at the Fair –
Johnny Burns relates his memories
It was a bright May morning in 1922 when young Johnny Burns set off up the hill from Annsborough to the Hiring Fair in Castlewellan. As he walked in the sunlight, the 16-year-old could see the hustle and bustle of the crowd in the distance so he lengthened his step till he reached the top of the hill where he crossed to the Upper Square. His search for work had begun. Now aged 73, Johnny Burns still recalls that first morning he went to be hired.
“There were about 15 of us looking for work that day and devil a one knew where we were going. We stood in a ball together and one or two of us stuck a straw in our mouth to show that we could be hired. It wasn’t long before the farmers saw us and the bargaining began. We had to speak up for ourselves and try and make it a condition that we get home for the weekends but once we were given a shilling it was just like joining the Army – you were tied. The farmers did a tour of the pubs and sold a couple of cattle before they started looking for a fellow to hire. Nine out of ten of them didn’t want a local lad at all. Instead they went to Newry Hiring Fair and hired boys there who were less likely to be able to get home at weekends. That meant that not all of us were hired as very few outsiders came to Castlewellan Hiring fair.”
The whole town was thronged with people on fair days. While the hiring was done at the Market House at the Upper Square, along with the sale of cattle, other business was going on elsewhere in the town. Horses were bought and sold in the Lower Square and on the other side of the street, sheep were changing hands. The pig trade was carried on by the side of the road. But there were lots of other things to the fair than just buying and selling, recalls Johnny. “There was the Punch and Judy shows, the hobby horses, the organ grinder, who was always grateful for the few pennies that were thrown to him, and, in the evening, there were dances in some of the pubs”.
Johnny was lucky, or unlucky as it turned out, to be hired first time. He agreed to work for a farmer in Burrenreagh for the sum of £3 for six months. “In those days there was very little time or days off until you finished your term” he said. “It was hard work both night and day feeding cattle, digging after the plough, shifting manure in the horse and cart, cutting and thrashing corn and sything hay. There were a thousand and one things to do and you were sure to work twelve hours a day. In the winter when it was dark early I had to go to the barn with the flail and thrash corn till bed time.”
It was a far from happy time for Johnny with no one to keep him company so at the end of the six months term he was thankful to be heading for Castlewellan Hiring Fair again. This time he was more fortunate and hired with Terence Flanagan, of Drumnaquoile, who taught him to plough. Times were not so bad now and he enjoyed the work and the company of Flanagan’s four children. But Flanagan could not afford to keep Johnny in his employment so he found himself going back to his first master. “I was glad to get my head in any place” he says. “I had twelve brothers and sisters and I had no alternative but to get a job”. I was just as unhappy as the first time that summer, but when the six months were up, I agreed to stay for another half a year. “However, after a month I could stick it no longer and decided to leave. He owed me a months’ pay, but it was no good asking for it as it was against the rules to break the hiring term. I figured I was entitled to the money so I tried some crookery.
I told him I had seen a nice suit of clothes in Castlewellan at 30 shillings and asked him to lend me the money as I hadn’t got anything decent to wear. Lucky enough I got it and as well as that he gave me two shillings to keep me in cigarettes for a week. I left for Aughnacullion, outside Bryansford, and hired for Tom Walsh. I never went back.” It was now 1924 and Johnny’s wages for the half year had risen to £11. “I never had a home like it” he says. “I was washed , fed and clothed as well as paid and given a bed to sleep in so I stayed for four years.” He was then hired by Stuart Linton and received £28 for the half year. Johnny worked with many farmers after that but never returned to the Hiring Fair to look for work..
For some years he worked on the steam thresher, first for Willie Hudson, of Maghera, and then Peter King. He also found employment at the quarry at Dundrum and was with Doran Bros., Contractors, of Newcastle, for over 20 years. Now retired, Johnny and his wife Theresa, whom he met at a dance in Ballylough Hall and married in 1931, live in a cottage at Drumee on the Newcastle – Castlewellan Road. He enjoys a smoke and a yarn and likes nothing better than to look back on the days when the work was work and money was money. It will be a somewhat different scene at the Hiring Fair in Castlewellan next Monday to what it was in 1922, but for Johnny Burns, the memories remain.
[Article includes a photograph of Johnny
Burns with his wife, Theresa, outside their home]
See also: Castlewellan page.