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The Ballinrobe Stock Exchange

TIPPING HER ON Charlie Burke keeping things moving in the ring at Ballinrobe Mart. Pic: Michael McLaughlin

The Ballinrobe Stock Exchange

Willie McHugh

IT’S the only show in town. Has been for well over four decades now. Ballinrobe comes alive to the clattering of hooves and the bellowing of cattle on Wednesday mornings. From early dawn empty holding pens populate with livestock from the grazing lands and slatted houses of the region.
This is Ballinrobe Mart. Camaraderie and friendly banter, peppered with rich sprays of gunfire wit, is the currency traded between yard staff and farmers as giddy and nervous animals are chaperoned down the shoots.
It’s this welcome that makes Ballinrobe Mart unique and the point is not lost on mart manager Tom McGuire. “The mart is going very well and I think the biggest reason for that is the staff we have here.
“In the main they are locals and the farmers and buyers who come to Ballinrobe have built up a relationship of trust between them over the years. That’s a major plus. They are the first people farmers meet and their attitude and helpful approach sets the tone for the day.”
Tom McGuire commenced work here in 1976 after completing his Leaving Cert in his native Ballyhaunis. He was appointed manager in 2008 having learned the workings and tools of the trade under various managers.
He has a simple yet effective business acumen. “All the staff work well together and we endeavour to treat everyone fairly. That’s what we are here to do and we have a duty and responsibility to the people who use Ballinrobe Mart to do that to the best of our ability.”    
Under his stewardship the mart has gone from strength. “It looked for a while as if we wouldn’t survive. There was talk, and indeed a fear, of Tesco buying this site to build on but thankfully that didn’t happen. Our numbers and turnover have increased by fifty per cent since 2008.
“2011 was our most successful year of late and we thought if we could equal that in 2012 we’d be doing well. But by November we were already on a par with 2011.”
Tom goes to great lengths to point out the input of the people who work here.
“Take Willie Burke as an example. Willie is available 24/7 at the end of the phone if there’s a problem. You cannot pay for that sort of commitment and Willie Burke stands for the rest of the people working here and their attitude and approach to what they do.”
Tom has presided over ground-breaking technological advances under his watch. “Everything is computerised and transparent now. When an animal is leaving the ring it’s already passing from the seller to the buyer’s herd. All transactions are logged on the Cattle Moving Monitoring System.”
The new sheep ring is the latest acquisition and shining jewel in the mart’s crown. “We built it three years ago. It takes a lot of staff to run it but it was worth the investment. Already it has upped the number of sheep we’re putting through the mart here by ten thousand.”

BY mid-morning the resonance of the auctioneers tone permeates the Ballinrobe air. It’s show time on the sawdust floor. Opening time at the Ballinrobe’s stock exchange if you like.
The auctioneer is conducting the transaction in a jargon that’s impossible to decipher by the untrained ear. Think Giovanni Trapattoni impersonating Micheál Ó Muireachairtaigh without the benefit of Manuela Spinelli’s interpretation and you’re halfway there.
He brings seller and bidder to the brink of the deal. Back in the old fair days it took a half a parish of farmers to achieve this with their shouts of: “Let ye divide it lads. Come back, he’ll take it”. And don’t even mention the hand clasping or the luck money and the protracted negotiations that pittance entailed.
But no such nonsense here.
The bidder bids and the seller sell. The auctioneer is the intermediary but onlookers be careful. One wrong nudge or wink and you could end up the unwitting owner of a Jersey girl. Or have a stripper from Shrah going home with you.
Ballinrobe Mart is a social occasion too and some just wander in here for a chat and a way of meeting people. Proof of that is a vision of natural beauty in a felt hat, designer wellingtons and a waterproof anorak who breezes by. Chances are Seamus Macken or Charlie Burke planted this mirage as a special effects exercise for the benefit of The Mayo News boys.
You couldn’t be up to them.
Either that or Madonna has moved to Finney and if so then this is surely her. Typical. The photographer is busy flashing away elsewhere as she fades into the distance and with her goes the photo opportunity. It would have been one for the masthead.
But back to reality. Tom McGuire recalls times gone and those who worked here like Andy Kenny, Padraic Corcoran, Mickey Murphy, John Rodgers, Michael John O’Hehir, Gerald Conneely and Padraic Tuohy among others.
Other names too like the late Willie Duffy, Kathleen Carney and Brian Cullinane come to mind. “Brian was an auctioneer here. He died suddenly at a young age in 1995. His untimely passing left a deep void and this place is a permanent reminder for me of Brian’s memory and the impressions he left.
“And there was Mrs Carney from Milehill. She was of the old school. She was a diligent and conscientious worker and very good to me when I came here as a young fella getting to know the ways of the world. She’d stay back as long as was long as was necessary until the books were balanced and the last penny accounted for.
“She was a mighty woman for doing the crossword. One day she was stuck and at her wits ends. A monastery in Kilkenny was the clue and, when I got the place quiet in the evening, I rang the Post Office in Kilkenny for the answer. We had many a good laugh about it afterwards and her saying I was great lad entirely to think of it.
“I and her family would jokingly remark that she’d have to be carried out of here and that’s exactly what happened because she fell awkwardly one day and broke her hip. I often went to visit her afterwards and she’d have a really genuine welcome for me. And of course she’d produce the crossword as well as a ‘small dropeen of the cratur’ as she called it.”

DOWN in the sheep ring the man from Balla is reluctant to pose for a photo. “Jaysus they’d go ape beyond in Balla if they spotted me back here.” Time for a little cajoling.
“How is Tom Lyons keeping?” we ask.
“Singing away.”
“And Matt Dowd?”
“Drumming away.” he replied.”
“And what about the bould Toby McWalter?”
“Talking away"
Ah Jaysus, you know them all” he quipped and by now Mike Mc [Laughlin] has him in freeze frame. A redemption, albeit a slight one, for the camera click he’d missed earlier.
In a region plagued by emigration and tangling with austerity and imposed cutbacks Ballinrobe Mart is a beacon of light on a darkening landscape.
It brings life and a much needed injection of cash to a Mayo town every Wednesday. It serves a business purpose and the town in turn supports the venture.
The mart’s success is to be found somewhere in the unwritten lines of the mission statement and it’s based on the commitment of the staff. Tom McGuire is emphatic about that and cites the employee’s input as the main reason Ballinrobe Mart is where it is.
It’s in a good place right now.
The spirit and echo of ‘Tip ‘Er On’ remains.