The Fair of Carman in Leinster

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XXV....continued

2. The Fair of Carman.

The people of Leinster held a provincial aenach at Carman, a place situated probably in South Kildare, once every three years, which began on Lughnasad [Loonasa], i.e. the 1st of August, and ended on the 6th. Fortunately we have, in the Book of Leinster, the Book of Ballymote, and some other ancient manuscripts, pretty full descriptions—chiefly poems —of this particular aenach.

There was much formality in the arrangements. While the chief men were sitting in council under the king of Leinster, who presided over all, those belonging to the several sub-kingdoms had special places allotted to them in the council-house or enclosure, which were jealously insisted on. Each day but the last appears to have been given up to the games of some particular tribe or class. One day was set apart for the horse and chariot races of the Ossorians: another was for roydamnas or princes only; and there were special games in which only women contended. Some of the deliberative councils were for men only, some for women only, and at some others both men and women attended.

Conspicuous among the entertainments and art performances was the recitation of poems and romantic tales of all the various kinds mentioned at p. 234, supra, like the recitations of the Rhapsodists among the Greeks. For all of these there were sure to be special audiences who listened with delight to the fascinating lore of old times. Music always formed a prominent part of the amusements: and among the musical instruments are mentioned cruits or harps; timpans; trumpets; wide-mouthed horns; cuisig or pipes; and there were plenty of harpers; pipers; fiddlers. There is no mention of dancing either in this or in any other ancient Irish record; and there is good reason to believe that the ancient Irish never danced at all—in our sense of the word. In another part of the fair the people gave themselves up to uproarious fun, crowded round showmen, jugglers, and clowns with grotesque masks or painted faces, making hideous distortions, all bellowing and roaring out their rough jests to the laughing crowd. There were also performers of horsemanship, who delighted their audiences with feats of activity and skill on horseback, such as we see in modern circuses. Prizes were awarded to the best performers; and at the close of the proceedings the coveted trophy—always a thing of value, generally a gold ring or some other jewel—was publicly presented by some important person, such as a king, a queen, or a chief.

Special portions of the fair-green were set apart for another very important function—buying and selling. We are told that there were "three [principal] markets: viz. a market of food and clothes: a market of live stock and of horses; while a third was railed off for the use of foreign merchants with gold and silver articles and fine raiment to sell." There was the "slope of the embroidering women," who actually did their work in presence of the spectators. A special space was assigned for cooking, which must have been on an extensive scale to feed such multitudes. On each day of the fair there was a conference of the brehons, chiefs, and leading men in general, to regulate the fiscal and other local affairs of the province for that and the two following years.

When the evening of the last day had come, and all was ended, the men of the entire assembly stood up, at a signal from the president, 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: which was the signal for the crowds to disperse. It always took two years to make the preparations for the holding of this fair. After the introduction of Christianity in the fifth century, the pagan customs were discontinued, and Christian ceremonies were introduced. Each day was ushered in with a religious exercise, and on the next day after the fair there was a grand ceremonial: but beyond this there was little or no change.

The correspondence between these fairs and the Greek celebrations for similar purposes will be obvious to everyone: and it is worth observing that the Carman festival bore a closer resemblance to the Isthmian games, where there were contests in poetry and music, than to those of Olympia, where there were none.

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