I picked up this postcard recently. It made me laugh as the image doesn’t really match the popular folklore around the infamous Donnybrook Fair, which ran for over six hundred years, having begun life in 1204.
We’ve looked at it on the site before, in this 2012 piece from Ciarán. The Fair was renowned for its debauchery, and The Dublin Penny Journal asked their readers in 1833 “have you ever seen the Donnybrook Fair, that far famed spot for drollery and drunkenness, for courting and cudgeling, for gambling and gymnastics, for frolicking and fighting.” Maybe the most colourful account described it as “a perfect prodigy of moral horrors – a concentration of disgrace upon, not Ireland alone, but civilised Europe.”
The Humours of Donnybrook, a song written in the days of the Fair, captures the diversity and eccentricity of it all:
Oh you lads that are witty, from famed Dublin city
And you that in pastime take any delight
To Donnybrook fly, for the time’s drawing nigh
When fat pigs are hunted and lean cobblers fight
When maidens so swift run for a new shift
Men muffled in sacks, for a shirt they race there
There jockeys well booted and horses sure-footed
All keep up the humours of Donnybrook Fair
On a serious note, there were major social problems, as far as the authorities were concerned, and not alone in terms of violence. Police complained about “intemperance orgies”, while clergy stated that “the scenes of immortality, prostitution and the sickness which originate in it are too appalling and too forcible to believe that these proceedings which have led to the destruction of thousands could ever be considered entertainment.” The powers that be were sickened by every aspect of the fair, and as Ciarán noted:
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.
The madness of all of this, coupled with folklore and gossip, even impacted on the English language, with ‘Donnybrook’ ending up in a dictionary as “an inordinately wild fight or contentious dispute; brawl; free-for-all.”
Not that you’d get a sense of any of that from the postcard.