We’re off to Dublin – or, more specifically, to what is now a suburb of Dublin, in the south of the city, whose ancient name has entered the dictionary as a slang term for a scene of uproar or disorder.
In 1204, King John chartered a licence to the city of Dublin to hold an annual agricultural fair in Donnybrook, then a rural area to the south of the city. Initially an eight-day affair where livestock and farm produce could be bought and sold, the fair proved such a success that by the mid thirteenth century its duration had been extended to two weeks. From there, it endured for the next six hundred years, until the fair was unceremoniously cancelled, held for the final time in 1855. So what happened in between to bring about the Donnybrook Fair’s downfall?
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As the years went by, the crux of the fair moved away from agricultural trading and more towards drunkenness and debauchery. To keep the festival-goers fed and watered, stalls selling beer and whiskey were permitted, and as each two-week fair went on those attending began to, shall we say, spend more time enjoying what these stalls had to offer than anything else there. By the nineteenth century, the fair had grown to a colossal size, with people travelling from far and wide from across Ireland and beyond to celebrate the end of the summer with a two-week period of drunkenness and debauchery. It’s by no means a coincidence that in the days leading up to the start of the fair, banks and pawnbrokers in the city of Dublin reported better business than at any time of the year, while in the weeks after the fair, the local hospitals were grossly overcrowded:
This annual scene of profligacy and drunkenness is held during the last week in August, and is commenced on a Sunday. The fair green is situated at the south-east extremity of the suburbs of Dublin. There are generally from two to three hundred tents erected, in all of which, besides public houses in the neighbourhood, the worst description of whisky is sold. Each tent is provided with a piper or fiddler, and a board for dancing. The fair is frequented not only by the thieves and prostitutes of Dublin, but even by shopkeepers, tradesmen, and their wives and children, and by domestic servants.
It might not be surprising to discover that the founder of the British temperance movement, John Dunlop, did not find much to his pleasure at Donnybrook. He was by no means alone. One anonymous nineteenth-century writer claimed to have found, ‘amidst mere merriment and mirth more misery and madness, devilment and debauchery, than could be found crowded into an equal space of ground in any other part of our globe’. German nobleman Hermann, Prince Puckler-Muskau, who toured the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century, wrote that he, ‘saw things eaten and drunk with delight’ at Donnybrook that ‘forced me to turn my head quickly away to remain master of my disgust’. Quite what he witnessed being eaten, mercifully (or frustratingly, depending on how you look at it) he did not say. And even the entry for Donnybrook in the official
Parliamentary Gazetteer of Ireland (1846) described it as a fair ‘professedly for the sale of horses and black cattle, but really for vulgar dissipation criminal outrage, and the most revolting debauchery’.
But there’s only so much drunkenness, prostitution and porcine face-eating that one city can take, and eventually a burgeoning movement emerged in Dublin to bring the Donnybrook Fair to a close.
By the eighteenth century, the licence for holding the Donnybrook Fair had passed to one Henry Ussher, who passed away in 1756. On his death, the licence was bequeathed to a William Wolsey, who in 1812 sold it to a gentleman named John Madden. By the turn of the nineteenth century, however, an official Committee for the Abolition of Donnybrook Fair had been established in Dublin, its aim being to raise enough money to purchase the licence from its current holder and axe the fair once and for all. Eventually, they achieved their goal: in 1855, the licence was purchased from John Madden for the princely sum of £3,000 (equivalent to more than £300,000 today), and the fair was never held again.
By then, however, the damage was done. Donnybrook had already passed into general use in the language as a metaphor for any similar scene of drunkenness or profligacy, and in this figurative sense was first recorded in 1852 – a full three years before the committee to abolish the fair succeeded in its quest. The word has remained in use ever since.
To give an idea of the level of drunkenness revellers at Donnybrook achieved, one mid-nineteenth-century hospital report records one man who had been ‘lying on the damp ground all night in a state of inebriation’, who had awoken to find ‘his face almost eaten off by a pig’.