By David Lynch
Author and photojournalist Noel Mullins has written a history of horse fairs and trading in Ireland. His fascination began in the 1950s as a young Loughrea boy. Every year he watched Travellers with colourful horses and ponies walk past his house as they headed for the Ballinasloe Horse Fair. David Lynch met Noel at this year’s fair, and spoke to him about his new book.
The excitement of the Ballinasloe Fair gripped Noel Mullins every year when he was a child. “We would sit on the wall in Loughrea and watch the traders and horses go by,” Noel told Voice of the Traveller. “Ballinasloe was not that far away, but as a child who cycled everywhere then- it really seemed like a different world. “Travellers and others walked and travelled long distances to Ballinasloe. And I used to love watching them go by with the ponies, horses and wagons. “Childhood memories like that stay with you- and it’s probably the main reason why I am fascinated by horse fairs.”
Voice of the Traveller bumped into Noel at this year’s Ballinasloe Fair. Tens of thousands of people were in attendance on the sunny opening Sunday. A photo-journalist and marketing officer for many years, Noel is just finishing a book entitled ‘The Origins of Irish Horse Fairs and Horse Sales.’ It will be released by the end of November and will be available on his website www.noelmullins.com . The book looks at the history of horse fairs, trading and horse breeding- reaching back into the ancient past to the High Kings and Tara in 1200 BC. But Noel also focuses on the modern fair with hundreds of photographs included. A section of the book deals with Travellers and the role they played and continue to have in fairs. “When I was young in the 1950s and 60s we mixed a lot with Travellers in Loughrea- it really was not a big issue then,” said Noel. “I knew Larry Ward and the Wards- and my doubles partner in handball was a young Traveller. There is so much about Traveller culture that is fascinating.”
Travelling culture is not the main aspect of Noel’s book, but wagons, cant, Fair Travellers, Traveller horse breeders are all touched upon. He mentions that many horses bred by Travellers have ended up abroad. Over 40 fairs are featured in the book- and Noel has been on a bit of an intensive tour of fairs in recent years. He has visited and took photographs at 20 in the last four years- from Smithfield in Dublin to fairs in the North. Despite all the travelling it is no surprise that it is the Galway fairs that are still closest to his heart.
“My favourite fair would be Maam Cross in Connemara. It’s a beautiful location and they sell everything. Obviously Ballinasloe is important to me as well. I brought a few Americans to the most recent Ballinasloe Fair and they really enjoyed it. It is a big social occasion as well. I really think there is not enough done to promote the fairs as a distinctive Irish event that tourists would find interesting”.
“With the coloured horses, and the different ways that Travellers dress and just the whole atmosphere at the fair, it is something that people from outside Ireland would find very appealing. There have been changes with horse fairs and trading in recent years. It has got a lot tighter with micro-chipping. This impacts on everyone involved in the trade and it does effect Traveller traders as well. But fairs still remain important. You could see at Ballinasloe this year that it remains a huge social institution for Travellers. A place where people can meet and socialise. That continues despite the changes.”