In the year 1944, a new parish priest was appointed to Ballygar. His name was Canon John Feeley. Canon Feeley’s talents as an administrator and organiser soon became apparent as he got straight to work on the heating system in the local church. The radiators and piping were purchased from Mount Talbot House – along with the pipe organ, which to this day still showcases the Talbot family crest of arms. The organ is located in the choir gallery and is still in good working order.
In those days, Mass attendance was at an all-time high, and parishioners had to stand outside to worship on a Sunday. It was agreed that an extension to the parish church was necessary, and now Canon Feeley had to determine how this was going to be financed.
He had heard of the idea of a carnival and how successful such events were in trying to raise funds in other parishes. Given that this was a time of austerity, any diversion would be most welcome – and the local people would savour such festivities! A parish committee was established, with Tommy Martin as the chairperson, Pakie Hughes as the secretary, Maurice Meagher as treasurer, and other committee members being John Hanley, Gerard Cleary, Patrick Egan, Larry Martin, John Martin, Bartley Hannigan, Tommy Joe Kenny and Willie Meagher. There was also a separate women’s catering committee consisting of over forty locals.
The success of the event – not unlike today – depended upon dedication and commitment from all in the community. The first carnival was held in July/August 1945.
One of the central events of the carnival, from its inception, was the dancing in the large poled marquee. The excitement of seeing the marquee erected by the market square was unforgettable. Local historian Brian Scanlon reported that the marquee used in the early days was an ex-US Army surplus marquee and had been used during the war. It needed some DIY repairs to bring it up to scratch but this work was carried out with care. Brian also reported that church candle wax was used on the floorboards.
Before the days of Murray’s Amusements, the waltzers and the bumping cars, home-made entertainment had to suffice, not unlike the Downton Abbey style fair that came to the village every summer. There was a shooting gallery, a roulette table, throwing of rings, and Pongo – which was like Bingo.
It was not until the 1950s that Murray’s Amusements from Portadown in Co. Armagh came to town. There are many fond memories of the huge steam engine pulling into Ballygar towing many wagons and trailers of very colourfully painted amusements and attractions.
To celebrate our 75th carnival we are delighted to have Jim Murray of Murray’s Amusements perform the duties of the Grand Marshall for the carnival parade.
In the early days, Ballygar’s pubs were granted an extension to their normal trading hours. People travelled to Ballygar on pony and trap and on bicycles. The sight of hundreds of bicycles stretching from the church to the Town Hall was one to behold. Bert Flynn’s Band was a big attraction in the early days.
As the years passed, some of the country’s best performing artists performed at Ballygar Carnival, bands like Brose Walsh, Stephen Garvey, Des Fretwell, Johnny Butler, The Melody Aces and the great Larry Cunningham, to mention a few. In the early days, dancing took place from 10 pm until 4 am, but on Tuesdays and Thursdays the dancing halted at 2 pm. We thought finishing at 2.30 am these days was late!
As the years passed through the 1950s, into the swinging ‘60s, the ‘70s and then the rock and pop era of the ‘80s, the carnival adapted to the times and continued to attract large crowds to the East Galway town. Artists who graced the carnival in more recent times include Daniel O’Donnell, Declan Nerney, Bagatelle, Aslan, Joe Dolan, Joanna & Tequila Sunrise, Big Tom, Boyzone, The Conquerors, Brush Shiels, Mike Denver and Nathan Carter, again, to mention but a few!
Another local historian, Séan Naughton, referred to ‘C-Day’ as opposed to ‘D-Day’ when referring to the first day of the carnival as Ballygar people, and indeed, people far and wide, held the carnival as the high point of the calendar year. All hay-making implements, turfing tools and the like were dropped, as all roads led to Ballygar!
The day-time activities of the carnival are also noteworthy. The annual fair day, a recent enough addition to the carnival, is always very popular. The streets would be lined with craft stalls, clothes stalls, leather goods, food stalls and much more. Farmers would also buy and sell cattle and other livestock. Street entertainment like Tug O’ War, Barman’s/Woman’s Race, Pig Racing, the carnival parade, Marching Band Competition are all worth noting as they contribute greatly to the excitement and celebration of the event. The Fancy Dress is also an ‘institution’ and holds many happy memories for young and not so young!
The Kilmore/Ballygar/Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore Memorial Band was also a great addition at carnival time. The late Joe Sweeney, a former carnival chairperson and secretary, and former principal of Ballygar National School, founded the band in the 1950s. The band provided the entertainment for the opening parade and fancy dress parade from the 1950s up until the late 1980s. This legacy continued with Kilmore music teacher and musician Clare Connelly and the Colemans of Ballaghlea. In the mid-90s the band was renamed the Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore Memorial band, after the great Ballygar native Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, who went on to become one of the biggest names in orchestral band music in the United States, hailed by musicians like Strauss. He was also a famous composer who composed the well-known ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’. His band performed at the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in New York City. The local P.S. Gilmore Memorial band, renamed in memory of this great superstar, played a very important part in the carnival’s history.
There are indeed far too many names and memories to recall but the carnival still holds an important place in the hearts of Ballygar people. Many romances were forged and memories formed. The people of Ballygar now celebrate 75 years of this great event. We look forward to the next 25 years and greatly anticipate the 100th centenary celebration! Looking forward to seeing you all in Ballygar from August 1st to August 6th.
* Tomás Kenny is Ballygar
Carnival Secretary, 2019.