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Donnybrook Fair – A lively scene!

I was delighted when Colette Kinsella – RTE Producer – contacted me about my blog article on the historic Donnybrook Fair. She was planning to ‘do a piece’ for The History Show (RTE Radio 1) and we met and talked in Bective Rangers RFC, a central area for the Fair.

The History Show: http://bit.ly/2nmDOB5

Blog: http://bit.ly/2miHIKa


Donnybrook Fair

Donnybrook Fair






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On Your Bike – a short story

As traffic gets heavier with each passing day more and more people of all ages have taken to riding a bicycle. ‘On your bike’ is no longer a phrase of dismissal but says that the cyclist is keen on improving his health and happy to be away from the stress of another traffic jam. Cycling offers a sense of freedom and fun that are associated with younger years, and for that alone I am thankful.

I had not owned a bicycle since I was a teenager and buying one many years later was like taking a step back in time. Getting the right one took a while as the shop owner wanted to know what I wanted it for – casual cycling or something sportier. I tested a few and finally chose my steel horse and happily, if somewhat awkwardly, took it home. After a few days in the saddle, and more sore muscles that I care to mention, I headed off into town. It was the first time that I had done that journey since my schooldays and it was fun, and brought back memories that had lain dormant for years.

Thoughts of summer days cycling with friends to swim in Blackrock Baths were bright and vivid. As were our races when we made believe that we were competing in the Tour de France or pushing for an Olympic gold medal. Bikes were our pride and joy, and a vehicle for adventure and freedom that remains.

Moving along at a steady pace I was surprised to find myself taking in places that, up until then, I would usually drive past. Shops, lanes and houses with plaques commemorating a famous writer or politician, were now places of interest that I stopped and visited.

Ernest Shackleton's home

Ernest Shackleton’s home

I discovered that the famous Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, who almost became the first man to reach the South Pole, had lived for a time in a house in Ranelagh. Did he cycle these roads with a growing sense of freedom, I wondered, and hoped he had? And that the Donnybrook Fare, a festival that gives its name to riotous and unbridled behaviour, dated back to the reign of King John, in the twelfth century.

Being able to stop and park easily means that I am now able to pop into the second-hand bookshops that I had not previously visited. This has been a real treat and getting to know the staff adds to the whole experience. As such, I have been lucky enough to find good books that I would otherwise never have known existed. Cycling is not only good for the body but the mind, too and that can’t be bad.

I have found that cyclists often recognise one another with a nod of the head or a friendly grin, and they are quick to share news of a road closure or a handy shortcut.  And on a very windy autumn day, with dead leaves fluttering about, a fellow cyclist stopped and gave me a hand when I was fixing a puncture. It was a kind and much appreciated gesture that I have since done for other cyclists. ‘Hey, it happens to everyone sometime,’ he said as I shook his hand. ‘No problem,’ he added, before setting off without any fuss, like heroic rescuers are meant to.

In recent years with the introduction of cycle lanes, a more environmentally aware mind-set and people’s desire to improve their health, cycling is enjoying a golden period. Doctors recommend it and the concept of ‘Pedal Power’ has more to do with taking control of your body than just getting somewhere quickly. Up-down-up-down-up-down is now a mantra that many are familiar with and happy to keep saying.

And as a friend said to me a while ago cycling is now one of the few places that are digitally-free. With keeping an eye on surrounding traffic, pedestrians, road and weather conditions it is impossible, and downright dangerous, to pay attention to anything else. Hence, cycling has become, as my friend said, a GDF.

‘What’s that?’ I asked.

‘It’s a Gadget Free Zone.’

We laughed at that before he threw his leg over the crossbar and put the pedal down. ‘Right, I’m off,’ he added, cycling away.

‘Yeah, on your bike,’ I said, fixing my helmet and grinning at his witty and perceptive observation.

On your bike!

On your bike!

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Donnybrook Fair – More than dancing at the crossroads!

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.

'Donnybrook Fair' - Erskine Nichols 1859

‘Donnybrook Fair’ – Erskine Nichols 1859

Sacred Heart Church

Sacred Heart Church

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.

Site of legendary Donnybrook Fair

Site of legendary Donnybrook Fair


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Tailors’ Hall – living history

It is over three hundred years old, the oldest surviving Guild Hall in Dublin, and like a patient brought back to life after a near fatal illness, the Tailors’ Hall is thriving and looking great. Since 1983 it has been home to An Taisce (The National Trust for Ireland), who did a wonderful job in restoring the almost derelict property to its former glory. This work was recognised when it won a Europa Nostra Award in 1988.

Tailors' Hall - 'The Back Lane Parliament'

Tailors’ Hall – ‘The Back Lane Parliament’

The building was erected in 1706, and until 1841 was the headquarters and meeting place of the Guild of Merchant Tailors, when the guild system was abolished. Tradition had it that the Tailors’ Guild was the oldest one in operation, its first charter being granted by King John in 1207. There is no existing evidence for this, and the oldest charter on record was granted by King Henry V in Trim in 1418.

The Great Hall

The Great Hall

Over the years the building has acted as a meeting place for other guilds, an army barracks, a court and a place for society balls. In 1792 the Catholic Committee, with Theobald Wolfe Tone acting as secretary, held meetings in the Great Hall.  Because of these meetings the place was referred to as the ‘Back Lane Parliament’. This group, which was comprised of local merchants like Oliver Bond and the wonderfully named Napper Tandy, had come together to seek relief from the Penal Laws which many people considered out of date and an obstacle to economic improvement. In 1798 a more strident group, the United Irishmen was setup by Tone, and they sought to use the turbulence of the  French Revolution as an opportunity to strike against England. Sadly, a number of things, including bad communications and treachery, went wrong and the rebellion was brutally crushed by the Crown Forces, with many volunteers being hung, drawn and quartered – a particularly brutal execution that was meant to scare onlookers as much as kill the accused.

The renovated building, which still has many original features, including the magnificent Great Hall, is a real Dublin gem that I was happy to finally visit.

Original stairs - over 300 years old

Original stairs – over 300 years old

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