It may get a bit rough and rowdy, but Mark Graham reckons Puck Fair will be around for a long time yet
The Land Rover Puissance and Blossom Hill blouse bonanza at the Discover Ireland Dublin Horse Show seemed like attractive propositions to me last week, but only for a fleeting moment. At Evan’s Field in Killorglin, Co Kerry, I was getting kicked by ponies and ridiculed by wily auld travelling horse traders, who enjoyed the spectacle of an awkward interloper more than I enjoyed watching them.
Puck Fair is not a glamorous affair, but the townsfolk of Killorglin will proudly tell you that it’s Ireland’s oldest fair, with a charter that goes back more than 400 years. When it comes to partying, Puck’s got pedigree.
Intense merry-making is the main attraction, but the market and livestock trading has always been at the core of this ancient Kerry gathering. Under the watchful eye of King Puck, there’s still ample evidence of this. You can buy kango-hammers, inflatable goats, dodgy designer goods, miracle hand-cream, space-age mops, rugs, rotisseries, ratchet straps, republican turf art, pump-action pellet guns, eagle emblazoned welding masks, Country’n’Irish collectibles, mobile-phone chargers and Sacred Heart statues. The gallery of gee-gaws is as confounding as it is impressive and if you aren’t dizzy enough from gawping at the array of garish tat, a host of hurdy-gurdys are on stand-by right beside the stalls.
Enlisting a band called “Flog the Dog” to play on the gig-rig does nothing for a festival that’s often judged as no more than a piss-up tacked on to some temporary trading and cursory animal cruelty, but there’s something deeper afoot here. I’ve visited hundreds of festivals in Ireland’s smaller towns and there are some common threads. While most of them celebrate a unique aspect of the community, others seek to promote the place, hopefully attracting visitors and revenue, and many just throw a session for the buzz. But the important ones, the ones that take root, they become woven into the fabric of the town’s identity, becoming part of what it means to be from that place.
Not just blow-ins
At Ballina’s Salmon Festival, Ardmore’s Pattern Festival, An Tóstal in Drumshanbo, Writers’ Week in Listowel, Kilkenny Arts Festival (running this weekend) and several other similar festivals around the country, you won’t just find blow-ins who’ve hit town for the festivities; you’ll also find émigrés who decide to holiday in their en fête home-place.
The memories of past festival weekends and the chance to experi- ence the old stomping ground with it’s best foot forward is a strong draw for a visit home at festival time. The flapping bunting and brass bands can make it feel like you’re being welcomed home as a hero. There are some festivals, however, that make it impossible for absentee townsfolk to stay away; they become as important to some displaced daoine as the well worn county jersey during the championship campaign.
If you manage to squeeze into Falvey’s during Puck, it’ll be mostly local accents you’ll hear, often as difficult to understand as the foreigners, and you can be guaranteed that some of these accents belong to prodigal páistí. The equine industry and our national tourism trade are not hugely influenced by what’s been happen- ing in Killorglin for hundreds of years, but anytime I visit, I can’t help but appreciate how very important it is to that community.
Finding a halting site for Wanderly Wagon at fair time isn’t easy; Killorglin goes into camper van lock-down. Eventually, a spot on the far side of the bridge behind a Garda barrier did the job. Awoken by a commotion at 4am, I sat up and smirked as a bunch of young lads tried in vain to vandalise the bronze statue of King Puck beside the bridge. Things can get rough and rowdy, but Puck is made of stern stuff, with good grounding and firm foundations. Something tells me it’ll be intact and around for a long time yet.
Safe travels, don’t die.
A happy handler at Ireland’s oldest fair
Cool as Puck