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The Puck Fair

We awoke next morning to the great day of Puck, being the beginning of August, the first day of Puck Fair, the day of the Gathering, and even as we ap-proached the main road along the hotel drive we could hear the rattle of carts going towards neighboring Killorglin, the patter of hoofs as the beasts were driven along to that great annual festival, and the cries and laughter of men, women and children as they ex-changed sallies one with the other, or passed the time of day. It was all a grand excitement in this quiet country-side, and it must have been like this every year for countless centuries, for nothing seems to me more surely the survival of an ancient pagan feast than this age-old gathering under the patronage of a male goat, known in Kerry as a puck.

Wherever I went was color and movement and animation, and no poet worth his salt could fail to be infected with the immense energy of it all. Horses and cattle, hounds and sporting dogs, pigs and sheep, little foals crying for their mothers, cocks crowing, dealers shouting and laughing and making wide gestures, sight-seers getting in everybody's way, and the attendant train of show people with their flashy attire and alien sounding language. And then over the bridge, along the road to right and left, were the caravans of the gypsies and the distinct and smaller portable habita-tions of the tinkers. A great riot of nomadic color this, with swarms of children playing under the caravans, or about the openings of the lower tilts, and the buxom brightly-shawled women busy taking silver in exchange for news of dark-avised strangers whom they saw in the upturned palms of laughing country boys and girls.

Someone cried, "Ah-h-h-h here he comes, me bould Puck" -- The music of fiddles and melodeons came from the far edge of the town -- a sudden silence fell upon the crowd and one could actually feel that they were all listening to those distant strains -- and then came something between a great corporate sigh and the sound the wind makes when it sweeps over the top of a fine crop of standing wheat -- and with that Babel broke loose. A line of six fiddlers, playing finely like one man and with a terrific sense of rhythm, started the Derry hornpipe, and a great fat fellow, "with drink taken", came from somewhere nearby and broke into the dance with much skill and spirit; but too much spirit of the one kind, for as the crowd widened out to make a circle round the musicians and the dance, the poor fellow stumbled and fell flat on his back. He was a very big man, but before the roar of laughter broke out to greet his discomfiture, he was on his feet again like a cat and into the dance for all he was worth. A great cheer broke out at this, for they are sporting people these Kerry farmers.

And then the other showmen started to bark, and the noise grew in volume so that it was difficult now to make sense of any part of it. One voice only came clearly through the din, the brazen voice of a great hand-bell, wielded by a roguish-looking red-faced man, atop of a box, with the clear lovely whistle of a black-bird on his lips and the merry eye of that sleek rascally songster. He seemed to be selling cough mixture and knives with glass-cutters set at one end of them. Not far away a rout of farmers crowded around a gypsy woman who was telling the fortune of a young girl, her upturned palm gleaming unnaturally white amongst the sea of sun-tanned grimy necks and paws. Again the voice of the bell range out -- clangily -- insistently -- and that lovely blackbird trill floated high beside it, and on a soft breeze came again the sound of the band, nearer now and more coherently -- 'twas "The Rose of Tralee" they were playing, but in march time and rather out of tune. And now a little donkey forced its way miraculously through the dense crowd, its crib of turf almost crying out that, fair or no fair, the ordinary business of life must go on.

A sudden blast of music came from the right and there was the head of the Royal procession, a little dark ass bearing a card between its long sensitive ears, with the question: "Where is the Post Office?" scrawled across it; evidently a piece of local humor. Immediately behind this came a cart laden with vegetables and driven by a boy dressed as a chef, with a great notice above it proclaiming that this was "His Majesty's Chef," and hard on the tail of this commissariat waggon marched the band, the musicians gaily clad in brightly-coloured paper costumes and hats, and now doing their worst with "The Kerry Dance," also in march time and a little more out of tune. And then came the royal coach, more brilliant than anything yet, crowded with bedizened courtiers and bearing in its midst His Majesty King Puck, a superb specimen of a dark-coated male goat with as fine a pair of horns as I have ever seen. The whole motley entourage came to a sudden stop, like a squad of soldiers obeying the brazen command of the traditional drill sergeant. The music stopped on the instant in the middle of a phrase and for a full ten seconds there was a dead silence that was unearthly in its abrupt contrast. Even the cattle were stilled and the raucous women at their stalls, and through the very air seemed to creep a deep sense of tradition, of the realization that now was the moment when the ritual of unnumbered centuries was to live again. It was ten seconds of extraordinary tension, and it was broken by the quavering note of a single distant violin, absurdly irrelevant and unspeakably fragile in the thin line of its stringy tone. And then one of the courtiers leapt from the royal cart on to the base of the scaffold-like tower, and as his Majesty was moved into position the band resumed "The Kerry Dance" and the multifarious noises broke out again. King Puck stood in a highly-decorated canopied crib, and before this was hoisted to the lofty throne, another courtier came forward with a cardboard crown, the band changed over to "The Rose of Tralee," the crowed cheered mightily, and Puck was crowned for another year. Up and up when the crib, orange-coloured to match the topmost band of the four Irish flags that flew from the four corner-poles of the tower, and the cheering of the crowd and the playing of the band grew more and more frenzied with every foot of altitude gained. It was all too much for someone who threw his arms upwards with a grand dramatic sweep and roared out in a grinding howl of a voice: "Ah-h-h, Puck me boy, if oo falls now oo'll never get up." But Puck didn't fall, but stood there, aloof and unconcerned, high above the heads of subjects, crowned king for three days and nights, and in his eyes and his whole bearing was that look of supreme contempt, coupled with a quizzical benevolence, which is rarely encountered save in the royal tribe of Capra Hircus. A great movement and clamour spread about the crowded streets, the bell rang out again with the blackbird note beside it, the six fiddlers played "The Harvest Home." It was six twenty p.m., on the tenth day of August, or by the new dispensation, the First Day of Puck. The Fair had begun.

(Richard Hawyard, In the Kingdom of Kerry, pp. 230-36) Thanks to Ray Marshall for this contribution.


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