September 2022 Are you going to Ballinasloe Fair?
Alison Alderton finds out why boaters will be floating to a horse fair.
THIS autumn, after a two-year hiatus, the famous Ballinasloe Horse Fair will once again draw in the crowds from far and wide.
Formerly a general livestock fair, it is now an important date in the calendar for those descended from Irish traveller families, for whom trading in horses is a significant but sadly dwindling way of life.
By the 19th century, the Ballinasloe Fair had become the largest horse fair in Europe, with Austrian, French, Prussian and Russian armies buying horses there. Allegedly, Napoleon’s favourite stallion, Marengo, was purchased from the fair and he went on to ride it at many great battles including Austerlitz and Waterloo.
However, tall tales and horse trading often go together and there is no evidence to suggest that Marengo did indeed come from Ballinasloe!
This year the fair opens for eight days from Saturday, October 1-8 and features horse sales along with other equestrian events. Family entertainment includes pig races, dog shows, fireworks, tug of war, a food and craft fair and singing competitions in local pubs. This year, the fair celebrates its 300th anniversary and the Inland Waterways of Ireland (IWAI) River Suck branch is hosting a Float to the Fair event, the first time such an event has been organised.
It’s been quite a year for the River Suck and it’s not over yet. The short tributary of the Shannon, opened to navigation 21 years ago, has come alive over recent months with visits from numerous boaters. It’s all thanks to Graham Bartlett and a small group of locals who approached the IWAI hoping to create a new branch to promote and celebrate this hidden gem of a river. I caught up with Graham recently and asked him a few questions:
Why did you feel that the River Suck needed to be represented by an IWAI branch?
“A few years ago, when I joined the IWAI, it became clear that the River Suck and its surrounding areas fell between the coverage of the existing branches and that there was an appetite for a local branch to promote and represent the River Suck. The terminus for cruisers is the harbour adjacent to Ballinasloe town which unfortunately was a very under-utilised facility that Waterways Ireland has done a fantastic job in maintaining. Located near the middle of a large vibrant town with a host of pubs, restaurants and lots to do, it seemed a shame that it was not more widely used.
“Our aim in IWAI River Suck is to show that the two-hour trip up the Suck is a rewarding experience. Cruising up the tranquil river is a must for nature enthusiasts and Pollboy Lock is home to one of the most friendly, helpful lock keepers in the country. Shortly after the lock, Moycarn Lodge Marina makes an excellent stopover to dine or enjoy drinks before the final few bends into the harbour and Ballinasloe Town.
“We are keen to promote visits to the river by all users including not only boats but an increase in other activities such as kayaking, canoeing and walking. Our other main aim is to create a community of users to come together to enjoy the social aspect and help each other out when needed.”
How did the idea come about for Float to the Fair?
“The Float to the Fair idea was born when boat owners suggested that something should be done to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Ballinasloe Fair. It seemed like an ideal opportunity to end the season with one last event and allow people to enjoy all the fair has to offer while combining it with a social gathering in the harbour.”
Since the formation of the branch, there has been a flurry of excitement both on and around the river. It all kicked off in March with a cruise in company which saw members from IWAI Athlone venture up the Suck to support and welcome the new branch into the IWAI family.
In June, the Heritage Boat Association celebrated its 21st anniversary on the River Suck. Travelling to Ballinasloe with a delivery of barrels of porter (beer) a bygone scene was recreated which would have once been considered the norm for the town, formerly a hub for onward distribution of the black gold. The big boats always draw in the crowds and this occasion was no different.
In complete contrast, the harbour was yet again transformed into a hive of activity when Freeman Cruisers Ireland held its inaugural gathering on the River Suck. For those of a certain age, Freeman cruisers conjure up childhood memories of boating on the UK canals, for these were once the boat of choice for many.
The former canal cut to Ballinasloe, opened in 1828, is no longer navigable and gone is the wooden horse bridge across the Shannon which once provided a vital link for the horse-drawn barges travelling on the Grand Canal and its extension to Ballinasloe. Traces of the canal harbour at Ballinasloe remain for those interested in Irish waterways history and perhaps some of the towing horses treading the towpath originally came via the Ballinasloe Fair?
A new walk from Ballinasloe to Pollboy Lock on the river navigation is under development. The route will follow a section of the old canal, complete with its beautiful stone bridges and bring the history of the Irish waterways to the attention of more people. I, for one, cannot wait to see what marvellous ideas this innovative branch is planning for next year. Members have firmly placed Ballinasloe and the River Suck on the map; for that they must be congratulated.