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Diarmaid Ferriter: Have we really got to stage where the auld Púca must be cancelled?

‘Sinister’ sculpture of pagan mythological figure will now not be erected in Clare town

One of my earliest childhood memories is a 1970s primary school performance at Halloween. Dressed in the simplest of ghost costumes we recited the lines “Púca! Púca! Is mise an Púca! Púca!/ Púca! Púca! A haon, a dó, a trí/ Seo í an oíche, Oíche Shamna/A théim ar cuairt chun do thí/Chun do thí!”

I don’t recall any outraged intervention by the local Catholic priest at this pagan anthem, preoccupied, as I’m sure he was, with more serious matters. In any case, we were merely carrying on a long-standing tradition of childhood Púca performances. But there were many versions of the Púca. Renowned Kerry storyteller Seán Ó Conaill’s Púca stories were recorded in the 1920s; it was believed, he recounted, “that the Púca could take any shape he wanted. He could make a dog or a horse or a cow of himself. It used to be said that it was harvest time when the Púca was most often seen, running among the hay cocks, gambolling and sporting by himself”. In the 1930s, the Irish Folklore Commission collected a rich archive of stories and traditions from schoolchildren around the country, including from Clare, where references to the Púca abounded. These children spoke to their parents and grandparents and wrote down the stories.

Challenged by the Púca

As one of the respondents, Eileen O’Friel, recalled: “There is a place in Freagh about a mile from Rineen School. A big Púca haunted this spot one time. Everyone who passed this way at night was challenged by him. There was a very brave and strong man in the locality who was challenged one night by the Púca, and he said he would have satisfaction. He went to the priest for advice, and the latter gave him a black handled knife, and told him to stick it in the Púca if attacked. This man, whose name was MacNamara, went at night to ‘Aill an Phúca’ and was soon attacked by the Púca, who got up on his back. MacNamara at last knocked him down and drove the knife through his head. ‘Pull again’ said the Púca. ‘’Tis alright where it is’ said MacNamara. MacNamara returned home, and next morning on going to the spot, he found the knife stuck in a mass of jelly. The Púca was never since seen in the locality.”

Have we really got to the stage where even the auld Púca must be cancelled?

Another Clare girl, Madge O’Hara, recorded: “In rainy weather we go into the porch and play púca; one person puts on a puicín and tries to catch another and whoever she catches will be the púca.”

Given the weight of folklore, history and tradition wrapped around the Púca, it is a great pity that sculptor Aidan Harte has felt the lash of too many in Ennistymon for his impressively menacing bronze two-metre-high Púca statue. Scenes reminiscent of the 1930s – last year the parish priest Fr Willie Cummins denounced the statue from the altar at a Sunday mass, describing it as “sinister” – have been updated with a contemporary twist through the decision to canvass local peoples’ opinions online.

‘Right decision’

Of the 720 responses, 43.6 per cent of respondents said they “really disliked” the artwork, compared with 34.3 per cent who “really liked” it. As a result, the Púca will now be given the boot out of Ennistymon by Clare County Council. Fine Gael senator Martin Conway, based in Ennistymon, said: “It is the right decision. The Púca wasn’t acceptable to Ennistymon and to the residents of Ennistymon. When you are dealing with spirits that have a mythical connotation, you have to be very careful with people’s feelings and people do take umbrage.” As Harte has pointed out, however, “It would be a shame if the [retention of the] Púca is decided on a binary ‘yes or no’ happy or sad face because that is a simplistic approach. It is no kind of art criticism. Imagine your favourite poem being put to that test? Would it have got published? Probably not.”

True, as evidenced by the children of the 1930s, the Púca was not a welcome presence and was supposed to be feared and chased away, but there are also many tales of people getting the better of the Púca and it was also intrinsic to local myth and legend and the basis of many a game and tale during the Scoraíochtaí (house visits). Surely in a county so steeped in the promotion of storytelling and a rich folklore there could at least be willingness to tolerate a provocative, original monument that highlights that heritage? Of course the statue appears sinister – isn’t that the whole point of the Púca, along with mischief and boisterousness? And wouldn’t it make an interesting talking point for tourists?

Have we really got to the stage where even the auld Púca must be cancelled? As MacNamara said to the Púca all those years ago, “Tis alright where it is.” Ennistymon should be glad of it.

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