It is rare that a place name finds its way into the dictionary and becomes part of common language, and Donnybrook has that singular distinction. It is defined as a ‘wild fight or contentious dispute; a free-for-all brawl’ and comes from the famous, or rather infamous, fair that was held in the neighbourhood for over six hundred years.
King John granted the Corporation of Dublin a licence in 1204 to hold a fair in Donnybrook, a border area on the banks of the Dodder. This was on the edge of Norman jurisdiction and, as a place for fording the river, was an important place where city dwellers and their rural neighbours met and traded. There was a church and graveyard nearby, places commonly associated with gatherings for religious festivals and burials.
The elements that are usually associated with such carnivals, namely, the indulgence in food and drink, music, gambling, sporting competition, were present. However, it was the unbounded permissiveness and increased violence that took place that it became known for, and for which the name is now attributed. This epitomised the wild, unrestrained behaviour of rural peasantry and by the late 1700s lurid reports began to feature in local newspapers. And by the mid-eighteenth century fighting between the south side Liberty weavers gang and the north side Ormond butchers was drawing negative attention.
The movement for reform began in the sixteenth century, and after the 1798 Rebellion and the impact of the French Revolution that was stirring a new class-consciousness, the authorities made a concerted effort to restrict the fair’s activities. Through the early 1800s the movement for abolition gathered steam with local merchants, the nobility and the church joining forces. The end came on 26th August (usual first day of the fair) 1866 when a new church, dedicated to the Sacred Heart in atonement for the sins committed at the fair, was opened only yards from the fair ground. The small crowd of fair goers soon slipped away quietly – and that was the end. The fair soon became a memory, and the fair green was later developed in 1881 as a rugby ground (the former home of Leinster Rugby) where both Old Wesley and Bective Rangers now play.