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A CRAICING GOOD TIME

(Sunday Times - 1998)
Four Irish festivals


Irish Festivals come in all varieties. There are those that go back to the dawn of time, and those that were invented last year by the Tourist Board. Increasingly, they fall into the latter category, as Ireland moves ever closer to becoming a giant theme park, with grinning leprechauns waving European flags jumping out from behind every shamrock.

Skim through the brochures and you'll find film festivals and opera festivals and writers' festivals and oyster festivals and walking festivals and Roaring Twenties festivals - Limerick even has an Irish Coffee Festival. (That's an 'Irish Coffee' Festival, not just an Irish 'Coffee Festival'.) If in the North a summer gathering of more than two is a march, in the South it's definitely a festival.

Sorting out the genuine from the ersatz is quite a task, especially now that even the oldest, most authentic events have been invaded by the throngs of Europeans who have fallen in love - in theme pubs from Copenhagen to Barcelona - with the idea of Irishness.

Kerry's Puck Fair, held at the start of August in the little country town of Killorglin, has got to be about as close as you can get to the real thing. An unashamedly pagan occasion, it dates back to the Celtic festival of Lughnasa, three days of feasting and ritual sacrifice to celebrate the end of the harvest. The sacrifices have gone, but a wild mountain goat, or 'puck', is still captured and crowned 'king'.

'So what makes a good goat?' I asked Frank Joy, the Official Goatcatcher, as we stood together in a lush Kerry field scrutinising the handsome two-tone animal that he and his helpers had snatched from the superb mountains that surrounded us the Monday previously.

A nice pair of horns was important, Frank explained. A good coat, and a good age. 'It takes many years,' he added, grinning under his black moustache, 'to become Head of State ...'

The next afternoon I followed the unwitting monarch as he was paraded through Killorglin town in the company of his 'queen'. This was not another goat, but a ginger-curled local twelve year old called Brede. Around the royal couple on their float was an entourage of adolescent Celtic warriors, in long blue and orange robes, smirking under their shiny golden headbands as they guarded the crown on its cushion.

Round the back of the Fishery, past the Japanese pharmaceuticals factory, across the eight arches of the bridge over the lovely river Laune they went. Ahead of them were jazzy floats for Killorglin Windsurfing School, Killorglin Country Market, the 'Laune Rangers', and then, floatless and looking somewhat sheepish, Vincent Prendergast, Builder's Merchant, in his van.

In the packed central square the goat's cage was hoisted up onto the platform to join local schoolteacher Declan Mangan, official Chairman and Compere of the festival. (Declan is something of a Killorglin celebrity, alternating his summer office with a thirty-five winters old role as Pantomime Dame.) To huge applause, the animal was led out to meet the crowd. Queen Brede lowered the crown over her consort's ears.

'Three cheers for King Puck,' shouted Declan. Then, over the hip-hip-hip-hoorays, with a roll of drums, Killorglin's new ruler was returned to his cage and hoisted further, up past the big Guinness banners to the tiny platform sixty feet above.

And there he stayed, for three days and three nights, while below him his subjects let rip. The bars are open from seven in the morning till three at night. In four days the publicans of Killorglin make enough to see them through the rest of the year.

During long hours of on-the-case study I learned the meaning of the word that is at the very heart of the Irish festival - craic. 'Fun', 'having a good time', 'party' - none of these quite capture the spirit of the craic at its 'mightiest'. There's the free-for-all of fiddle, flute, harmonica and banjo in this corner of the bar; the wild-haired old lady dancing madly with the blushing teenager in that; over there the man with only a leather waistcoat above his dripping naked torso lurching back and forth onto his neatly-dressed but seemingly unembarrassable wife.

Amid the merriment, there were traders selling everything from unbroken yearlings to Spice Girls Gift Packs. There was a Bonny Baby competition ('What we're looking for is personality,' bellowed Declan, before picking the one with curly ginger hair); an Irish dancing competition; even a Puck Duck Race.

Some of the punters were from town, some from surrounding country areas, but most were outsiders: from Dublin, from England, from the Continent, America and beyond.

'In Holland we don't have such events,' said a wry Dutchman I got chatting to in the Bianconi Inn. 'Of animals getting crowned and married to a girl of twelve years old. So it's new for us.'

Things have certainly changed from the days when the only visitors to the fair were the travelling people ('tinkers' as the Irish call them), pitching up in their brightly-painted barrel-topped wagons, singing Romany songs around the camp fire, holding a bare-knuckle fight to establish their leader for the forthcoming year. Now their descendants arrive in mobile homes and bare-knuckle fighting is banned. If you see a wagon it'll more than likely belong to a traveller of the New Age variety. Like the spendidly grey-bearded gentleman I met selling Celtic pots.

He wasn't in fact a New Age traveller, he told me, he was a Time Traveller. He showed me a photo of the little 'boat' in which he made his incredible journeys. To any era, future or past. And could he tell me, I asked, from, like, a first-hand point of view, about the true origins of Puck Fair. He met my eye with a frank, no bullshit, only slightly-stoned look. He could, he said, but he wasn't going to. Oh please, I begged. No. All he would divulge was that Puck was a Celtic Festival, and its origins were 'way back in the mists of history'.

Twenty miles to the north, a fortnight later, I took in a festival of altogether more recent origin. The Rose of Tralee was set up thirty-nine years ago by the tradespeople of Tralee as a deliberate attempt to attract business to the town. The new tourists of the 1950s were going direct from Killarney (with its famous lakes) to the lovely mountains of the Dingle Peninsula, missing out entirely on the delights of nondescript Tralee. So they invented a festival. Which has now grown to become a televised national institution, pulling in more viewers than any other programme in the Irish year.

Contestants, who must be female and have an Irish connection going back less than four generations, flood in from the most distant and unlikely outposts of the diaspora. There's a Darwin Rose, a Toronto Rose, a Dubai Rose, even last year a black Rose from Paris (her grandfather was Irish.)

The girls (and 'girls' they surely are in this Radio Two style jamboree) compete, not just on looks, but on personality, intelligence and something altogether more intangible - 'the truth ever dawning'.

To understand this last you need to know the lyrics of the old song on which the festival is based. The Rose of Tralee is one of those Irishman-abroad-remembers-lovely-sweetheart-at-home numbers. Its chorus includes the couplet, 'Yet 'twas not her beauty alone that won me/ Oh no! 'twas the truth in her eye ever dawning...'

To reveal this quality the girls parade on stage in fine evening dresses and entertain the judges and gathered crowd with a little turn, usually of a musical variety. So the Chicago Rose read a poem she'd written about her grandmother from Kerry, the San Francisco Rose played a traditional air on the fiddle, while the Leeds Rose, a Customer Care Rep with First Direct, sang Rod Stewart's 'I Don't Want to Talk About It (How You Broke My Heart)'.

Before each turn, our host, a genial low-budget Terry Wogan called Marty Whelan, quizzed the girls about their careers and ambitions. Things have changed since 1958. So high-powered were some of the Roses that it was poor old Marty who came off looking like the dumb blond. The San Francisco Rose was studying epidemiology; the Boston Rose was a neuro-biologist; the Ulster Rose an occupational therapist. 'So what's occupational therapy?' asked Marty, intelligently. By the time we got to the Sydney Rose, who was an undercover cop, the reversal was total. 'You do, I know, embroil yourself in secret surveillance work, what are you working on at the moment?' 'I can't tell you that, unfortunately, it's secret.'

Outside the Dome - the huge, ticket-only tent where the TV cameras were and the Roses' families and friends sat in blocks holding banners saying GOOD LUCK AMY CHICAGO ROSE - Tralee was packed with craic-seeking revellers. Most of the bars had giant TV screens relaying the action, though in all but one of the ones I called into the voices of Marty and the girls were drowned out by deafening music. Despite its Ireland-wide televisual popularity, in its home town the Rose seemed to be regarded as a bit of a joke among younger people. Who were these ridiculous females from overseas who wanted to dance jigs and sing traditional songs? I mean, really.

Starting around the same time as the Rose and running on weekends throughout September is the Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival, up in Clare, one county to the north. This is a rich mixture of the traditional and the bogus. It originates, genuinely enough, from Victorian times, when farmers and landowners would come to the little seaside spa town after the harvest looking for a wife. Having almost died the death earlier this century it's now been revamped by local hoteliers and doing better than ever as a sort of giant singles party for all ages, attracting up to fifteen thousand on the last two Saturday nights in September.

How many were seriously looking for a partner, God alone knew, though I did meet one white-haired seventy-something from Boston who announced his intention of taking a wife back with him on the plane. (How this would fit in with her plans he didn't elucidate.) And three forty-something ladies from Belfast told me (one with tears in her eyes) that it was impossible to meet a decent man up North. The dance halls had all been blown up and they felt too old for the disco scene.

If they're even half in earnest the fellow they seek out is Willy Daly the Matchmaker. A superbly over-the-top Irish charmer, Willy wanders around town carrying the bulky Matchmaking Book he inherited from his father, in which are the names and details of a thousand lonely hearts, from craggy Ennistymon farmers to buxom brown ladies from the Philippines. 'I'm an awful believer,' he confided, in a brogue that would put the Murphy's ad to shame, 'that in the West of Ireland you wouldn't find a wrong man anywhere. You'll find 'em full of romance, looking for someone to share their life and love with.'

Retreating to his room for the afternoon he considers his likely pairs, before emerging early evening to play Cilla in the foyer of the Hydro Hotel. He then encourages his blind dates to take a drive out to the famously scenic Cliffs of Moher, just down the coast. 'It does a lot for 'em,' he purred. 'It enhances romance if they're in a car together. That and a few pints of Guinness.'

But for the majority of the throng it was just craic as usual. 'Are you looking for wives?' I asked two tweed-jacketed old geezers at the crowded bar of the Matchmakers Arms. 'We've got 'em. One's enough,' they replied, cackling.

By the heaving dance floor in the Hydro, Therese was one of a party of young nurses down from Dublin, not particularly looking for anybody. 'It's a weekend,' she said, succinctly. But thirty-something Sean from Limerick had two mates who were definitely on the make. The fat bald one with the bushy eyebrows was known as the Bull, he told me. 'He'll pull,' Sean added. 'He's not too fussy.'

By two a.m., the red-faced fellows who'd started the evening standing quietly up at the bar of the King Thomond were so well-oiled they were lunging wildly at anything in a skirt. As Willy, ever tactful, put it, 'a farm is a very isolated place and though they may in reality be quite refined, they become bad mixers. They're very shy to start with and then when they've a lot of drink on 'em they overdo the mixing, so again they don't appeal.'

Around three-thirty in the morning, as the festival craic reached the very mightiest of heights, two blue-uniformed Gardai appeared in the back bar of the Imperial, with great courtesy inviting the staggering throng to drink up now please and leave. The general exodus was slowed by their delightful habit of joining in on this or that conversation. Then everyone moved to the front bar, and half an hour after that to the last resort, the lounge. Here three young ladies took it upon themselves to keep the party going by persuading the officers to relax for a while in comfortable armchairs. At five in the morning one of your men had a girl on each knee, one of whom was wearing his helmet. 'Sure, but you have lovely eyes,' her friend was telling him.

At the end of September, the action moves north and west to Co. Galway. I'm ashamed to say I missed all but the last night of the Galway Oyster Festival, a fine Irish wassail which dates back to the mists of 1954, when it was founded 'to promote the Galway oyster and extend the Galway tourist season.' (They're nothing if not honest in the West of Ireland.) Sponsored by ever-benevolent Guinness, the pubs offer free oysters with every pint, and there are tentloads of champagne balls, oyster eating competitions and the like.

If you like oysters and don't mind throngs of Europeans on corporate hospitality tickets this is the one for you. But for something altogether more authentic, a week later, just down the road, is the famous Ballinasloe Horse Fair. Whether Napoleon really did purchase his horse here is matter of debate, but this is certainly an event that predates the founding of tourist boards by several centuries.

Even early on the first evening there were horses everywhere. In boxes, being led singly or in groups down pavements - then a sudden commotion as a wild-looking young traveller galloped bareback down the middle of the main street.

In Hayden's Hotel, the social centre of the fair, the carpets were entirely covered with thick polythene. The management know that by the end of the weekend the whole town will be awash with mud and dung, and there's just no point trying to get five thousand horse traders to wipe their boots on the way in.

Heading to the long bar and ordering my first pint of the evening whom should I run into but - goodness! - Frank the Goatcatcher, now off duty and en famille with wife and son. Ballinasloe, along with Puck and the Lammas Fair in Ballycastle, being one of the three Ancient Fairs of Ireland, they keep up a twinning arrangement, he explained, inviting key figures to each others' festivities.

Frank was in the mellowest of possible moods and insisted that I join him for dinner with the Mayor of Ballinasloe and other local dignitaries. So it was that I found myself, later that evening, dining in Hayden's ballroom, between the Chief of the Ballinasloe Gardai and the Editor of the Connacht Tribune, and receiving an invitation to join the Irish Presidential Candidates, no less, on the platform to view the parade the following afternoon.

It was just a shame that the town was so booked out that I had to spend the rest of the night sharing a tiny room with a horse-trader whose snores put me in mind of a motor cross rally. Doubling up is par for the course, apparently, and in the council estate where I was billeted, every other house was doing impromptu B and B. Quite a few had horses tied up in their tiny front gardens.

On Sunday morning the October sun was shining and Ballinasloe green was a extraordinary spectacle, a huge host of horses spread out haphazardly across the wide grassy expanse: browns, greys, blacks, piebalds, skewbalds, duns, palominos; stallions, geldings, mares, colts, fillies, foals. In among them, mounted on them, leading them, running away from them, animals of the human species, in as many, if not more, varieties.

Nearer to hand, rows of stalls sold everything even remotely connected with horse care and horsemanship, and much besides. Newborn chickens, ferrets, peacocks, puppy dogs, copper kettles, chinaware, you name it.

The afternoon parade was as fine a display of agricultural machinery as I've ever seen. Kellco Plant and Tool, Ollie Colohan DIY, Dormac Plant and Tool. In among the giant engines of modern farming were such splendid floats as that for Gullane's Hotel, which featured a tableau vivant of elegant gentlemen and ladies in top hats and crinolines (the cast of the forthcoming production of My Fair Lady by the Ballinasloe Musical Society).

Of the three Presidential candidates who turned up, Dana was definitely the most relaxed, lingering on the platform long enough to chat to both myself and Frank the Goatcatcher, who wished her the best of Kerry luck in her (as it turned out, unsuccessful) bid for the Presidency. We didn't hold hands and dance in a circle singing her one-time Eurovision winner, 'All Kinds of Everything'. But it was definitely on my mind to suggest it.

That evening, in the pubs along Society Street, the craic was, once again, mighty. In Minnie's Bar, I sat next to an old boy with a node on his eyelid who told me that every morning he got down on his knees and thanked God he was still on his feet. Watching a flute player who was so drunk he could hardly hold his flute, yet was still producing magical sounds, I rebuked myself for trying to categorize. The Irish have a genius for festivals, old and new, invented or true. And I'm sure that even at the Letterkenny Celtic Flame Festival (est. 1997) the craic will be not inconsiderable.
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