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Kings of the Ballinasloe October Fair

Ballinasloe History Online
 Damian Mac Con Uladh

The East Galway Democrat of 25 September 1948 carried a front page advertisement for the 'October Fair and Carnival…An Ancient Fair! - A Modern Carnival…See the Old Fair with the New Look'. A committee had convened to rejuvenate the Fair and began the transition from what was predominantly agricultural fair into the 'fair and festival' known today.

One step in this direction was the annual event of electing and crowning a 'King of the Fair'. The first king was Frank Henry, a national school teacher in Clontuskert. He was elected unanimously. The East Galway Democrat of the following fortnight (9 October 1948) sheds some more light on the crowning of the first King of the Fair. On Fair Day Sunday Supt O'Halloran dispatched the long procession from the Workhouse grounds, headed by the Ballinasloe Brass and Reed Band and Killaghton Pipers' Band. It was a 'colourful piece of pageantry' the Democrat remarked. The coronation took place on the newly built Burma Road and was performed by Chief Supt P. Doyle. The king then called on his 'subjects' to support the carnival fund. The carnival was the brainchild of Michael Ryan of Society Street to raise funds for the NACA (National Athletic and Cycling Association).

Followed by an entourage made of costumed attendants, jesters, gypsies' caravans, gypsies on ponies, and clowns, the king led a procession through the streets of the town. Later that day he was reported to have visited all his friends with Sgt Dan Scannell escorting him.

It was to be a number of years until the next coronation took place and the practise was revived again some years later in the 1950s .

In 1956 (one year before the Rose of Tralee Festival began) the event was reintroduced by the Ballinasloe Development Association. Elections were held in the days running up the Fair. A novel electoral system empowered the voter to buy as many votes as the voter wished, each ballot costing two pence. Candidates were nominated by various organisations and industrial firms. After the closure of the polling stations on Saturday night, a count took place and the king elect declared. That year the honour fell on Joe Higgins, the second king of the fair.

Joe, who was the Dubarry candidate, recalls that the newspapers claimed 30,000 spectators turned up at the Canal Basin to welcome him. Arriving on a barge with Joe Brennan and Dick Moore as his aide-de-camps (both were dressed up as famous sailors - Joe Brennan as Wexford man Admiral Barry, founder of the US Navy), they were cheered through the streets on their way to the Market Square. Outside Jenkins' pub, Joe was crowned second of the fair and received his chain of office from Michael Ryan. During Fair Week, the king opened dances, opened the Jumping Competition, visited the hospitals and met the victorious Galway football team. Joe also remembers how the nuns nearly killed him for taking the liberty of granting the pupils a half-day when he visited the school!

The third king was Mattie Giblin, a native of Caltra, described as a 'giant weighing 28 stone'. That year alone 36,000 votes were cast.

The colour and pomp that had been associated with previous coronations was continued. From the second bridge on the Grand Canal (still visible behind Square D in Pollboy), the king elect entered the town on a barge, accompanied by his druids and musicians. The Aughrim Slopes Band made up this troop and Tadhg Mac Lochlainn was the Chief Druid. The barge was met in the Canal Basin by the 'Mayor of the Fair' Andrew Jennings and, along with the king and his train of bards and druids, they mounted a coach and four (provided by Lady Clonbrock of Ahascragh) to parade through the town. They were followed trucks from the local businesses, and from Guinness and Smithwicks. The parade made its way to the Market Square. It was here that the king was finally crowned. Tadhg Mac Lochlainn estimates that the ceremony attracted almost 20,000 to the town alone.

Interestingly enough, the idea behind the Rose of Tralee was born in Dooley's Pub in 1957. Some guests noticed the coronation procession passing by. They took this idea back to Tralee and instead of inaugurating a king, our Kerry friends decided for a Rose.

According to Paul Dooley, the crowning of Giblin was recorded by a BBC team or a London production company. However it was lost after the fair and never made it to the screen. The fair committee had wished to have it shown in cinemas across the country as a form of promotion.

The fourth king in 1958 was the late Frank Ryan of Brackernagh, and 19,000 votes were cast in this election.

The fifth king in 1959 was Gerry Kelly and the electorate totalled 17,000.

The sixth king in 1960 was Paddy Griffin, an employee of Paddy Lynch's lamb factory. 18,000 votes were sold in that year.

Tadhg Mac Lochlainn in his book Ballinasloe - Inniu agus Inné states that the Carnival King Crowning came to an end all too soon, right at the peak of its popularity. With the lack of local cooperation and the difficulty in obtaining the dance hall for fund-raising purposes, the crowning had to be abandoned. Those active with the Carnival Committee were Michael Ryan, Tadhg Mac Lochlainn, Martin Greally, Liam Keller, Billy Vaughan and G Flynn.

However, that was not to be the end. The practise of electing a king made a brief comeback in the 1970s. A new committee, with Kay Purcell as secretary, organised and ran the event again. In 1977 an election took place and five candidates were put forward by local industries. The five were: John Coffey (Top Quarries), John Cosgrove (Square D), Robert Hill (Dubarry), Tony Kelly (AT Cross) and Brian Shaughnessy (Ballinasloe Vintners' Association). John Cosgrove won this battle and was crowned seventh and last king. The votes that year cost five pence.

  • The author would like to thank the assistance of Seamus Jenkins, Mattie Giblin, Joe Higgins, Martin Ryan, Paul Dooley and John Cosgrove in the writing of this article.
  • Note: This is an edited and revised edition of an article that appeared in the 2000 October Fair and Festival booklet.

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