Photo Essay

2008 Horse Fair

There is in Ireland, amongst all the beautiful counties, one in particular that stands out. County Kerry. Where rural farms still exist, as they do there, horses and men are deeply connected.

The horse was the main source of power to work the farms, but in the 1950s, the tractor came along, and suddenly the horse found himself replaced. Slowly the ponies and carts disappeared from the roads as more and more people could afford to buy a car. But many Kerry men could not give up the horse completely. In this part of Kerry there is still a strong commitment to keeping this age-old tradition alive.

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Even though the scene appeared chaotic, there were no frightened animals rearing or kicking, as if they knew it was best to be calm. As I passed through the maze of animals, keeping a careful eye on the horses’ backsides, I felt that I had “come home.” It reminded me of my grandparents’ farm in rural Maine where I grew up having my own goat and pony. But nothing in my lifetime had really prepared me for the excitement of the horse fair. Maybe my grandfather, a dairy farmer, had once traded in this same fashion, but when I was growing up, most livestock was picked up at the farm by a dealer and taken to auction. In Ireland only cattle, calves and sheep find themselves at auction, seldom horses. Except for the racing breeds.

Sally-Savage-Photographer-2013I looked about and saw that most of the horse traders were dressed in traditional caps, jumpers, a dress shirt, and wool jackets that had been purchased long ago. A few sported ties and most wore manure-covered wellies. There were animals standing in front of the closed pharmacy shop. And there was a pony, blocking the beautiful red entry door to a prominent home on the main street. A days-old donkey foal shyly peeked around its mother flank. My heart was beating fast. This was a scene of unchanged rural life, one I had only seen in books and I thought had long since disappeared.

I started that day taking photographs. I knew there was something extraordinary in what I was seeing. At first, some of the men didn’t like my presence. But I kept coming back year after year wearing the same green hat, with camera in hand. I would chat with some about their horses. I had a pretty good sense of the size of the horses I was looking at since I have had ponies from the age of six. “Is she a 14.2 ?” I would ask. “Have you broken her to cart?” I noticed the way the men lifted their heads quickly upwards when they asked one another, “How much?” I adopted that gesture as well.

Irish Men of County KerrySo over time my being there was accepted. I would say to the older men, you are very special. Once you are gone, no one will dress the same way, in your jumper, wool jacket, tweed cap, and rubber muck boots. Who will know the stories about people that have long since gone? Will anyone know first hand the loss of railway transport to and from the fairs, or the tolls put on animals, and the early fair scenes including side shows. I believe they never thought of themselves as possessing something so precious. I will always consider myself so fortunate to have experienced this part of Irish life and will always be grateful to the men who have allowed me to enter their world for a time.

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