Monday 23 April 2018

A hidden gem in Kingdom's crown

In the latest part of our Summer Towns series, our reporter visits Killorglin, where an abundance of local industries has ­attracted many people back to a town that is bursting with ­community spirit.

Warm welcome: Trudi O'Sullivan, Killorglin Chamber Alliance, beside the 'Diaspora Lady' statue in Killorglin, Co Kerry. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Warm welcome: Trudi O'Sullivan, Killorglin Chamber Alliance, beside the 'Diaspora Lady' statue in Killorglin, Co Kerry. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Tradition: Puck Fair organiser. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Busy bee: K-FEST organiser Conor Browne. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Muireann Arthurs, Queen of Puck Fair, coronates a wild mountain goat as King Puck at Puck Fair, Killorglin, County Kerry in 2011. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Majella O'Sullivan

Majella O'Sullivan

She cuts a lonely figure; standing at the railway station in her best garb with all her worldly possessions packed in the two suitcases at her feet.

Her family has perhaps gathered for the 'American Wake' to watch her catch the train that will eventually take her to Queenstown in Cork to board the ship for her onward journey to the New World.

The oak carving by sculptor Will Fogarty outside what was once the railway station on the Iveragh Road in Killorglin, Co Kerry, tells a familiar story of emigration from rural towns. The young woman could be anybody and represents a lost generation.

It is also one of the few public statues in the country that is of a woman and was carved out of a 150-year-old sessile oak tree that had been there longer than living memory.

Fungal root disease had set in and the tree couldn't support its own weight. The council wanted to cut it down for health and safety reasons. James Daly of Killorglin Tidy Towns committee came upon them just as they were about to and pleaded for a reprieve.

A compromise was reached and the council removed the branches but agreed to leave about 20 feet of the trunk to allow the Tidy Towns committee and the local Chamber Alliance time to come up with a plan.

Fogarty, of Fear na Coillte Sculptures in Co Limerick, was commissioned and with his chainsaw carved out 'The Diaspora Lady', representative of everyone who had ever left the town for education, emigration or indeed adventure.

Nowadays, Killorglin's fortunes have changed. The railway station houses the headquarters of financial services company, Fexco, the town's biggest employer.

A recent survey carried out by Killorglin Chamber Alliance highlighted that there were 3,000 jobs in Killorglin - 1,000 more than the town's 2,000-plus population.

Population doubled

A good proportion of these are filled by people who commute to Killorglin daily from all over Kerry, and even from parts of Cork. About 1,000 of these jobs are in Fexco, the company set up by Brian McCarthy in 1981 which employs about 2,500 worldwide.

Other employers include the pharmaceutical companies Astellas and Temmler, medical supplies company Promed, and steel company Aqua Design.

Killorglin's population has doubled in the last 25 years, census figures reveal.

Retired teacher Declan Mangan says the town's population was 1,500 when he retired in 1999. In the intervening 18 years, it has grown by more than 500.

Killorglin never had an urban district council or a town council. Everything that happens locally is orchestrated by a team of volunteers - from the organising of its many festivals and cultural events to its Tidy Towns, its care of the elderly and its sporting clubs. At last count, there were 65 voluntary clubs, societies and organisations working in the area.

Mangan is chairman of Puck Fair, the country's oldest traditional fair and one that's deeply rooted in a pagan past, with a goat reigning as king for three days.

"We can trace Puck Fair back to at least 1613, when the first documented reference was made to it but nobody really knows how far it goes back," Mangan tells me.

Apart from the coronation of a goat, the festival also includes a horse fair, cattle fair, free street entertainment, concerts and a special exemption order that allows local pubs to serve into the wee small hours.

It takes place on August 10, 11 and 12 each year, regardless of what day of the week they fall on. The first day is 'The Gathering', the second is 'Fair Day' and the third is 'The Scattering'.

In recent years, the festival has attracted criticism from animal-rights groups, but this doesn't ruffle the feathers of the organisers.

"Unwittingly, they gave us fantastic publicity last year, - you couldn't buy it," Mangan says.

"Last year I did (interviews with) about five television shows and 13 radio stations and all because of the criticism from animal-rights groups."

Acting the goat

Organisers are adamant that the goat comes to no harm. He is captured on the mountain by experienced goat-handlers under veterinary supervision, is well cared for and fed leading up to the coronation, and following a further veterinary supervised post-festival period, is released back into the wild.

The three-day event attracts upwards of 80,000 people over the three days and is worth about €7m to the local economy.

"Our theme this year is 'Back for Puck' but Killorglin people will travel back from all over the world for Puck Fair each year, and those who can't make it will celebrate Puck wherever they are," he says.

Apart from his role as chairman of Puck, Mangan has also been part of Killorglin's pantomime since 1958 and has the unusual title of Ireland's longest-serving panto dame, having first stepped into the role in 1965.

He wasn't always cast in this role, he tells me, joking: "I'll have you know that in my younger years I was quite a handsome young comic."

These days he saves his comic talents for the writing and direction of the yearly panto.

"We ran at a loss for two years, where we'd normally be giving a €2,000-to-€3,000 donation to St Joseph's (a nursing home for the elderly).

"This year the crowd came back again, maybe because we mentioned we were down, and we were able to make a €4,000 donation to St Joseph's," he says. Apart from its strong pantomime tradition, the town also supports two drama groups.

Recession brought Conor Browne back to his hometown in 2012 with the attraction of cheap digs at his parents' house. That year, Conor set up K-Fest, an arts and music festival for emerging talent which has been running on the June bank holiday weekend every year since.

He's also one of the people behind the revival of Biddy's Day at Imbolc, or St Brigid's Day, a pagan festival that heralds the arrival of spring in February. Since then, he's secured work at Fexco and also spends about nine months of the year organising festivals.

"There are about 12 of us on the committee for K-Fest and it's a fairly young committee. It happens for one weekend of the year but we do stuff all-year round.

"Recently, I got a licence to hold a Ted Talk - which shares 'ideas worth spreading' online - and that will be the first one in Kerry," he says.

Conor sees his future in Killorglin, and with plenty going on, there's enough to keep him there.

"As long as Fexco is here anyway, and K-Fest takes six months of steady planning and Biddy's Day takes three, so that's nine months of the year we're busy and everyone's a volunteer," he says, before disappearing to start a Toastmasters club at work.

Trudi O'Sullivan is secretary of the Chamber Alliance. Originally from Listowel, she made Killorglin her home when she moved here with her job in Fexco.

"Outdoor-adventure tourism is here already, it just needs to be marketed. The Germans coming over the bridge need to realise, if you want to climb Carrantuohill, Killorglin is the base camp. This is where you stop off and pitch your tent.

"We've recently put in an application to set up a hub so that Killorglin will become the stepping off point for outdoor-adventure tourism.

"These people aren't coming for good weather or for beach holidays," she says.

It's an easy town to integrate into and there's room and a welcome for anyone willing to get involved in the many activities on offer.

"There are a huge number of 'blow-ins' in the town and you could say that's thanks to Fexco, or any of the other fabulous industries that have located here, but long may it continue.

"There's more money coming into the town and if you're willing to put your shoulder to the wheel in Killorglin, there's no better town to take you on," she adds.

Apart from the native population and the commuters who travel here every day for work, the town is also home to a sizeable Eastern European community, hailing mainly from Poland and Lithuania, who have been there for well over a decade.

Employment opportunities have also attracted a young population of singles and couples with young families, giving the town a youthful vibe.

Opportunities in high-skilled sectors have also given third-level graduates from the area an opportunity to return home.

Nightlife and restaurant choices have also improved, with a choice of excellent cuisine on offer as well as live music venues.

Although the availability of rental properties is limited, the housing situation is not as challenging as in other towns, even in Kerry, and there at the time of writing there were more than 100 properties available for sale on The area supports four primary schools and there are two post-primary schools located in the town. A local crèche provides employment to about 20 people.

Donal Dowd moved to Killorglin in 1982 from Dublin and hasn't looked back since. He runs Cappanalea Outdoor Education and Training Centre, a facility under the auspices of Kerry Education and Training Board that caters for around 30,000 people each year.

He explains what has kept him in the area.

No class distinctions

"I did PE (physical education) at college and at the start of the 1980s, there were very few jobs and I was lucky enough to have been offered two, one in Kerry and one in Donegal.

"I spent a week in each of them, making up my mind," he says.

"Over the years, the facility has grown and we now have a staff of 36 at two centres, a science and nature side and one that concentrates on adventure activities."

The Killorglin that Donal moved to in the 1980s is a very different place to where he lives now, but, he points out, not all of these changes have been for the better.

"What has held through is the local community and their openness and friendliness. There are no class distinctions here and you have everyone mixing, from the small farmer to the big banker.

"What's definitely worse is the traffic and that's also why the outdoors are so good. A day in the mountains or out on the lake or sea kayaking is a different world," he added.

The contribution of the volunteers who have brought the town to life will be celebrated by the Killorglin Chamber Alliance this September. It's a way of saying thank you to those who have tirelessly promoted the town and kept the show on the road in a literal sense.

It might get less attention than some better-known towns in the Kingdom such as Dingle, Killarney or Kenmare, but Killorglin is definitely putting its best foot forward as an alternative destination and a base from which to explore Kerry's wild and rugged landscape.

It's also a great place to live and work because, despite the fast pace of the changes, community is still at the heart of this Kerry town.

Killorglin Fact box

Muireann Arthurs, Queen of Puck Fair, coronates a wild mountain goat as King Puck at Puck Fair, Killorglin, County Kerry in 2011. Photo: Don MacMonagle

Population:  2,089

Major employers: Financial services company Fexco employs around 1,000, Astellas pharmaceutical has a staff of over 300, and Temmler has 65 employees.

Claim to fame: Home of Puck Fair, the country's oldest traditional fair, which culminates in the coronation of a goat who reigns as king for three days (right). The fair has been taking place on August 10, 11 and 12 for over 400 years and dates back to at least 1613 when it was first documented.

Famous sons and daughters: Michael 'Butty' Sugrue, Ireland's strongest man and the event promoter who brought Muhammad Ali and Al 'Blue' Lewis to Croke Park in July 1972; cyclist Gene Mangan, winner of Rás Tailteann in 1958; revolutionary and author Tom Barry; Monika Dukarska, world rowing champion; Deborah Naughton, emigrant whose grandson, Dick Cheney, became US Vice President; Kerry footballers Mike Frank Russell, Liam Hassett and Peter Crowley.


Photos by Don ­MacMonagle

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