Until 1866, Donnybrook was the place where the notorious Donnybrook Fair was held each August. The official history of the fair says that it was established in the year 1204, when King John of England granted a licence to the corporation of Dublin to hold an eight-day fair in Donnybrook. In 1252 the duration was extended to fifteen days. Over the years the terms of holding the fair changed slightly, until in the 18th century it was held on 26 August on Donnybrook Green for a fortnight (14 days).
Donnybrook fair must have been the king of Lughnasadh fairs in Ireland. It was very popular and immensely crowded. According to the reports it attracted thousands of people and was chaotic and loud affair. The sounds of drums, bells, toy trumpets, fiddles, bagpipes and singing added to the pandemonium. In 1778 one writer writing for Freeman’s Journal, complained on the 31 August of 1778 about the effects of the Donnybrook Fair:
“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.”
By the beginning of the 19th century the fair had become more a site of public entertainment, drinking and fighting than a fair of any description. Folklorist Estyn Evans provides in his book “Irish Folk Ways” an 1845 account of Dublin’s “infamous Donnybrook Fair” which appeared in The Parliamentary Gazetteer:
“During the week, beginning on the 26th August, is held the notorious Donnybrook Fair, professedly for the sale of horses and black cattle, but really for vulgar dissipation, and formerly for criminal outrage and the most revolting debauchery. It was for generations a perfect prodigy of moral horrors – a concentration of disgrace upon, not Ireland alone, but civilized Europe. It far surpassed all other fairs in the multitude and grossness of its disgusting incidents of vice; and, in general, it exhibited such continuous scenes of riot, bloodshed, debauchery, and brutality, as only the coarsest taste and the most hardened heart could witness without painful emotion.’ This was by day; ‘the orgies of the night may better be imagined than described.”
Fighting was one of the chief characteristics of Donnybrook Fair. Fights often broke out between two people, and soon the onlookers became involved. To this day, the phrase ‘Donnybrook Fair’ is used to describe scenes of chaos and confusion. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a donnybrook as “a scene of uproar and disorder; a riotous or uproarious meeting; a heated argument.” A wide variety of weapons and ammunition were used by the participants with knobsticks being the most widely used one.
The fair was certainly popular among the ordinary people, but from the early nineteenth century onwards, there was a concerted effort by both the Church and State to bring about its demise. Attempts to ban the fair were made in the early decades of the nineteenth century, but it was not until 1850 and the death of the license holder John Madden, that any real success was achieved. In 1855, John Madden’s sister Ellen sold the rights to hold the fair for £3,000 to Father Nolan and his association, which had led the campaign against the fair. The fair was still held until 1866, because Joseph Dillon, the nephew of John Madden and owner of the fair ground, refused to stop organising it, claiming that it was his right as the owner of the fair grounds to do whatever he wanted on it. However in 1866 the new Catholic Church in Donnybrook opened on the south bank of the River Dodder, overlooking the fair grounds. It was dedicated to the Sacred Heart in order to atone for the sins of Donnybrook Fair. It was dedicated by Dr. Paul Cullen, the Cardinal Archbishop.
The church was officially opened on Sunday 26th August, the same day as the fair. This was the message to all that the god had officially arrived to Donnybrook and that he was watching you. Two years later, Donnybrook fair was closed for good. How times have changed (thankfully)!!