For Laois County Councillor and Mountrath native James Kelly, memories of market days in Mountrath begin with crubeens.

His mother, landlady of Kelly’s Public House on Main Street, would boil large vats of the pigs’ feet in preparation for the monthly market.

"My mother would boil a big mental barrel of crubeens outside before the market; after the market was over, she would have all the glasses in a barrel getting rid of all the pig fat off them."

Mountrath, a small town in Co Laois, was once a prominent market town, with the first market recorded as taking place in 1628. It is hard to imagine now the town square packed with cattle and people and all the noise and commotion that comes with a bustling market of its kind.

Anne Hetherington, a local resident said, "I can still remember the sights, smells, and sounds of this monthly event in Mountrath town.

"My grandparents lived in town, the mother’s family on Shannon Street and the father’s on Coote Street, which meant preparations for the Fair Day would begin on Thursday evening.

"Each house and shop would guard its windows and doors with a wooden fence like structure to limit any damage caused by out-of-control animals."

All the businesses, despite the ‘carnage,' would perform well on fair day with many a deal struck at a counter with spit and a handshake.

"Brisk Business at Mountrath Fair," an article that appeared in the Nationalist and Leinster Times in 1930, detailed the prices that cattle made, with 2-year-olds fetching between £12 to £16 and springers between £20 to £27 10.

In another article from the Nationalist and Leinster Times in 1961, the Christmas market was described as one of the biggest in years with turkeys sold for 2/ (cocks) and (hens) for 2/8 which shows how profitable the market was.    

While some memories differ, everyone described the buzz and crowd the fair would bring, with one former resident saying: "I remember those days well - all the cow dung everywhere!

"There would be people and cattle lined up on both sides of the street. I  remember time a cow going into the drapery shop at the top of the town - the fun trying to get it to reverse back out!"

"You always knew when it had been a good market when you saw one of the farmers driving home with four calves in the back of his Morris Minor."

Not everyone, however, was as enthusiastic. Some people described running with fear from the wild cattle or having to play hopscotch along the road to avoid cow splats.

"Going to school was a problem for me on Fair Days because of my fear of cattle," Ann Hetherington said.

"It was grand when my friends walked with me. The family did not understand my fear and would insist that the animals were harmless. I was a good runner though so when I got a break, I would gallop down the road as fast as my little legs would carry me!"

Mountrath was set up for fair days, with a spectacular 17th-century market house built in the centre of town to cater for the growing market.

The Rising Sun public house, owned by Roche’s, had a weighing scale for weighing cattle on fair days.

"If someone were buying a bullock and the owner said it was such a weight, and they did not believe them, bullock and owner could be seen marched down to Roche’s to be weighed," Joe Carroll said.

He added: "There was a pig fair held once a month in Abbeyleix, but the fair in Mountrath wasn’t just a place to buy and sell cattle, you could buy anything.

"The ‘Dublin Dollies,’ a group of women from Dublin, would position themselves around the market house selling second-hand clothes; and the stannies could be selling anything.."

The fair days in Mountrath came to an abrupt end when the mart on the Rushin road opened for business on November 8 in 1967. Uderstandably, locals were apprehensive.

In an article that appeared in the Nationalist and Leinster Times, "Mixed Feelings on cattle mart," local businesses were strongly opposed to the idea, as the fair brought people and business to the centre of town and created ad hoc work.

Many I spoke to reminisced about earning a shilling for clearing paths after the market had ended or earning half a crown for looking after cattle for some of the big farmers; the fair days were a money maker for the small town.

The mart in Mountrath would prosper and go on to be one of the best in Leinster only closing in 2018 due to rising costs.  

It wasn’t until 2016 when the ICA handed up their rolling pins, that the idea for the Cottage Market first arose. The Mountrath Community Forum spotted an opportunity to revive an important institution and bring life back to the Macra Hall.

Cllr James Kelly part of the Mountrath Community Forum remains one of the key organisers: "The market is vital to small business owners and to the town; it’s never been as important to support and buy local."

Kelly added: "Every €10 spent locally generates €24 in benefit to the immediate community.

"Shopping local has reams of benefits, it's more sustainable, it is better for the local economy, it supports and benefits our community in ways we cannot even see."

Aghaboe Farm Foods, owned by Niamh Maher, has been a regular at the market since the beginning. Famous for her delicious home-baked cakes and tasty chutneys, she has won numerous awards for her delicious creations.

Heather Rice, a multi-talented artist and photographer, is also a regular at the market, where she sells her colourful creatures and nature books.

"The Mountrath Cottage Market is a community event to me," Rice said. "We enjoy getting together every month and seeing each other.

"The Christmas and Easter markets during the Covid pandemic really made me see how important the market is for all generations. I am glad to have been at it from the start. The support of the local community each month keeps it all going.

"It is wonderful to see new sellers join and the talent we have locally."

The Cottage Market is also a vehicle for new businesses, like Mae Dunne who set up her business Earthly Scents only this year, and already her unique scents have made her a popular attraction at the market.   

Minister Pippa Hackett, in a speech said that "local businesses are the beating heart of rural Ireland."

A regular at local markets, she encourages people to shop local and for Irish-made products: "Think about the power that you have in your wallet, the choice on how you spend your money will make all the difference and this year, be that champion of local."

The next Cottage Market is Saturday, July 29, 2023, at the Macra Hall Mountrath, Co Laois. 

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