Gaelic Ulster was the most rural part of Ireland. There was some trading at the port of Derry and the harbour at Donegal, at Armagh and at the small
market town of Cavan, founded by O'Reilly in the 15th century, and
later at Dungannon, where O'Neill had his chief castle. It was also the area
with most emphasis on pastoral farming, with whole villages leaving their
winter fields where the crops had been sown, to transfer their families and
cattle to areas of rough summer grazing in the hills from May to November.
There they lived in settlements of temporary huts called in Ireland booleys
(Irish 'buaile', 'cattle-pound') in Scotland 'shielings', where they made
butter and cheese and other dairy products such as 'bonnyclabber' or soured
milk. The men temporarily travelled back to the winter village at
harvest-time to save the crops.
Some people owing to their profession in life - for example a
master-poet with his troupe of performers, or a captain of mercenary
soldiers with his retinue - had no home base, and brought their herd of
mixed livestock with them to graze the lands of each new employer. In the
later middle ages such a group travelling from one grazing-land to another
was known in the northern half of Ireland as a 'creaght' (Irish
'caoraigheacht'). In time of war or famine, the whole population in some
areas might be uprooted to travel into neighbouring territories under their
leaders as creaghts - welcome or unwelcome as the case might be.
For most people the periodic fairs and assemblies were the high spots of
the year. These might take place on May Day, or Lammas (1st August) or
Hallowe'en on a traditional hill-site - often marked by an ancient and
venerated tree on the summit. Here cases were tried according to customary
law by the Brehons (professional judges). Chieftains consulted their nobles
and announced taxes, or decisions as to war or peace. Sporting and athletic
contests took place, story-tellers, musicians, poets, jugglers, professional
gamblers and clowns all plied their trades, marriages were arranged and
commercial deals struck. Oral tradition points to Tullahogue - the
inauguration hill of the O'Neills - as the site of annual meetings for
sporting contests among the youth of the country. Women in particular are
depicted in literature as looking forward to this break in their routine,
dying their hair blonde in preparation, plucking their eyebrows and putting
on all their jewellery. Aristocratic youths are said to win all women's
hearts when they appear in these assemblies.
Since May-day and Hallowe'en were also rent-days for tenants, similar assemblies were sometimes held on the green outside the chief's castle. The
lord spent part of the rents on feasting and public entertainment, and used
the gathering to consult his nobles and settle outstanding disputes and
law-cases. The amusing tale of 'O'Donnell's kerne' translated by Standish
Hayes O'Grady in Silva Gadelica II describes such festive gatherings at a
number of chieftains' castles in the 16th century.