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
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
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
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
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
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
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'
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
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
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.