Illustration by Sinaoife Andrews
Every year for three days in mid-August, an unusual festival takes place in the small town of Killorglin, Co Kerry. The Puck Fair (from the Irish Aonach an Phoic, which means “Fair of the He-Goat”) is an event of which the origins are unclear. It can officially be traced back to as early as 1603, making it one of the nation’s oldest festivals. The fair has been held annually every August 10-12 for over 400 years.
Every year, a group of Killorglin locals go up to the mountains to catch a wild goat. The goat is then brought back into town, where he is crowned “King Puck” by the “Queen of Puck.” Elaine Joy, whose parents are from Killorglin and who has attended the fair a few times, said: “My cousins have been Queens of Puck… The Queen of Puck is a 12-year-old girl from the local primary school that is part of all processions, crowns the goat, and also takes the crown off. She has to give a speech in both English and Irish and normally has a lady-in-waiting as well as a few assistant girls.” Clearly, being designated Queen of Puck is quite the honour.
The crowning of the goat in the town square is the signal for the beginning of the festivities. The goat is put into a cage and placed on a pedestal where he remains for the three days of the fair, after which he is released and brought back to his mountain home. According to the official Puck Fair website, puckfair.ie: “The welfare of the goat is of utmost importance to all involved in organising Puck Fair. We have strict protocols in place to ensure this and they are overseen and checked by an independent veterinary surgeon.”
There are several theories as to how the Puck Fair began. The official website has information on the three most popular. According to one theory, the fair originates from pre-Christian traditions. The male goat was regarded in paganism as a symbol of fertility and was associated with the pagan god Pan. The fair was meant to celebrate a fruitful harvest. This theory makes sense as many of the rituals in celebrations of the Christian world have roots in paganism, such as Hallowe’en and Christmas.
Another theory suggests that the fair has a connection to famed English military and political leader Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658). The website states that, “while the ‘Roundheads’ were pillaging the countryside around Shanara and Kilgobnet at the foot of the McGillycuddy Reeks, they routed a herd of goats grazing on the upland.” As the animals fled the raiders, “Puck” the he-goat was separated from the others.
Alone and exhausted, he arrived in Kilorgin along the river Laune. The local inhabitants were alerted to the imminent danger by the distressed animal and so had time to prepare their abodes and stock. In recognition of the animal’s “valiance”, the grateful locals have held a festival ever since. This is my personal favourite of the theories, though admittedly, it is unlikely and is probably folklore passed down through generations.
The final theory listed on the website suggests that the fair is connected to Irish political leader Daniel O’Connell. Before 1808, there was a fair in Killorglin. It was not the Puck Fair, but rather, the “August Fair.” It originated as a toll fair, but an act of the British parliament deemed it unlawful to levy tolls at cattle, horse, or sheep fairs. “Tolls in Killorglin at this time were collected by the local landlord – Mr Harman Blennerhassett – who had fallen into bad graces with the authorities in Dublin Castle and as a result the Viceroy robbed him of his right to levy tolls.” And so enters the young Daniel O’Connell who, along with Blennerhassett came up with an ingenious solution to reverse the decision.
It was decided that, as goats were not covered by the document, holding a “goat fair” would allow him to levy his tolls as usual, and Puck Fair was born. “Thus the fair was promptly advertised as taking place on August 10th, 1808, and on that day a goat was hoisted on a stage to show to all attending that the fair was indeed a goat fair – Blennerhassett collected his toll money and Killorglin gained a King.”
The three days of the fair are filled with all kinds of craic and festivities. During the day there are rides and family-friendly attractions, but at night, the real party begins. While the fair is in session, local pubs are allowed to remain open until 3am, much to the chagrin of the local guards. This is an exception to the normal 2am rule. Tom Payne, Killorglin resident, explained that: “In the evening, the main attraction of Puck kicks into gear, which is of course the drink! Most of the very numerous pubs would be filled to the bursting point, not only by locals, but also by a lot of tourists. For such a small town, it’s quite incredible how much it changes into a bustling hive of activity for a couple of days.”
Megan O Connor grew up 10 minutes out of Killorglin and worked in a bar during the Puck Fair for the past two years and describes the overall experience as “madness.” She told me: “It’s a magical festival… One day last year, I finished work at 7:15 am! It’s the kind of festival where you go when it’s bright and leave when it’s bright.” She also mentioned that there are fireworks on the last night. “The pubs, fun fair, and streets empty and everyone just walks down the hill at 11:45 at night and stands at the bridge, and it’s so lovely.”