Portmagee’s Old Year Festival

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This a great turn on the normal New Year’s Eve theme, which has taken place annually in the small town of Portmagee in Kerry for almost 200 years. I love the whole thing – I think it makes Portmagee the best place by far to spend New Year’s Eve in Ireland.


Portmagee is noteworthy for an interesting tradition the village observes every New Year’s Eve. The “Old Year Festival” sees locals accompany an old wizened character up the main street in a torchlight parade. At the stroke of midnight, the ‘Old Year’ character ‘dies’ and is replaced by a younger, more vigorous version.

The tradition was apparently brought to the area by the French crew of a ship that landed in the area in 1727 and has been carried on ever since.

The year was 1727 when, three days after Christmas, a Kinsale brig, flying a French flag, landed in the Port of Portmagee after coming from Nantes France.

The boat's mission was a cargo that was, let's say, not in the interest of the British taxpayer, as smuggling on this coast was a familiar feature.

The boat remained until the New Year but what was to happen to the people of Portmagee on New Year's Eve 1727 was to going to change their little village for evermore.

As the locals were retiring for the night, a strange but eerie noise was coming from the vicinity of the local pier.

Many thought it was the banshee (a female spirit whose wailing is said to warn the hearer of an impending death in the family) as the strange sound came up towards the village.

To the locals amazement they saw the crew of the French boat holding torches and marching through the village. They were led by a piper and in the centre of the torch men a shaggy and staggering figure of an old man on his last legs was swaying as if his time was up.

They proceeded through the village making a racket and when they returned to the head of the pier a shot rang out and the old man lay on the road as if dead.

Silence descended again but only for a moment when a newly-dressed man with white trousers, swallow-tail coat and top hat emerged from the darkness and he repeated the route of the old man with again the piper leading him and the torches either side.

The new man gave a speech to explain to locals about what they had just seen and he went on to inform them that the old man had symbolized the year gone by and, come midnight, he was no more.

The New Man symbolized all that was new and the youth of the year that had just begun.

And so it was that the custom of the 'Old Year' began in Portmagee. Starting the very next year, which co-incidentally was one of the hungriest the village had ever seen, the locals re-enacted the custom in honour of the strange men who had so entertained them the previous year.

This tradition has been repeated ever since in the village and, over the years, even with modern technology, very little has changed. The sods of turf (peat) were always steeping in paraffin oil for a week in advance of the night.

The local children would go through the village at about 8 o'clock rattling tin cans and making as much noise as possible to get locals out with money as there would be a collection for the paraffin oil. Everything has stayed the same with the carrying on of tradition being the primary motivator in organizing this every year.

The Millennium old year was the biggest of all with many magazines nominating Portmagee the place to be on this wonderful night. So, for generation after generation, the people have carried on the tradition introduced to them by a French crew over 260 years ago.

John Devane, who played the Old Year for the 20 years, on and off, sadly passed away and will be very much missed. For most of the people of Portmagee, he was the Old Year and will remain forever fondly etched in their memories as he emerged from the pub and lead musicians and torch-bearers and all of the local children up and down the village before expiring theatrically at 12:00. Ní fheicimíd a leithéid arís.

If you're from Kerry or are anywhere near the area on New Year's Eve, this is the place to be. But if you're looking for a place to stay, you have to be quick, because most accommodation for New Year's is gone by the end of September.

For Up To Date Information:

http://www.portmagee.ie/

http://www.moorings.ie/old-years-night/

If you would like to hire a bus or coach from James Mullally Coach Hire to bring your group to the Traditional Old Year Celebration in Portmagee, Co. Kerry this December, simply contact us here or call on (01) 6 290 290.


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