Cushleake that "looked love to eyes which spake again," and the fishermen of Kinbane and Ballintoy, and listened to the resonant voices of the roulette men and the raucous tones of the stall-holders crying: "Apples, apples, honey-ball apples !" or proclaiming to the winds of the world, sweeping up from the salt sea, the excellencies of their cakes and sweets and "yellow-man," and enjoyed the humour of the old clothes vendors and the suave eloquence of the "quack doctors," I did feel myself recapturing a good deal of the sense of wonder that had been mine in my lost youth. That night when I returned to the Diamond and saw it a blaze of light, and noted the joyousness of it all and the light-hearted way in which even those, whom hitherto I had only known as staid burghers of my adopted town, tried their fortune at the roulette tables or exchanged their jokes and banter and made merry, and I had greetings from all my old friends of the stalls, it seemed, indeed, that all the glamour of my-eager boyhood had returned to me. I was once more the wonder-stricken little lad that had once sat with Joe Loan on the edge of a stool in the boiling-house and listened with rapt attention to the stories of the travelling men about the great days in far-away Ballycastle, that it seemed almost too good to hope that I would ever be fated to see.
It is that vision or the Diamond on a Lammas Fair night that is the most vivid of my Ballycastle memories and strange to say, when I think of dead and gone friends of the dear wee, friendly town, they often appear before my mind's eye as I used to see them enjoying the fun of the fair in the light of the flares from the stalls. Perhaps, it is old James MacMichael, with a word and a joke for everybody, or Dan Thompson, or "the Cooper" leaning over his half-door distilling wisdom to those who were wise enough to listen, or my dear friend Stephen Clark, or good-hearted Randal, or James Magill and Barney Boyle, arguing some weighty law point, or Neal MacLoughlin quietly smiling on it all, or Mr. Kirkpatrick talking about his last Continental holiday, or the many light-hearted boys and girls, by whose open graves it was afterwards my fate to stand in Bun-na-Margie or on the hill, or whose early deaths I mourned when, glancing over the newspaper obituary column, my eye chanced to fall on some familiar name.
One Big Family.
I think that the Lammas Fair had a good deal to do with the friendliness and neighbourliness of Ballycastle. I don't think that I ever knew a small town, the people of which seemed so much like the members of one big family. In any other town you might live your life and never exchange more than a nod with many of its inhabitants. They would belong to different congregations, different social sets, different avocations from yourself. There was no common meeting place.
But, once a year at least, all Ballycastle, - old and young, Catholic and Protestant, rich and poor, gentle and simple, Orange and Green, foregathered on the Diamond for the three nights of the Lammas Fair, and joked and gambled and chatted and made merry together. All differences of creed and class and everything else were for the time being forgotten. You were all just Ballycastle folk, not unfortunate people, like those who could only claim Cushendall or Ballymoney or Ballymena, or cold Portrush as their civitas, - and this was your own Lammas Fair, and you meant to make the most of it. Thus we got to know each other in an intimate way that seems impossible in any other township, and though we might have our quarrels and rivalries and feuds, we never forgot that we were Ballycastle people, and when we met in "far foreign fields" we clave to each other like children of the same hearthstone.
It is a long time now since I heard the hurdy-gurdies on a Lammas Fair night or watched the animated scene from "Ned's Corner." But, perhaps, there is no Lammas Fair to see. Perhaps, the old horses that once trotted proudly down the Ballymena Road on the Monday morning, carrying their cargoes of delight, have been replaced by ugly motor-lorries, and the "yellow-man," the details of whose making a friend who once saw the process told me were too painful to relate, has been forced off the stalls by some ultra-hygienic imported toffee. Perhaps, too, our modern youth, to whom the Lammas Fair once represented the end of every dream and the acme of every delight, would scorn to attend such a function in search of fun when the same money might bring them on a long bus trip to see a football match in Belfast or a boxing competition in Derry. Perhaps, even the elders have grown sophisticated and prefer watching a Hollywood picture to a good fight on a fair night. If so, then, dear as Ballycastle is to me, I never wish to see it again. If, however, the Lammas Fair is still the Lammas Fair talked about and dreamed about for the long months before and remembered with pride and joy till the Christmas after, then I will he counting the years until I am free to enjoy its delights all over again; and even though I know that the flares on the Diamond will not banish the ghosts with whom the place will for me ever be peopled, I will have no wish to banish them. I will know them all to be dear, friendly ghosts, and whilst I laugh and joke and exchange memories with those who remember with me the days that were, I will he thinking that these loved dead ones are smiling gently on me, too.
The Glensman No 4 Vol 1 January, 1932