Crosshaven is home to the oldest yacht club in the world and proud that the famous leather vessel “The Brendan” was made in its boat yard. But there's something else of which it can boast, because down the road from the boatyard is “The Merries” where Piper's Amusements, one of Ireland's oldest fun fairs, has operated since 1910.
Piper's Funfair is an institution in Cork and the family dynasty is still going strong. It goes back as far as 1837 but we will start with the marriage in 1884 of 22 year old William Seymour Colchester Piper of Chelsea, London to Miss Emily Eliza Beach.
Before meeting Emily, William had been a builder, brick layer and coal dealer. Emily's family were in the amusements business. Her father, John Beach, was well known for his “gallopers” a beautifully painted horse-machine ride. Obviously William was attracted to the business because he joined it for a while before breaking out on his own.
It was in 1908 that William and Emily, now 46 years old, looked to Ireland to develop their business. They leased land in prosperous Tramore and thriving Queenstown (Cobh). Their two oldest boys, Johnny and Bill, managed the Irish side of the business which went under the names of “Fancy Fair” or “Piper's A1 Pastimes”.
It was also in 1908 that Bill Piper married his sweetheart, Sheila Brierley of Cobh. Her father was the captain of an admiralty tug called “The Flying Fish” which achieved heroic status when it became one of the saviours of the passengers in the stricken “Lusitania”, making many trips to and from Cobh to bring survivors and dead to shore.
Bill Piper and his wife decided to set up on their own and set off in a horse-drawn caravan. When they came to a crossroads or stopping place they would lower the shafts of the wagon and convert it into a stall for playing skittles and rings. Behind the wagon a shooting stall could be erected. They also had a reputation for showing “magic lantern” slides.
In 1910 Bill added some swinging boats and paid his first visit to Crosshaven. Even then the village was a thriving and prosperous holiday resort. It was here where Bill met another showman, Sammy Field, who rented ground in Crosshaven. Sammy was preparing to retire and offered lease of the field to Bill. This is the same field where the Pipers have occupancy today. As Bill's family grew he acquired new rides, stalls and machinery. Prime amongst the rides was the beautiful merry-go-round of horses which gave the business its affectionate nickname of “The Merries”.
From then on in autumn and spring Bill's amusements travelled West Cork and Kerry but always returned to Crosshaven for the summer. Eventually Bill and Sheila found permanent winter quarters in Douglas, Co. Cork, a site used by the family until it was sold for re-development in 1999. The site was where East Village now stands.
Bill, being an Englishman married to an Irish woman, tried to steer clear of Anglo-Irish politics but inevitably fell under suspicion from both sides. On two separate occasions he spent time incarcerated in Kilworth and in Crosshaven's own Fort Camden. His humour and common sense saw him through and eventually his neutrality was accepted and he was wooed by both sides to set up fairs to raise funds for one side or the other. He was also a man who liked to do good by stealth and many times raised funds for good causes, including the steeple on Cobh cathedral. During WW2 Bill's contacts in England were often useful to him in sourcing goods in short supply which he passed on to those most in need.
The Fair's heyday was in the 1950's and 60's (in the pre-world of daily television) when crowds would be packed several bodies deep around stalls. On a warm summer's evening it was a delight for young and old to enter the merry field and become part of a happy crowd, sharing the carousel, the chair-O-planes, swinging boats, bumpers and prizes from stalls, whilst all the time the generators hummed and the music throbbed.
Bill Piper died in 1961 at the age of 63. His wife Sheila (known as “granny Piper”) died three years later. The business passed to their children and then to their grandchildren.
In 1999 Joe – the only surviving off-spring of Bill and Sheila – died, bringing an end to an era. Inevitably and sadly, the upkeep of some of the older rides became too costly and in June 2000 the historic horse machine was put up for sale.
Yes, the end of an era – but not the end of Piper's. In August 2000 the land at The Point, once leased to young Bill Piper, became the property of his grandson Mark.
Mark, who had already acquired “La Scala” the indoor amusements hall located next to the merry field, re-opened the gates of The Merries in March 2001 to a new generation of children and their parents. The old funfair was overhauled. The galloping horses were replaced by a smaller carousel but there were still bumpers and in addition a waltzer, bouncy castles, a giant slide, stalls, kiddies rides – in fact, all the fun of the fair!
The Merries now caters for large corporate groups, school tours, charity events and can also rent out specific rides to events or parties around the country. Thus continues the proud Piper tradition.
(Mark and Sylvia Piper wish to thank Patsy Hall © for permission to use the above article.)