A century since the hiring fair came to Lifford

A century ago this month saw Lifford hold its first ever hiring fair. After the Ulster Plantation hiring fairs were held in every market town as a means of finding temporary labourers.

They were usually held twice a year, in May and November, and often it would be young children hired out to work in order to pay for rent and food. The practice started in the 17th century and by the 20th century such events were widespread across Donegal and Tyrone.

But it wasn’t until November 22 1922 that the first hiring fair got under way in Lifford. The day itself appears to have been largely unremarkable, at least in terms of press coverage. It merited only a few short paragraphs in the Donegal News edition published on Saturday, November 25.


What does stand out is the festive picture painted, almost of a local fete with laughter, high spirits and confectionary.
Coupled with the talk of “amusements” though are more chilling details – a price list and terms like ‘human freight’.
“The first fair ever held in Lifford took place on Monday and gathered a record crowd to the capital of Tirconaill,” read the front page report.
“Trains and vehicles of all descriptions brought in their heavy loads of human freights.
“The usual attractions and amusements in Ulster fairs were in great evidence.
“In the hiring fair market, good strong, useful men received from £15 to £18 10s for the six months. Strong youths from £10 to £12 10s and girls from £7 15s to £10.”
The Lifford fair drew little more press coverage after that, overshadowed by bigger events in Ballybofey, Letterkenny and just across the bridge in Strabane.

Strabane hiring fair was regarded as a premium event for anyone looking to rent a farm hand. It regularly attracted thousands of people to the border town. The Strabane hiring fair was held twice annually, on May 12 and November 12.
This coincided with the time when six months rent was paid to the landlord.

The difficulty of paying rent led many tenant farmer families to send their children, both sons and daughters, some as young as 12 or 13, to the fair to seek employment as farm labourers or servants.
According to the website The Fading Year, although hiring markets were held throughout all parts of Ireland the one in Strabane was amongst the most popular for the buying and selling of labour.

Contemporary accounts described the trains as packed, with an extra fourth class carriage added to cope with the large amount of passangers.

Labourers and farmers travelled from all over the island for the day.
Remembering the hiring fairs of his youth in the 1920s Ciarán Ó Nualláin, Strabane man and brother of the Irish novelist Flann

O’Brien, described the congregations that assembled in the streets as being “so crowded that you could walk across the streets on the people’s heads”.

For its part Lifford hiring fair was relatively shortlived. During the 1930s Irish farming under went major social and economic changes. It was inevitable that these changes would cause both the hiring fairs to fade out and the practice of hiring to decline.
The introduction of benefits in the early 20th century meant workers increasingly wanted to work and be paid on a weekly basis.
New legislation began to push youth into education rather than work. By the mid 1940s it was all but over.


Records show that one or two people turned up at the Letterkenny hiring fair in 1942 while in Strabane and Lifford the events were also being assigned to history. Exactly when they ended is not clear but what is known that almost 100 years ago today, a group of young men and women – many of them not yet teenagers – walked into the Diamond at Lifford to begin their working lives.

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