The Ballinasloe Horse Fair is a horse fair which is held annually at Ballinasloe, the second largest town in County Galway, in the western part of Ireland. It is believed to be Europe's oldest and largest Horse Fair, dating back to the 18th century. This annual event attracts up to 100,000 visitors from all over the world, with many returning to the town year after year. This festival is one of the most important social and economic events in the life of the town. The town is also renowned for horse and pony riding, show jumping and other equestrian activities which take place throughout the year.
The fair lasts nine days and starts on the Saturday before the first Tuesday in October, when a parade through the town is held. It continues during the next week and includes a beauty contest (the Queen of the Fair), tug-of-war competitions, dog shows, artistic and cultural events, singing competitions and fairground attractions as well as the titular horse fair. The latter event includes sale-and-purchase, racing and show-jumping and these are concentrated on a 6-acre site on Society Street - the fair green. Events culminate during the second week-end; the Saturday of which is known as "Country Fair Day". Traditionally, this was the day in the fair with the highest attendance from local rural residents.
The fair is known by a variety of names, including the "Ballinasloe October Fair", the "October Fair" and the "Great Horse Fair" and it is the oldest horse fair in Ireland. It is now predominantly known as a horse fair, but previously served the range of agricultural interests associated East Galway and South Roscommon, the hinterland of Ballinasloe. Traditionally, farmers from the eastern portions of Ireland travelled to Ballinasloe to purchase livestock from western counterparts.
Ballinasloe historically served as a meeting point, or hosting area, for clansmen from local tribes. Indeed its name derives from Béal Átha na Slua?ghe, the Irish for "Ford-mouth of the Hostings". Evidence on the date of the fair's origin is scant but the town's traditional role as a meeting place justifies local traditional belief that this is an ancient event. By the late 18th century, the fair was being reported in The Times as involving the sale of "65,758 sheep, and 6,565 bullocks" while in the early 19th century the paper reported it as "the largest of its kind in Europe" (1804) and "the greatest in the British empire" (1816). The rumor has it that the Fair became even more famous after Napoleon allegedly bought a horse there and rode it during the Battle of Austerlitz (1805).
A local land-owing family, the le Poer Trenches, who received the Earldom of Clancarty, shaped much of the 18th and 19th century history of the town. They exercised control over the fair owing to their ownership of the land around the town, coming known as the "Baron of the Fair". They sponsored the housing of the Farming Society of Ireland in Ballinasloe and in 1840 the Ballinasloe District Agricultural Society was formed. An Agricultural Hall was opened on Farming Society Street now renamed Society Street.
In 1948 a committee was formed that organised a carnival to coincide with the Fair and the Show. Thanks to the efforts of this committee and those of the long-established Show Society, the Ballinasloe October Fair has prospered.
The Ballinasloe Fair has a long traditional association with the Irish Travelling Community who regularly congregate there. Ballinasloe ranks with the Appleby Horse Fair, in Appleby-in-Westmorland in importance for this community. Horses used to be central to the Travellers itinerant lifestyle and many of the nomads still keep and breed them. However, older Travellers point out that some traditions are dying out.