Tanya Sweeney rediscovers traditional Ireland at our most charming country fairs
Admit it: amid the brouhaha of the Celtic Tiger, you forgot about the quaint, sepia-tinted charm of the country fair, didn't you?
But we've now ditched the Swarovski chandeliers in the utility room and, in this new world order, the appeal of a traditional summer has never been greater.
With experts predicting our sunniest summer yet – um, we'll hold them to that – an old-school staycation might be the best way to wind down and get reacquainted with all that the Irish countryside has to offer.
Here's a rundown of the best places to enjoy life in the slow lane this summer.
Tattersalls International Horse Trials & Country Fair
Ratoath, Co Meath; May 31-June 3. See tattshorsetrials.ie
You don't need to have a head for all things equestrian for this three-day jamboree, though it certainly helps. And where better to get a slice of the action than in the Royal County?
Billed as one of the biggest events of its kind, Tattersalls is a family-friendly event that combines equestrian eventing with a classic country fair. Home-grown and international eventers compete in dressage, cross-country and show-jumping events; you might even get to see some Olympic-standard work.
Add novelty dog shows, free vintage swing boats and Victorian-style funfair rides, and Tatts should appeal to anyone looking for a carnivalesque, relaxed weekender. It's long been a big draw for tourists, but is slowly gaining traction with a home crowd, too.
Entry starts at €5 for adults; under 12s go free.
Mullingar Country Fayre & International Horse Festival
Mullingar Equestrian Centre, Athlone Road, Mullingar, Co Westmeath; May 31-June 3. See mullingarequestrian.com
Any country fair with a €100,000 prize fund surely has to be worth checking out. Mullingar Country Fayre & International Horse Festival includes equine competitions for all walks of life, from pint-sized novices to internationally acclaimed showjumpers.
All the other elements of a country fair are present and correct, from a puissance and hunt chase to pro-am and showing events.
Those who get bored easily will find much to keep themselves amused, from a shopping and food village, carnival and bumper cars to a climbing wall and stunt riders.
In inclement weather, revellers can seek shelter in an indoor picnic area.
If the six-figure prize fund isn't enough of an incentive, Texas Ollie the singing cowboy and Silver the Wonder Horse should seal the deal.
The National Country Fair
Borris House, Borris, Co Carlow; August 2-4. See nationalcountryfair.com
For fans of the great outdoors, look no further than this multi-discipline fair. Boasting a mix of fishing, shooting, gundog and equestrian events, the National Fair is an ode to country living. Visitors can enjoy an artisan food festival, an antiques fair and a crafts fair featuring local artists and food producers.
If you've ever been curious about archery, clay pigeon shooting or, eh, racing ferrets, now's your chance to have a go. Animal lovers will also be drawn to the flying bird shows and pet exhibits, while everyone can enjoy live music, a traditional beer tent and a helping of Borris lamb – the latter being locally famous, by all accounts.
Add an Irish strongman challenge, an air show, vintage vehicles and the National Fair is positively brimful of amusements for folk from all walks of life. With 200 trade stalls, even those who get hives leaving the city behind can get their shop on.
Admission is €15 for adults; children are admitted free.
Killorglin, Co Kerry; August 9-12.
Of course, you could always go back to the site of one of Ireland's first street festivals. Celebrating 400 years, the Puck Fair rolls into Killorglin this summer – and with a milestone to celebrate, organisers are planning quite the weekend. A fourth day of revelry has been tacked on to the traditional three-day event, giving visitors even more bang for their buck.
Everyone knows Puck Fair as the festival that takes a wild mountain goat down from the local mountain range and makes him the king of Killorglin for three days, yet Puck Fair is more than a whimsical tradition.
From fireworks and storytelling to the renowned horse fair, it's a genuine delight.
The highlight is the traditional horse fair on the first day, a parade through the town and a coronation ceremony crowning the King Puck Goat by The Queen of Puck.
The festival finishes with a bang, quite literally – there will be a massive fireworks display. Plus, there will be local music, ceilis and trad acts day and night (on Sunday, keep an eye out for Johnny Cash tribute act Walk The Line). Admission is free.
Tubbercurry Old Fair Day Festival
Tubbercurry, Co Sligo; August 10-14.
Anyone who has a hankering to get back to their Ye Olde roots could do worse than spend five days in Tubercurry this August. Now in its 28th year, this is a family-friendly celebration of all things traditional – think Irish produce, heritage, crafts, etc – and the programme is chock-full of music of every kind.
Sunday is Family Fun day, while Wednesday is the Old Fair Day, where days of yore are recreated by the Heritage Village. More than 20 live demonstrations of thatching, weaving, butter-making, threshing, pottery-making and rush work makes Tubercurry a go-to for locals and tourists alike.
The whole town takes on a definite old-fashioned feel as trade stands and street performers take over the main thoroughfare. And being that it's the year of The Gathering, you can expect proceedings to take on an even more classically Irish feel than usual.
Many events are free, although tickets need to be bought for certain musical events; details are available on the website.
The Hollywood Fair
Hollywood Village, Co Wicklow; August 14-18. See thehollywoodfair.com
The Hollywood Fair is a chance to enjoy some down-home local amenities in the Garden of Ireland. It dates back to 1750, when a patent was granted to Mr James Napier for the holding of two fairs, on May 11 and November 8. They continued for more than 220 years, until the opening of cattle marts, but were reinstated in 1985.
Local heritage takes centre stage at this three-day event, and revellers get a chance to see what 1950s Ireland was like – if they didn't experience it first time around.
Events include demonstrations of threshing and a blacksmith shoeing horses, the cooking of colcannon, storytelling from that bygone era, and music and dance that ostensibly celebrates the bringing home of the harvest. Part of the festival theme is to recreate the traditional sheep fair of 1950s Ireland.
Perfect, in a word, for anyone looking for a dollop of some serious old-world charisma.
Irish Game and Country Fair
Birr Castle, Birr, Co Offaly; August 30-September 1. See irishgameandcountryfair.com
Ireland's biggest game fair is a weekend of merriment that throws light on traditional Irish country sports, crafts and traditions. It features international country-sports competitions, living history encampments and re-enactments, an action-packed main arena programme and a huge tented village of trade stands to buy into the country lifestyle.
Also on the bill of fare are crafts events, game and fish cookery demonstrations by celebrity chefs, traditional music and theatre and an eco village.
If you've ever been remotely curious about game hunting, now's your chance to take part. The festival includes an open day featuring a range of sporting activities, seminars and competitions (August 30).
The entire fete takes place in the magnificent grounds of Birr Castle Estate, which means that locals can enjoy all the attractions of the estate, including the science museum, the great telescope and the gorgeous gardens.
A prize of €15,000 is up for grabs for the quickest draw in the shooting competition, while there are special prizes each day for the best ladies' score in the sporting events, too.
Tickets start at €15 per adult, €5 per child, with a family ticket (two adults and four children) on offer for €35.
Mullagh Fair Day
Mullagh, Co Cavan; September 8.
For anyone who'd prefer a toe-dip to an entire weekender, the Mullagh Fair Day is the perfect introduction to the glories of the Irish countryside. Animal lovers can take in a whole host of events, from falconry and reptile displays to dog shows and pig racing.
Adding to the charmingly rural feel are an old-style farmyard, a pig roasting and a cattle market.
Combined with a street carnival, vintage car fete, craft market, a prize for the tallest man at the fair, a huge helping of trad music and a host of children's games, a great day away from the daily grind is pretty much ensured.
45th Annual Birr Vintage Week & Arts Festival
Birr, Co Offaly; August 2-10.
Turn back time in the beautiful Georgian heritage town of Birr and revel in its contemporary culture with a programme of traditional and modern events.
The all-inclusive programme includes – deep breath – an opening parade, an artisan and craft market, the 'olde time' traditional fair, busking competition, free children's events, antiques and fine art fair, donkey derby, live music, sporting and literary events and a spectacular fireworks display.
The arts play a central role, with an exciting visual arts trail, theatre performances, contemporary dance classes, film screenings and workshops taking place across the town.
For more information on the best country fairs this summer, log on to discoverireland.ie