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Letterkenny Accommodation - The Hiring Fair, Letterkenny

The Great Famine is one of the most significant events in Irish history, not least in County Donegal. While the living conditions of the ordinary folk of Donegal did improve marginally after the utter devastation of the Famine, they remained very difficult. Despite relative religious freedom  and years of basic education through the National School system their lives, as recorded in the writings of native Donegal authors such as Patrick MacGill, ‘the Navvy Poet’ from Glenties and  Micí Mac Gabhainn, author of Rotha Mór an tsaoil (The Hard Road to the Klondyke,) were marked by extreme poverty and want.

Anne O'Dowd in her authoritative account "Seasonal migration to the Lagan and Scotland"  defines migration as it occurred in Donegal as 'the history of the temporary worker moving away from home in order that he could afford to continue living there'.

The typical pattern was for very young men and women to travel first to the better land in the eastern part of Donegal - the Lagan - or to County Tyrone, working as farm labourers or as domestic servants. A major feature of this annual social event was the Hiring Fair. Similar Hiring Fairs had taken place in mainland Britain since at least the middle of the 14th century, and appear to have been introduced to Ulster soon after the Plantation. The Hiring Fairs of Letterkenny and Strabane were among the best known. Irish speaking children as young as 8 or 9 would line up in the Market Square in Letterkenny with farmers from the Lagan prodding them to test their strength and general health, and speaking about them in Ulster Scots -  a language most did not understand. A price would be agreed with their mothers and the children would not return home for 6 months or more.

When they were a little older they migrated to Scotland to work on farms there  - usually on the West coast of Scotland and the Lothians region. They usually lived in communal housing - the so called bothies - sending any spare money home to their families. Mostly they would return home when the season's work was finished. Increasingly, however, as in the case of Patrick MacGill, they stayed on to work in the booming industries of Clydeside, the engine room of the British Empire, in labouring, shipbuilding and in the other factories.

Patrick MacGill never forgot the impoverished conditions which first forced him to leave his native Glenties: the locally powerful well-connected traders (known as gombeen-men) whose greed  kept small farmers and labourers in debt inspired much of his writing, most notably Children of the Dead End: the autobiography of a Navvy, published in 1914. The Rat Pit, a companion piece to that book which came out in the following year, dealt with the life and harsh existence of Irish migrant labourers in the West of Scotland.

An annual Hiring Fair Walk is now undertaken in aid of Donegal charities. The walk was started in memory of the children that were sent to the Letterkenny Hiring Fair. The people who take part in the sponsored walk  retrace the 18 mile long trip that the children had to make back from Letterkenny over the mountains to Glendowan and on to Dunlewey.

In Letterkenny's Market Square  a poignant sculpture known as "Rabble Children" is located -  a lasting testament of years gone by when Hiring Fairs - or Rabble Days - were held in the square.

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Photos of Doagh Island Famine Village




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