Whereas today, the words Donnybrook Fair elicit visions of Ross O’Carroll Kelly characters buying tiger prawns, Perrier and “gourmet goods” in a store whose business surely boomed during the Celtic Tiger years, look up the word Donnybrook in the dictionary and you’ll see something like this:
don·ny·brook [don-ee-brook] noun (often initial capital letter) an inordinately wild fight or contentious dispute; brawl; free-for-all.
For the original Donnybrook Fair was not the food store that services D4 residents, but a Fair established by the Royal Charter of 1204 “to compensate Dubliners for the expense of building walls and defences around the city.” It lasted fifteen days from the latter end of August until mid-September, was held annually for over six hundred years, and by the mid 19th Century would become the most important fair on the island.
Originally billed as a horse fair, the run up to the event would see traders of everything from exotic fruits to horse manure set up their stalls on Donnybrook Green. Calling it a horse fair was slightly misleading, as horses were rarely on show, and those that were, were said to be fit for little but the glue factory. As sparse as the display of horses was, the actual buying and selling of wares was a cover for what was, in essence, a fortnight long drinking session.
By the time it was dissolved by Dublin Corporation in 1855, it had become a cacophonous event famed for music, heavy drinking, cock-fighting and shillelagh swinging. Walter Bagehot in his book The English Constitution of 1867, references the Fair by saying “The only principle recognised … was akin to that recommended to the traditionary Irishman on his visit to Donnybrook Fair, ‘Wherever you see a head, hit it’.” Another quote that gives some idea of the pandemonium appeared in the Freeman’s Journal on 31st August, 1778:
“How irksome it was to friends of the industry and well-being of Society to hear that upwards of 50,000 persons visited the fair on the previous Sunday, and returned to the city like intoxicated savages.”
Traffic to and from the Fair was said to have caused a continuous dust cloud the whole way from town for the two weeks of its duration. Alongside references to open displays of drunkenness, promiscuity (Charles William Grant wrote that “Dancing and flirting took place all round, and love making took place publicly”) and a general lack of respect for authority, historically, Donnybrook Fair is largely remembered for its’ fights and its contribution to the English language dictates this. The daily madness often subsided to nightly slumber, and when stallholders shut up shop at around midnight, participants, too drunk to make their way home would simply sleep on site and the party would just continue where it left off the next morning. A favourite past-time of younger Fair go-ers was to buy cheap treacle tarts known as “treacle tillies” and walk around sticking them to the backs of unsuspecting revelers.
By the second half of the 19th Century, the establishment had enough of the annual bout of debauchery in Dublin’s suburbs, and a committee, imaginatively called “The Committee for the Abolition of Donnybrook Fair” was established with the aim of raising the £3, 000 required to purchase the license for the fair from it’s holder. One of the members of the committee was the then Lord Mayor of Dublin, Joseph Boyce. The rest, as they say, is history.
Blacker, Henry Beaver: Brief Sketches Of The Parishes Of Booterstown And Donnybrook. Dublin, 1860
Sweeney, Clair L.: The Rivers of Dublin. Dublin, 1991.