Homage to the King in the town that likes to push the goat out
For three days in August, a wild mountain goat is plucked from obscurity to reign as King of Killorglin at Puck Fair. Kim Bielenberg visits the Kerry town as the party gets under way.
Killorglin is renowned as the only place in the world where a goat acts as king, and the people act the goat.
Yesterday, His Royal Majesty King Puck, was due to be hoisted to the top of his 50ft stand to reign over his kingdom in Kerry for three days, surrounded by vast crowds of his adoring, and in some cases somewhat tipsy, subjects.
In days gone by, it was an unwritten part of the work contract of workers and farm labourers in this part Kerry that they be given three days off for Puck Fair.
Declan Mangan, a long-time organiser of the festival, tells me on the bridge over the River Laune in the town that Puck is so embedded in the life of the area that time itself is measured by Pucks in the locality.
The fair is the essential point in the calendar for marking when an event happened.
One might hear someone say that the cow calved two days before Puck; or so-and-so had a baby three weeks after Puck.
And when Kerry are out of the All-Ireland Football Championship before the great goat in the sky has even come down off his throne in Killorglin, the world has truly been turned upside down and inside out.
"Puck is a noun, a verb, and adjective," says Mangan. When local people talk about pucking, they mean they are having fun.
At times in the fair's history, the King of Puck has arrived in the town in spectacular fashion.
Pointing over towards the river, Mangan recalls an occasion when, as part of a sponsorship deal with Pekoe Tea, the regal goat was floated down the river on a giant cup and saucer.
Goats, like people, can react in different ways to circumstances around them, but for King Puck himself, the fair must be a truly bewildering experience.
One day, the goat is innocently roaming the rough Kerry mountainous slopes, living in wild obscurity and munching whatever vegetation survives there.
Then, suddenly, he becomes a living monarch, looking down on the hordes below from his elevated stand as the temporary king of all he surveys.
Tommy Tiernan has described the goat stand that sits on top of scaffolding through the fair in Killorglin as Ireland's Statue of Liberty.
Procuring a wild goat for the festival is no easy business, however, and the involvement of the animal in the festivities has sometimes caused controversy.
Among its many accolades, Killorglin is perhaps the only town in Ireland to have a specialist team of highly-skilled goat catchers.
The post carries a considerable amount of prestige in the locality, and those who fill it play an essential role in the town's economy.
They go into the mountains to catch the royal eminence, and it has to be a different beast every year. They can spend days looking for a herd of wild goats in the mountains around Glenbeigh, and on the slopes of the McGillicuddy Reeks.
John McGrath, a returned emigrant who works as a carpenter in his other life, tells me he helped to find this year's Puck three weeks ago with a team of fellow catchers.
"It took seven of us to catch him and there was a lot of running involved," says the part-time goat catcher, who also organises the horse fair during Puck.
In recent times, animal-rights activists have urged organisers to remove the live goat from the festival completely, arguing that mere tradition should not be used to "expose animals to physical and psychological damage".
And perhaps because of the criticisms of animal welfare groups, organisers are quite secretive about the whereabouts of the animal in the days before the festival.
John McGrath insists that the goat is well looked after during his reign, before he is eventually released back into the wild at the end of the fair.
"He is checked by a vet regularly to make sure that he is in good health. He is fed on decent grass and well watered."
According to McGrath, the goat cage has also had an extension added to give the animal more standing room. King Puck now has room to improve.
McGrath is quite sure from the look in the goat's eyes that he is not suffering any kind of stress.
In fact, despite the concerns of the animal welfare activists, it is quite likely that by the end of the fair, the goat is in much better physical shape than many of the revellers, as they themselves are released back into the wild, hungover - and possibly feeling like a Billy goat has been tap dancing on their forehead.
King Puck has suffered some mishaps over the years. During one fair in the 70s, the goat was actually sent a death threat in the post. What kind of terrorist does that?
In the 1940s, the goat faced the possibility of a ban because of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, and a further outbreak in 2001 required King Puck to be carried around Killorglin in a Goatmobile like a pope.
In 1967, someone had the bright idea to fly the goat to the United States for an event in Minneapolis; but Killorglin's hapless monarch was deported because his immigration papers were not in order.
Somehow, the coronation of the beast has continued year after year, through tumults, revolutions and world wars.
Yesterday, the ceremony was due to be carried out by this year's Queen of the Puck, 12-year-old Ella Foley, from Caragh Lake.
Proudly wearing her ceremonial robes, Ella tells me she had won the honour of being Queen of the Puck by writing an essay at school, and doing an interview.
Some time ago, security was tightened at the base of the King's lofty throne, as brave young buckos have tried to climb to the top of the stand to seize the goat, as a dare, but they have never succeeded in making off with him.
Nobody is quite sure how this goat shenanigans started in the first place, and why Killorglin chose to crown the animal as their festive monarch.
We do know from the annals that the horse and cattle fair dates back at least 400 years to the time of King James I, but the arrival of King Puck himself as the centrepiece of festivities remains shrouded in mystery.
Some eager scholars gazing back into the mists of time go along with the theory that it is a pre-Christian Pagan fertility rite to mark the Celtic festival of Lughnasa.
Male goats, a symbol of continuity, were worshipped in those times, according to this theory. Feasting and sacrifices marked the start of Lughnasa.
Another legend has it that when Oliver Cromwell's Roundhead troops were pillaging the Kerry countryside in the 17th century, they routed a herd of goats grazing on the uplands.
The 'Puck' broke away and fled to Killorglin, where its arrival in a state of semi-exhaustion alerted the local people to the approaching danger. According to this somewhat unlikely tale, locals crowned a goat as king out of sheer gratitude.
Declan Falvey, a local publican who is chairman of the organising committee, says: "There was always a boy-meets-girl element to the festival. It has also been a great reunion for emigrants, who came back year after year."
Johnny 'Porridge' O'Connor, a cheesemaker, former councillor and chairman of the Killorglin Archives Society, is delighted to welcome visitors from all over the world.
At one stage, during Puck, he remembers having 54 people in his house.
Back in the 1940s, a local Catholic priest, Father Daniel Finnucane, railed against the revelries at 'Pagan Puck', and another description from early in the last century even went so far as to describe the event as "orgiastic".
At one time, the fair had a reputation for heavy drinking, with pubs remaining open all night for the 72 hours of the fair.
Locals recall that in the days when the pubs stayed open all night, some tipplers never made it home or to their lodgings, falling asleep where they sat in the bar, and resuming their drinking when they woke up.
At times in the past, the scenes became so rowdy, that some suggested that the safest place to be was up above in the cage with King Puck himself.
"Recently it has become much more of a family event - and there is a big emphasis on entertainment," says Declan Mangan.
Mangan, who recently stepped down as chief organiser of the fair, also achieved some renown as Ireland's longest-serving panto dame, having made his debut on stage in 1965.
Not everybody approves of elevating the goat to such heights and building a festival around it, but few doubt that it is good for the town.
Over the three days - including the popular horse fair on the opening day - up to 80,000 people are expected to have passed through Killorglin.
King Puck's annual reign may be short, but it is a profitable one for his Killorglin subjects, bringing in up €7m in revenue. No wonder they are so loyal.
Pictures by Frank Mc Grath
The corkman who transformed a Kerry town
There was no surprise in Killorglin two years ago when Brian McCarthy became the first Corkman ever to be honoured as Kerry Person of the Year.
Few individuals have done as much to transform the fortunes of a town as McCarthy, who arrived in Killorglin on the second day of Puck Fair in 1974.
Amid the revelry of Puck, few paid that much attention to the new assistant manager of the AIB branch as he took up his post.
As one commentator noted, no one, including himself, would have predicted that within a few years the Corkman would set up a global corporation, based in the town, and provide more than 1,000 jobs in the area.
Killorglin is now as well known for the foreign exchange and financial transactions firm Fexco as the famous festival celebrating a goat.
Having worked in the local bank branch, McCarthy set up a foreign exchange service for local people and tourists in a single room in his own house in Killorglin in 1981.
There was a growing demand for money changing facilities at the time, as the Irish pound had only recently broken the link with sterling.
“Only banks could deal with foreign exchange at the time and they only opened for a few hours every day. I saw the opening for a service 24 hours a day, seven days a week, during the tourist season,” he recalled in an interview.
The following year Fexco was formed. It quickly extended beyond Killorglin and took in Galway, Cork and Dublin with money changing services. Fexco became an international business when McCarthy realised the potential of enabling tourists from outside the EU to reclaim VAT on their purchases.
From there, the fast-expanding company offered a range of financial services, including running the State’s prize bond scheme in collaboration with An Post.
The McCarthy family’s wealth was recently estimated in the Sunday Independent Rich List at €140m.
Brian McCarthy’s son Denis is now chief executive, while he himself continues in the role of chairman.
Unlike many rural towns of its size, Killorglin is not afflicted by the blight of empty and near derelict shops.
That is hardly surprising as the population has doubled over the past 25 years.
Figures released recently by the Government showed Killorglin had 2,000 jobs, despite having a resident worker population of just 922.
Many of the jobs are filled by workers who commute daily from all over Kerry, and parts of Cork. Fexco recently announced that it was creating 175 new jobs in Killorglin.
It is not just Fexco and Puck Fair that keep the tills ringing in the local shops.
Celine Healy, who set up a bakery and deli with her husband Jack, says: “Killorglin is now a popular place to come to because it is in the middle of everywhere. It is on the Ring of Kerry and the Wild Atlantic Way, and there are great beaches nearby.”