Farm Ireland

Friday 20 April 2018

Timeless charm of ould lammas

Thousand of visitors headed to Ballycastle, Co Antrim for August's Ould Lammas Fair, one of the country's oldest harvest festivals. Ronnie Bellew met with the horse traders and film makers who make this gathering a real highlight of Ireland's summer schedule

The three card trick is a festival favourite the world over and it is no different at Ballycastle
The three card trick is a festival favourite the world over and it is no different at Ballycastle

Ronnie Bellew

The preacher on Ballycastle seafront was telling anyone who cared to listen that God loves sinners. "You may have very little thought about Christ today, you may have very little thought about God today, but I want to assure you dear people on this the last day of August 2010 that God loves the sinners too and God is our salvation," he proclaimed above the fairground din.

It was the second day of the Ould Lammas Fair and the preacher and his companions were a reminder that even though 'the devil's buttermilk' was flowing, you're not too far away from the North's bible belt and Big Ian in Ballymena.

The God-fearing souls on the seafront were part of a throng of thousands from all over Ulster and beyond who converged on the north Antrim town at the end of August for one of the country's most distinctive harvest festivals.

The charter for the fair was granted to the MacDonnells of Antrim in 1606, but its origins run deeper and Ould Lammas (Lammas is the name for an old English feast celebrating the first loaf from that year's harvest) is believed by historians to be a 'Christian' version of a pagan Irish Lughnasa festival.

Whatever its origins, the Ould Lammas Fair has a timeless quality and, as with most street fairs, is a mixture of the good, the bad and the gaudy.

The fortune tellers were out in force, the streets packed with buskers and there were more than 400 stalls where you could buy anything from dulse (a local seaweed) and 'yellowman' toffee to 'the world's smallest kite',, Ulster Scots music CDs and Scullion hurls from Loughguile.

The Ballycastle horse dealing is the last remnant of the fair's agricultural roots, but these are lean times for horse traders.

Denis Devine, a farmer from Randalstown in Antrim, has been travelling to Ould Lammas for years and he reckons the trade is at an all time low.

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"There's no money around for horses," he said. "What we have been doing for the last two days is swapping horses. Nobody wants to buy horses. The person that had money for a horse, a house, a car a few years ago doesn't have that money anymore."

The economics for horse breeders are stark, he added. "I have an Irish draught mare at home and it cost me £1,300 to put a foal on the ground and that same foal I was offered £300 for at the fair in Cavan."

One trader doing brisk business was Ian Linton, a farmer from Garvagh in Co Derry.

A one-man film industry, he produces documentaries with a rural theme and made his first film, The Way It Used To Be, a look at old farming methods, in 1985. Since then he has added over 100 titles to his catalogue, covering everything from Horse Trotting in Ireland through to Champions of the Soil (a documentary about the World Ploughing Championships) and Flax -- The Forgotten Harvest.

"It's going well for me, I have 100 titles of my own and I also buy in titles from England," he said. "I was the first man to bring a farming tape into Ireland. I don't have time to go to many fairs or festivals because I am too busy making the films. The next one is a promotional film for a dairy farmer in Cork."

One stand-out voice was Justin McGurk, from Cookstown in Co Tyrone, who has tapped into the collective mood with his single, We're Going To Be Alright, a number that topped the European Country & Western charts earlier this year.

A down-home response to the economic downturn, the tune's Youtube video features a man in a bar in Coalisland performing the not inconsiderable feat of drinking a pint of Guinness while standing on his head.

Despite the lean times, the Ould Lammas organisers feel a near record number of visitors travelled to this year's fair.

On the Monday, which was a bank holiday in the North, traffic was backed up for two hours from Armoy into Ballycastle, and while there were some late night street disturbances on Sunday leading to 19 arrests, the festival was notably good humoured and friendly considering the crowds packed into the town for the weekend.

No trip to Ballycastle is complete without a sailing to Rathlin, the only inhabited island off the Northern Irish coast.

Still home to over 100 people, Rathlin's history links the Scottish mainland and Vikings with Ireland. The site of a Stone Age axe factory and scene of a massacre in 1575 when the Earl of Essex's forces slaughtered hundreds of the Clan MacDonnell members, Rathlin is also where Robert The Bruce retreated before mounting his campaign against the English in the 14th century. In 1898, Guglielmo Marconi used the island as one of the bases for his work in wireless radio transmissions.

The fast ferry from Ballycastle gets to the island in 20 minutes and a few hours walking or cycling around the Rathlin hills is one good way of blowing away those Ould Lammas cobwebs.

Irish Independent