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Hiring fairs in Ireland

Hiring fairs, which were held twice a year in Spring and in Autumn, were places where more mobile farm workers could hope to find jobs. These fairs had come into being during the Middle Ages when, after the Black Death, agricultural workers were hard to come by. In order to stop desperate farmers offering excessive wages to find workers it was decided that they should be hired in public and that each worker should carry an emblem of his trade to ensure that workers were hired at the correct rate.

This is a description of a hiring fair from Thomas Hardy’s 'Far From The Madding Crowd' -

“At one end of the street stood from two to three hundred blithe and hearty labourers waiting upon chance. Among these, carters and waggoners were distinguished by having a piece of whip cord twisted round their hats; thatchers wore a fragment of woven straw; shepherds held their sheep-crooks in their hands; and thus the situation required was known to the hirers at a glance".

Hardy paints a very colourful scene but it must have been a little overwhelming for the youngsters, some as young as 12, who were hoping to find work.
The farm workers hired at these hiring fairs, if they were single, might be taken on as farm servants, usually for a year, meaning that they would 'live in' on the farm and share the farmer’s table at meal times. Hired casual labourers from the neighbouring parishes would supplement their work. This system of travelling to the hiring fair and from there to the farm, helps explain the sometimes surprising mobility of our ancestors.

Kilkie ancestors were either “lucky” enough to be gainfully employed in tied property or were unlucky in hiring fairs as they did not seem to move location more than a few miles. Over the period of 100 years there was no record of a KILKIE living outside a few miles of Derry city.

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