“When are you going to write about us here on this side of the Barrow Bridge?” The questioner, a good friend of mine, looked quizzically at me with a smile, slowly breaking into a bout of laughter. “It’s a throw back to his young days” offered the third member of the company as we stood in the amber sunlight of a Saturday morning in what was once the L.D.F. Yard [to you and me it’s now part of the car park re-named some years ago to honour Edmund Rice, the founder of the Irish Christian Brothers]. “You know how the young fellows from Offaly Street were always afraid of crossing the bridge - it’s hard to beat old habits, even after 50 years.” It was my time to laugh, remembering the daily journey I made across that same bridge and up St. John’s Lane for 12 or 13 years while I was a less than willing student in the Christian Brothers Primary and Secondary Schools.
Thinking back on that conversation I was amazed to recall that my memories of Athy beyond O’Rourke-Glynn’s Corner [now the Corner Newstand] are few and far between. Understandably so because I can seldom recall venturing as a young lad far beyond that same corner into what was then known as Barrack Street. Do we still have Barrack Street as a street name in Athy? It was to my knowledge that part of the street lying past Woodstock Street and extending beyond Barrack Lane. The lane and street were so called because both lead to the British Army Barracks which was located close to Woodstock Castle. The lane still exists and now leads to the Greenhills Estate.
If as a young lad I rarely ventured into Woodstock Street and its near neighbour Barrack St., therein lies the explanation for my own lack of personal memories of the Pig Fair which was held in Woodstock Street on the first Tuesday of every month up to the early 1960’s. The fair extended on both sides of the street from O’Rourke-Glynn’s Corner to the Methodist Church on the east side and from Crawley’s to Doyle’s Pub on the opposite side. Pigs on the hoof were to be found on Doyle’s side of the street where the local farmers corralled their charges awaiting the pig dealers. The bonhams sold on for the most part to other farmers were kept in creeled carts on the Methodist Church side of the street where from early morning the farmers congregated.
The dealers arrived during the morning and the firms of Brennans of Carlow, Denehys of Waterford and Bowe Brothers of that same city were regularly represented at what was at one time one of the largest pig fairs in the Irish Midlands.
The business generated in the town on Pig Fair Day was not confined to the buying and selling of pigs, nor indeed the local public houses which, as might be expected, did a busy bar trade. The farmers and dealers had to eat as well as drink and apart from Dunnes, Lawlers and Doyles, three publicans in Woodstock Street providing food on Fair Day there was also Mrs. Davis who from No. 2 Woodstock Street, supplied meals to farmers and dealers. Her little house, later occupied by Bachelors, still retains the old style half door, the only example of its kind in the town of Athy. It was from here that her husband Joe Davis operated a secondhand clothes shop or “cast clothes” as the locals still call them, and like the other businesses he was particularly busy when the farmers came to town.
Next door to the Davis’ at No. 1 Woodstock Street was Tom May, boot and shoe maker and repairer who also benefited from the activity which took place on the street outside his shop on the first Tuesday of every month. Boots and shoes had to be repaired for the farmers who left them in to be collected on Fair Day the following month. Across the street, Delaney’s of Wolfhill set up their lime cart, offering for sale the lime which farmers and townspeople alike needed to whitewash their houses. Just beyond them and nearer to Doyle’s Pub could be found Barney Sheridan who lived in digs with Lizzie Maher and who in later years was to take over Tom Brogan’s Blacksmiths Forge in Green Alley. On Pig Fair Day, Barney could often be seen carrying out running repairs on the animals which had come into town earlier that morning pulling the cart loads of pigs and bonhams for the local Pig Fair.
In the 1940’s and into the 1950’s the street entertainers could occasionally be seen at the corner of Woodstock Street and Shrewleen Lane, energetically practising their unusual talents in return for the few pence, sometimes, but not always, collected from those who stood to watch. Balancing a ladder on one’s chin or alternatively a bicycle vied with lying on a bed of broken glass as the principal attraction of the street entertainers who travelled around from provincial fair to town market throughout the length and breath of Ireland.
The local Pig Fair also attracted the tinsmiths who practised their skills while sitting on the pavement repairing the pots, pans and kettles for the locals and the farmers in town for the day. The McInerneys and the Stokes families were the tinsmiths of the day and it was from their occupational abilities with tin that I understand the now politically incorrect name “tinker” first came. The tinsmiths hammer beat a steady rhythm which accompanied the raised voices of farmers and dealers as their talk and their laughter mingled with the squeal of pigs and bonhams to create a symphony of sound which was peculiar to the Pig Fair of yesteryear. Dealing started early in the morning and continued until about 4 o’clock in the afternoon when everyone dispersed, either to the pubs or home.
A menagerie of pigs, bonhams, horses and asses, the first two captives for the day, the latter two enjoying a lazy, leisurely day between morning arrival and an evening trip back to the farm provided its own excitement for the Athy youngsters for whom Woodstock Street on Fair Day was the nearest thing to a local zoo. As the fair closed, the pigs sold to the dealers were brought to the Railway Station to commence the last stage of their journey to the bacon factories in Waterford or Dublin. Each pig was roped by the back leg and paraded on hoof through Duke Street and Leinster Street to reach the Railway Station where they were corralled until the trains arrived.
Do you remember the Pig Fair in Woodstock Street? Were you a young boy or girl who disobeyed your mother’s instructions to stay away from the fair “as you’ll only get your clothes dirty”. I can imagine the warnings given as the youngsters left for school on Pig Fair Day in Woodstock Street. Doesn’t it now seem like another age - all so long ago. Thanks to Leo Byrne for his help with this article. Now that “the man from the Pale” has ventured across the Barrow Bridge (and not for the first time), can I look forward to renewed clerical approval from the Reverend Paddy?