Held in the town of Kilorglin, Co. Kerry, Puck Fair is said to be Ireland’s oldest festival and this year 2015 the organisers are marking four hundred and two years of this traditional fair with four days of celebrations.
Puck Fair is the only festival in the world in which a wild mountain goat is Crowned King to reign over a town for the duration of the festivities.
The opening day in August is traditionally known as Gathering Day, when people come from far and wide for the horse fair and the coronation of King Puck. The word Puck comes from the Irish puc for a male goat.
The horse fair is a very important event in its own right and is usually held in the morning. On the afternoon of The Gathering, King Puck is paraded through the town of Killorglin Co. Kerry to the main square, accompanied by marching bands and colourfully dressed Street performers, and is crowned by a local girl who has been selected as the Queen of Puck Fair.
Then Killorglin residents and visitors are granted the freedom of the town by the young Queen and King Puck. This marks the beginning of three days of free entertainment, Pageantry and revelry. It’s a time for reunion of old friends, for making new friends and for enjoying the music and many other attractions in carefree surroundings.
The coronation of Queen Puck, in her ceremonial robes, is held during a ceremony some time before the festival itself, and the Queen has an official Lady in Waiting as well as up to ten girl assistants.
The King presides over the town from a platform in the square where he can look down on the people partying below. He is well fed and watered and enjoys a very Comfortable reign.
Music acts and street entertainers and performers from all over the world attend the festival and there are open-air night-time concerts at which local and visiting bands and traditional groups perform.
The second day of the festival is Fair Day, when a cattle fair is held. As well as livestock dealers, this draws traders from a wide area selling everything from books to baskets and from crubeens to crockery.
The third day is known as “The Scattering” and on that day the goat is lowered again and brought back to the mountains after the most exciting three days of its life. The festival concludes with a massive fireworks display at midnight.
This year a fourth day is being added to the fair to mark the 400th anniversary. This will be a preview day and it will take place on the 9th of August, when it is planned to have a massive homecoming for the diaspora of the Kingdom of Kerry.
There can be very few festivals anywhere whose origins go back four hundred years. Puck Fair is purported to be much older than that, but can only be officially traced back as far as 1613 when King James I granted a charter giving legal status to the existing fair in Killorglin.
There are a number of legends about the origins of the fair. The most widely accepted one relates how Oliver Cromwell — Ireland’s tourist from hell - and his army were pillaging in the countryside around Shanaria and Kilgobnet at the foot of the McGillycuddy Reeks.
The story goes that they disturbed herd of goats grazing in the area. The animals took flight, but the puck goat broke away from the herd and lost contact with them. While the others headed for the mountains, the puck went towards Killorglin on the banks of the Laune River.
He arrived in the town in a state of exhaustion and this alerted the inhabitants of the approaching danger and they lost no time in protecting themselves and their stock.
In recognition of the service rendered by the goat, the people of Killorglin decided to hold a special festival in his honour and this festival has been held ever since.
There are other stories associated with Puck Fair, and one of these goes back to the time of Daniel O’Connell, The Liberator and great advocate of Catholic emancipation.
Back in the early years of the nineteenth century, O’Connell was an unknown barrister, but when it came to the finer points of the law, he was still exceptionally astute.
It appears that the August fair held in Killorglin had been a toll fair at which those who wished to sell their animals had to pay for the privilege of exhibiting them at the fair.
However, an Act of the British Parliament gave power to the Viceroy or Lord Lieutenant in Dublin to make an order, at his own discretion, declaring it unlawful to levy tolls at cattle, horse or sheep fairs.
At that time tolls were collected in Killorglin by the local landlord – Harman Blennerhassett who had fallen into the bad graces of the authorities in Dublin Castle and, as a result, the Viceroy stripped him of his right to levy tolls.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Blennerhassett was not too pleased with this development. He turned for help to Daniel O’Connell in an effort to contest the Viceroy’s decision. After studying the situation, O’Connell decided that goats were not covered by the Act of Parliament. Consequently, the landlord would be legally entitled to hold a goat fair (Puck Fair) and continue to levy his tolls as usual.
As a result, the goat fair was announced to commence on 10th August, 1808, and on that day a goat was placed on a platform to let everyone see that a goat fair was in progress. It was a good outcome all round.
Blennerhassett was able to collect his tolls and Killorglin had a Puck Fair that has continued down through the years. It remains the principal social, economic and cultural event in the Killorglin calendar.
The fact that there are no written records to establish exactly when the fair started is not important. Evidence suggests that the fair is a very ancient one and it may even be linked to pre-Christian celebrations associated with a successful harvest.
For many years, the local pubs were open all day and all night for the duration of the festival and there was an impression that it attracted more than its fair share of wild characters - whose only interest was drink.
That is no longer the case. The pubs now remain open until 3.00 a.m., but Puck Fair is a community festival and is enjoyed by the local residents as much as by the thousands of visitors it attracts, many of whom return year after year to enjoy the fun.
A worrying note for the organisers of the Fair is that, apparently, wild goats are becoming scarce in the Irish countryside, and, strange as it may seem, some people are saying that bodhran players are the cause of the dwindling numbers.
There is no doubt but that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a suitable male mountain goat to preside at the annual Puck Fair, and there is some local speculation that goats are being killed in increasing numbers to provide skins used for making bodhrans.
Killorglin is a tiny town in County Kerry and it is located on the River Laune, which has its own rowing club and a new boathouse. The town also has an eighteen-hole parkland golf course, as well as thriving GAA and rugby clubs.
The town hall is said to have been built with the assistance of the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, and Charles Bianconi, who revolutionised travel in Ireland, located one of his inns in Killorglin.
One of the businesses in the town, FEXCO, includes the operations centre for the Irish Prize Bond Company, and the town is twinned with Plouha in France.
A number of notable people are associated with the area. Tom Barry the legendary commander of the West Cork Flying Column during the war of independence, was born in Killorglin.
James Cahillane, an Irish-American politician and businessman, was a native of Killorglin, and was one of only two Irish-born mayors in the USA when he was elected.
Mairin Cregan, writer of children’s books, was born in Killorglin in 1891 and the book Things My Mother Never Told Me, written by Blake Morrison, tells the story of the author’s mother who was from Killorglin.
A notable visitor to Puck Fair was John Millington Synge, a key figure in the Irish literary revival who is best known for his play The Playboy of the Western World. Synge was travelling through Kerry in August, 1906, when he visited Killorglin.
This is what he wrote: “On the main roads, for many days past, I have been falling in with tramps and trick characters of all kinds, sometimes single and sometimes in parties of four or five. A crowd isas exciting as champagne to these lonely people, who live in long glens among mountains. At the foot of the platform, where the crowd was thickest, a young ballad-singer was howling in honour of Puck, making one think of the early Greek festivals, since the time of which, it is possible, the goat has been exalted yearly in Killorglin?”
Another writer, the American poet Muriel Rukeyser, also described a visit to Puck Fair. Killorglin she wrote, “looks like a drab little Victorian Town. And is, except for three days of the year in August. At this time people from all over are converging on the town – all over Kerry, of course, all over the country and from Persia, they say, and Spain, and Europe, and cops in New York save up all year to go to Puck.
“The flight before the Fair, all the little shops around the square that sell all the things little shops sell — they close, and in the morning when they open, each one is a pub. The goat IS crowned king - they say the tinkers choose their king there, too, but that of course is done in secret. The town is wide open, they say. It’s the last of the goat festivals: Greece, Spain, Scotland, England - the last.”
The population of the town is only a little more than two thousand, but of course, during Puck Fair, this number is swelled by many thousands of visitors from all over the world and by returning emigrants.
The annual festival is of huge importance because it provides a significant source of revenue and business. Puck Fair is a massive undertaking for a small town like Killorglin and it requires a tremendous amount of voluntary work.
Happily, the local community is a vibrant one and this is shown by the organisation of an increasing number of events throughout the year, so that the world famous Puck Fair has been supplemented by events like The Wild Flower of the Laune Vintage Harvest Festival, a food fair Flavour of Killorglin and the revived Head of the River Regatta.
Puck Fair, as well as being the oldest festival in the country, must also be the most unusual. It’s a traditional gathering and not one that has been dreamed up by marketing gurus.
There is no standing on ceremony in Killorglin and the festival is not for the faint- hearted, but if you enjoy having fun, meeting people, free entertainment and buckets of craic in an area renowned for its scenic beauty Puck Fair is your only man.
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