IN CHARACTER Street artist Cillian Rogers at the Ballina Heritage Day last Wednesday. Pic: Steve Rogers
It’s 7.15am on a dreary Wednesday morning, yet Ballina’s Pearse Street is a hive of activity. Though the morning is chilly, the mood is upbeat and music filters through the pipes even at this hour. A meitheal of men in hi-vis jackets, scurry around, ant-like and industrious, heaving barriers off trucks, setting up stalls, reversing vans, cranking up old engines.
National Heritage Day is the biggest day of the year in Ballina, and today is the culmination of months of planning. The first day proper of the famous Ballina Salmon Festival, which has been running for 52 years, the Heritage Day was an original concept in the 1990s and still attracts up to 50,000 visitors to the town annually. The original premise was based around transforming the town into what it would have looked like on a fair day 100 years ago.
Women in period costume busy themselves decorating their stands; men in flat caps roll up their sleeves and unload equipment from the back of vans. As well as visiting tradespeople and crafters, many local businesses take stands on the street. I’m on a stall myself, wearing a somewhat oversized hat, to talk tourism. I work with MayoNorth.ie promoting all that’s good about the region. Today, we’re showcasing our strong heritage offering.
Ballina Salmon Festival and Heritage Day committee member Paul Bourke and his team have been particularly anxious to ensure that this year, the event returns to its roots and refocuses on the old crafts and traditions.
Over the course of the day I witness woodturning, farriery, straw weaving, thatching, threshing, spinning, forgery, weaving, knitting, hemp rope-making, boatmaking, rushcraft, milling, churning and bread making. And I’m pretty sure that list is not exhaustive. Of course there are modern offerings that don’t quite tick the ‘heritage’ box, but sweet stalls, burgers and hot chocolate are always a welcome addition regardless of their historic pedigree!
In the Military Barracks, the smell of smoke and diesel hangs in the air as plaid-clad men fork grain into the threshing machine, whose old engine runs surprisingly smoothly. Polished vintage tractors and car line the historic quarter.
The Coca-Cola Diner, now a Ballina festival staple, provides a rest stop and a vintage glass bottle (with obligatory straw) to the thirsty hordes. A marquee in the Market Square hosts a variety of music and dance acts over the course of the day, and a welcome shelter from sporadic showers.
‘Sliabh na mBan’
The Jackie Clarke Collection, the focus of so much commemorative activity in 2016, plays host once again to ‘Sliabh na mBan’, the armoured car that carried Michael Collins’ body after his execution. It’s a highlight, attracting much reverence.
Inside the Collection, the volunteer team have an area with games, crafts and entertainment for children. And at 2pm, the team from Mount Falcon Estate has brought some very special visitors to the Community Garden, a selection of magnificent birds of prey who perch wide-eyed on their stands, taking in the fascinated crowds.
It’s good to meet visitors face-to-face. Festival week coincides with July 12, and traditionally, there’s a big Northern Ireland influx. This year is no different. I meet Gemma and Michael from Dungiven, who tell me they have been coming here for fifteen years.
“We love coming down,” they tell me. “We stay in the same B&B every time. It’s a home from home; the people are the friendliest you’ll meet.”
Others have just stumbled upon the event. “We didn’t even know this was on,” say Liz and Maura, here from Carlow on a midweek break. “The hotel never even mentioned it.” They clutch boxty and crepes from a stall up the street. “It’s incredible,” says Liz. “My grandfather had the only threshing machine in the village when I was a child, and to watch it being done here today … it brought me right back. The noise and the smell … ah, it’s lovely.”
There is great affection for the day locally; it’s sociable and lends energy to a town that for too long now has felt just a little bit more empty than it should. I remember my first Heritage Day, back in the early 90s, as spectacular. Back then, regardless of involvement, many just donned costumes and got into character for the day, thus becoming a part of this living history event.
It strikes me once again just how important local buy-in is when it comes to making North Mayo competitive as a tourism destination, and how everyone, not just those involved directly in tourism needs to recognise their role and contribute to the region’s future.
Similarly, events like this simply could not succeed without volunteerism. The Ballina Salmon Festival Committee has had a challenging year trying to recruit volunteer assistance, particularly at planning stage. Many members have served on the festival team for a long time, and it is to their credit and those who have served in the past, that the event has been kept alive throughout the most challenging of economic times.
While rewarding, the work is demanding, and the burden can be heavy and stressful on top of the requirements of everyday family and work commitments. New blood and new hands, new eyes and ideas are needed.
But for now, the day is a success. The last stalls are folded up and loaded; it’s time to hang up the hi-vis and savour a pint and relax. Until next year.