Horse Fair, Ballinasloe, Ireland - Documentary Photography Project

  • Marion Bergin

Ballinasloe horse fair is the largest horse fair in Ireland and the oldest horse fair in Europe. It attracts breeders from all across Ireland from both traveller and settled cultures with Britain providing much of the trade. The last couple of years has seen numbers of buyers drop considerably and the fair, a prominent feature in Ireland's cultural heritage, is on the brink of disappearing. Brexit will have a big impact on it. This year President of Ireland, Micheal D Higgins spoke of the importance of protecting this national event and is campaigning to turn it into a world heritage site. The fair is not without controversy. Animal welfare has been a recurrent issue over the last twenty years and the organisers have worked had to seemingly successfully address this. Horses of all types are traded from basic Gypsy Cobbs to well bred Connemara Ponies. The people that go there are a true cross section of Irish society and are as interesting as the horses traded there. During the day there's a funfair, horses are traded, quick fire banters exchanged. As the evening progresses young traveller boys and girls come out to parade in all their fake tans and finery with the hope of meeting a potential partner from their community. There's always edge with some of Dublin's more colourful inner city characters who also travel down for the event. There are multiple layers to the event which is what I aimed to capture. During the British occupation of Ireland Penal Laws were drawn up to keep Catholics controlled. One or the articles prohibited a Catholic to own a horse worth more than £5 and if they were found in possession of same, a protestant was entitled to seize the horse. I think this goes some way to explain how deeply rooted the horse culture has been in our sense of national pride. I was born in Dublin but have lived in London for 15 years so in a sense I see my country through the eyes of an outsider. Like an American tourist in my motherland, everything seems green, romantic and other worldly. I've chatted with many parents who grew up in horse households and they fear the culture will die out, largely because their children are more interested in spending time online or on play-stations. Land is also becoming unaffordable and in cities such as Dublin, inner city stables are being knocked down as gentrification bulldozes through areas previously considered off-limits due to social issues. This on-going project serves to record something that quite literally is on the brink of extinction, something that's distinctly Irish and unique to our culture. I hope that by drawing attention to Ballinasloe I could in someway help realise our President's vision and keep this national treasure going. I shot the series on a Fujica ST605 with Portra 400 film in September this year. It was cold and very muddy.