Merry in Kerry under King Puck's long reign

Mon, Aug 13, 2012, 01:00

THE KING’S College Cambridge student playing the violin – just south of the raucous ballads threatening to deafen King Puck – was giving three local lads ideas. Eorann O’Connor (20) a second-year classics student and her musical friend Bree Wilder (also 20), who studies in Brighton, were collecting “money for university”, the sign on their violin case said.

“It’s really expensive now,” said O’Connor, from London, whose family have long maintained a second home in nearby Beaufort. She was being helped by her brother Malachy (10) on the spoons.

One of the three Killorglin lads mused how he too could play the flute and wouldn’t this be a good way to get money next year for college “depending, of course, on Wednesday”, he said, moving suddenly away from the glamorous O’Connor and up the hill towards the goat as the nearness of the Leaving Cert results struck home.

Next year will see the official 400th anniversary of Puck Fair. The fair, in which “the goat acts as king and the people act the goat”, claims to be the oldest in Ireland.

King James I signed its charter in 1613, but many believe the crowning of a male goat, by a 12-year-old maiden, and raising it high over the town in the middle of August bears the imprint of an after-harvest fertility ritual.

The annual tradition is that local man Frank Joy catches the wild goat after an epic chase on the hills overlooking Dingle Bay. This year it was named for Kerry footballer Paul Galvin.

Right up until recent times Puck was a serious horse and cattle fair. It was also a huge hiring fair in which local girls and boys would be sold off for the year to Munster farmers. Later London-Irish builders would scout for labourers. “Business has always been transacted at Puck and it is still a fair not a festival. Things are bought and sold and there are 200 stalls on the streets and a waiting list,” spokesman Nigel O’Mahony said.

The fair is worth a great deal – €6 million – to the local economy. Once measured in the tens of thousands of pints of Guinness sold, Puck is today trying to grow a more Continental, family image.

And, indeed, French accents cross with the lilt of the midlands, and the rich brogue of the Travelling people. Kerry-made Sásta sausages sizzle beside stalls selling crepes, children scream joy at the Bird’s Bazaar fun fair, and the glistening boom-built Library Square plays host to sedate, straight-backed set dancing.

The hottest days of the summer this weekend make Puck more banks of the Seine than banks of the Laune.

But old ways die hard, and these days there is a new wave of emigrants. They make their arrangements on Facebook and Kingston’s beer garden is the smart meeting place.

Noelle O’Riordan (29) has returned for Puck from Dubai, where she works as an air hostess. She had trained in media but is enjoying the career switch. “It’s just the way the jobs are here now,” she says. Months of planning went into this trip, which coincided with a family occasion. “Yesterday was like Christmas Eve waiting for Puck Fair,” she said O’Riordan, who is accompanied by two bemused colleagues from London and Zimbabwe.

Sheila Golden from Kells, a marketing manager with PepsiCo in Chicago, said: “Coming back for Puck is a religion.”

The fair still witnesses serious drinking. For three nights, the town’s 20 pubs stay open until 3am, which is the longest exemption in the country. And drinking starts early in the day. A licensing court in recent years heard how demands on policing were huge and there was a rise in domestic violence during the fair. The judge granted the licence – and that year the goat was named after him.

Ponies canter wildly through the fair field causing one father to shield his children and remove them altogether – it’s too dangerous, he said.

Up at the counter of the Bianconi Inn a sober man leaves a curry untouched as he talks about his mother’s people: 399 years ago, it may not have been curry in a bar named after an Italian coachman, but on gathering day a goat was on a stand high over the town, animals were bought and sold, young women were admired, men remembered their mothers and surely fortune tellers were prophesying – amid three days of drinking in the August sun.

Part business, part madcap ritual: not much changes at Puck.

Just as well we goats have a head for heights

KING PUCK:After pretending I did not want to be caught, I learnt a lot about people from my perchTHE KING is dead. Arra I’m only kidding you but, seriously, if this orgy of celebration goes on much longer it is quite possible that I might not live to see another dawn. Being a royal is a lot tougher than you’d think.

To say that drinking and carousing is an important part of Puck Fair is akin to saying that fish appreciate water.

For my coronation I was elevated on a vertiginous platform – it’s a good job we goats have a head for heights – in the centre of Killorglin. I spent that day listening to The Fields of Athenry on a drunken, tuneless loop.

I may be king but, from what I saw, mayhem rules in these parts at this time of year. Both literally and figuratively I’m at the end of my tether.

Let me tell you how it began.When the herd heard that this year’s King Puck was to be crowned King Paul in honour of the famed Kerry footballer, Paul Galvin, it was unanimously agreed that I was the one who should allow himself to be captured.

That’s because we are both bearded, fond of our own reflections, fast on our feet and, although I hate to admit it, both possessed of a somewhat volcanic temperament when challenged.

My ancient grandfather, who had been crowned King Puck many years ago, coached me well. We lay in the heather far above the twinkling lights of Killorglin and he briefed me on how to behave when Frank Joy and his band of helpers emerged intent on my capture.

He advised me to cover the ground in short sharp bursts, to weave and swerve and use all the wiles I had learned during my eight years on the mountainside before finally conceding defeat with good grace.

What a merry dance I led them. While the rest of the herd made themselves scarce I led my would be captors high up onto the flanks of Gort Mountain weaving and ducking through scree and heather.

When it appeared that they were likely to abandon the hunt I obligingly trapped myself in a blind alley glen and allowed one of the men to get close enough to slip a rope around my neck. He dug in his heels and held on for grim death while I put on a suitably impressive display, rolling my eyes, flaring my nostrils and tossing my fine horns as if capture was the last thing I wanted. If there were Oscars for acting the goat I’d have one in the bag.

I enjoyed the coronation and the first few hours of being the centre of attention. Being conscious of the Paul Galvin connection I spent a lot of time preening and showing off my goatee.

I was glad that the powers that be had decided to persuade Gerry Baynham of the Killorglin Pipe Band to write a piece of music specially for the occasion because for years our family honour was most grievously besmirched by the use of the hoary old song An Poc ar Buile at Puck. I will have you all know that the goat referred to in that song was something of a lunatic from out Dingle direction and had absolutely no connection with me or mine.

While I am in complaining mode I must say I find it deeply unsettling that the organisers of this goat-centred festival have not seen fit to impose a unilateral ban on the use of bodhrans within the town limits. It is deeply hurtful to stand on my lofty perch and watch drunken merry-makers pound the hides of my late lamented brothers and sisters.

In a short while I will be taken from here and granted my liberty. I’ve listened in on several spirited conversations during my time in captivity, gleaning a lot about how humans are faring in this neck of the woods. As I scramble once again across my beloved Gort Mountain I will reflect, with some degree of empathy, that however merry they make, from what I’ve heard, the entire population is under the cosh of somebody called Merkel.

As for me? I can already taste freedom. It tastes like sparkling dew on Kerry mountain grass.The king is dead, long live the king.

In conversation with MICKEY MAC CONNELL

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