Sadler sympathetically mingles mirth with reality, including a mass of detail within a plausible setting. The makeshift bender tents and formal stands drew crowds from afar, for this late August fair that lasted at least week or more. A woman discussing her huge reclining cow is centrally positioned, emphasising how the cattle trade underpinned Ireland’s rural economy. It was the foundation of the gathering, while entertainment and wild social assembly followed. There was also horse dealing, together with conviviality, degenerating into violence and what many observers perceived as debauchery, all vividly balanced by Sadler. His curved composition is symmetrical; the building on the left and the tent on the right. These coullises (familiar from other Sadler paintings), flank his stage-like composition; leading the eye into and through the fairground, to a round tower in the centre distance.
A theatrical audience of onlookers on the left, spills out of an overgrown thatched public house. Darkly symbolising night-time activities, a couple peer from the upstairs window, above the sign ‘back door to the rising sun’. Dark and disreputable, everywhere people watch each other minutely, as the artist invites us to do. Above this corner, are tents with painted signs, symbolic of political allegiances; ‘the great man’ (probably Daniel O’Connell) contrasts with the crowned harp, above a Union Jack flag. A woman walks with a parasol, towards a man helping his wife alight from their dun-coloured horse, attracting a beggar woman who approaches bowing, and holding out a hat for money. British soldiers, who used fairgrounds for recruitment, stand near a well-dressed couple dancing formally, to the music of a nearby fiddler. Sadler’s clever juxtaposition of rich against poor recurs throughout. A neatly dressed man astride a horse, is watched by onlookers as a man picks his pocket behind his back. The trick-riding ubiquitous at fairs, is illustrated minutely behind this vignette, while the mass of stick-fighting men (to their right), their weapons aloft, also include a rider. Looming in the foreground, a woman with a raised stick, grapples with a man grinning on the ground. The involvement of a small boy, and a dog add to the confusion; even the horses look shocked. The detail of attire, like that of the country-man approaching this fight, illustrates how ragged and patched rural peoples’ clothes really were then. His coat is belted with twisted straw rope or súgán, with gaps between his blue knee britches and his stockings, full of holes. Further right, the open tent has a brighter, calmer group sitting round a table with a white cloth, to eat, drink and smoke a long-stemmed clay pipe. A woman in a typical red-hooded cloak is beautifully observed. She feeds her neatly dressed baby with food from a point-ended horn spoon; part of so much detail valuable for social historians.
Sadler shows the fair in its heyday. Impressive numbers attended; calculated as 74,792 entering the fair green on one day in 1841, over a third of Dublin’s population.5 By 1855 it had been closed by the authorities who condemned ‘the revolting scenes of drunkenness and degrading immorality which were enacted’.6
Dr Claudia Kinmonth MRIA
1 Séamus Ó Maitiú, ‘Changing images of Donnybrook fair’ in Denis A. Cronin, Jim Gilligan and Karina Holton eds., Irish fairs and Markets Studies in local history (Four Courts Press, 2001), figs.1-4, pp.164, 174, 178-9.
2 Claudia Kinmonth, Irish Rural Interiors in Art (Yale University Press, 2006), figs.197-200, pp. 200-207.
3 Brendan Rooney ed., ‘Fairs, Markets, Parades and Calendar Customs’ in A time and a place Two Centuries of Irish Social Life (National Gallery of Ireland, 2006), cat.75, pp.141-144.
4 Tom Dunne, 'Nathaniel Grogan (1740-1807) An Irish Fair, c.1780' in Peter Murray ed., Whipping the Herring, Survival and Celebration in nineteenth century Irish Art (Gandon Editions, Kinsale, 2006), pp. 76-77, 82-3, 86-7, illus’ pp. 77, 83, 87.
5 Ó Maitiú, ‘Changing images of Donnybrook fair’ (2001), p.171.
6 Kinmonth, Irish Rural Interiors in Art (2006), p. 205.
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