Fair at Carman




"*hh, now let me see," replies the wizened old man as he leans back in his chair, carefully cradling his pint of Guinness and gazing intently at the glowing peat fire before him, "another story you say. What have I told you now?"

"Last time we heard about the Norman Invasion," quickly answers Eva, the small girl of seven sitting on the floor near the fire.

Immediately the boy beside her, Enna, adds, "And the time before that we learned about the king's inauguration rites."

Aedh slowly takes a sip of his drink and muses silently for a moment. Suddenly he puts the glass down on the table beside him and answers, "The Fair of Carman. My Lord! I haven't told you about the Fair of Carman yet. Okay, listen carefully now."

Donal, Enna, and Eva huddled around his chair, gazing intently at the man and waiting, almost with bated breath, for his story. Aedh was a seanchai, an Irish storyteller, who travels from town to town keeping the customs and beliefs of the ancient Celts alive. Leaning forward, he places his elbows on his knees, and begins...

"Every three years, during the first week of August, the king of Leinster (the province of Ireland on the east coast of Ireland that contains Dublin) would hold a fair at Carman. This was considered one of the Great Fairs. Let me tell you what that meant." Aedh pauses long enough to drain a little more from his pint. Wiping the froth from his mouth, he continues.

"The Great Fairs were considered to be so special that they were of national importance and exceptional laws were created to insure their success. For instance, the king's peace was proclaimed for all. This meant that during the fair all fugitives from justice walked free. It also meant that weapons were not allowed inside the fairgrounds. Any man who broke the kings peace, regardless of rank, was killed. There were no exceptions to this rule."

"The other special law had to do with debtors. Since a fair was a time for the nation to appear in its richest, most beautiful, and best, all debts were forgiven for the span of the fair. Since appearing in your best was very important to the Irish, this law saved face for all because even the noble class had numerous debts."

"Does that mean that if I owed a lot of money, I wouldn't have to pay it back if a fair took place?" asked Donal with a mischievous grin on his face.

Aedh tousled the boy's hair and replied, "Only for the length of the fair and the debts forgiven were only ones that involved rings, bracelets, or brooches, personal decorations. Anyone who had pawned these type of articles was allowed to take them back so they could be worn to the fair. A creditor who refused to give these items back was fined. It was considered a terrible disgrace for a noble to lack jewelry."

"For example, Enna might show up with gold bands about his arms, perhaps a few gold or silver rings on his small fingers, a bronze head band, and probably a gold ball clasping his long hair into a pony tail. Trailing along after him might be his little dog which he would have dyed partly blue and yellow, or perhaps red and brown."

Enna, a boy of about five with short cropped brown hair, smirked at this but Aedh continued, "Eh, you'd have wonderful long hair for that was the custom. No one, neither man nor woman, would ever cut their hair short, unless they be of the Church. An your clothes...my...the ancient Irish loved colors. Here you see a tall gentleman walking along with a scarlet cloak flowing loosely over a short jacket of purple, with perhaps blue trousers and yellow hood, while the next shows a color arrangement wholly different; and the women vie with the men in variety of hues. Nay, single garments were often multicolored; and it was quite common to see the long outside mantle, whether worn by men or women, striped and spotted with purple, yellow, green, or other dyes."

Eva speaks up, her eyes wide with interest, "Why was a fair so important though? All they did was play games." As Aedh replies she straightens out her cramped leg and stares up at him.

"Not so, not so. The Fair at Carman, like all fairs, was more than just a chance for everyone to have a good time, it was also a time of relaxation and learning. The Irish dearly love to learn. People from the whole country flocked to the fairs for many reasons; to learn their laws and past history; to relax and enjoy poetry, fun, games, and sports; and to buy, sell, and exchange goods at a market that included foreign goods."

Eva pulls on Aedh's trousers again to gain his attention and asks, "What do you think I would have been doing at the fair?"

"You, my little urchin, would probably be racing Muggins, that lovely little brown pony of yours, though you would have colored her ears and tail red or some such color. Donal, however, would certainly be showing off his boating skills in a boat race. You might even race each other, Donal's boat vs. your horse. You never knew what to expect at a fair. There were men who wore grotesque masks and yelled out uproariously funny jokes, there were feats of horsemanship including standing on the backs as they rode. Prizes were awarded for all events, including stories and poems. At the close of each event a trophy, usually a gold ring, was awarded to the winner. The Irish looked forward to their fairs with great anticipation." Aedh pauses again to quench his thirst and to collect his thoughts. He's silent for a moment, enjoying the drink, then he continues.

"Each day was begun with a religious mass after which the various events followed. There were actually many all female events, Eva, the ancient Irish being more open-minded than their descendants." Aedh leans forward in his chair and grabs hold of a peat block near the fire. "While the events were taking place throughout the day, there were also special meetings held, some for only men and some for only women, as well as those which both sexes could attend." Carefully he lays the block atop the glowing pile, then he sits back.

"When the evening of the last day had come, and all was ended, the men of the entire assembly retrieved their weapons and made a great clash with their spears, each man striking the handle of the next man's spear with the handle of his own. This was the signal for the crowds to disperse." Aedh lifted his glass and drained the last of the murky mixture. He placed it back onto the table near his chair and stood up. "But now I must be off. Remember about the Fair of Carman though, I'll be asking about it next time I'm here."


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