Lughnasa and the Puck Fair | Celtic Cultural Minute
Lughnasa is both an ancient Celtic festival marking the beginning of the harvest, and the Gaelic name for the month we call August, a month filled with fairs and festivals, dances and racing, matchmaking, and bonfires.
The festival of Lughnasa dates back to the earliest times and honors the god, Lugh. Celebrated throughout Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, it featured great gatherings with religious ceremonies and ritual athletic games, feasting, matchmaking and markets. Religious rites would include an offering of the first of the corn, a feast of the first harvest fruits, animal sacrifice and ritual dance. Much of this would take place on high hilltops and mountains.
Ireland’s oldest fair, the raucous Puck Fair in Killorglin, County Kerry, is believed to be descended from these old Lughnasa festivals. In Gaelic, it is Aonach an Phoic, the Fair of the He-Goat, “poc” being Gaelic for a male goat, a pagan fertility symbol.
Every August, the townspeople head into the mountains around Killorglin, hunting for a wild goat that is crowned “King Puck” by the “Queen of Puck”, traditionally a local schoolgirl.
Once King Puck is crowned, the festivities may begin! The first of the three days of the festival is called Gathering Day, and kicks off with a colorful parade through town, carrying the beribboned King and Queen Puck to the market square, where the Goat King is hoisted up into a cage on top of a tall tower, from whence he will reign over the three days of merrymaking.
Ireland’s oldest horse fair is held on this first day as well, starting at the crack of dawn. The village comes alive with traditional music, hundreds of market stalls, busking, street theatre and pubs open round the clock. Today, upwards of 100,000 people converge on tiny Killorglin for the Puck Fair weekend.
A notable visitor to Puck Fair was playwright John Millington Synge, who was travelling through Kerry in August 1906, when he visited Killorglin.
He wrote: “On the main roads, for many days past, I have been falling in with tramps and trick characters of all kinds, sometimes single and sometimes in parties of four or five. A crowd is as exciting as champagne to these lonely people, who live in long glens among mountains. At the foot of the platform, where the crowd was thickest, a young ballad-singer was howling in honour of Puck, making one think of the early Greek festivals, since the time of which, it is possible, the goat has been exalted yearly in Killorglin?”
Another writer, the American poet Muriel Rukeyser, also visited the Puck Fair. Killorglin she wrote, “looks like a drab little Victorian Town. And is, except for three days of the year in August. (when) people from all over are converging on the town.”
“The night before the Fair, all the little shops around the square that sell all the things little shops sell — they close, and in the morning when they open, each one is a pub. The goat is crowned king - they say the tinkers choose their king there, too, but that of course is done in secret. The town is wide open, they say. It’s the last of the great goat festivals: Greece, Spain, Scotland, England - the last.”
The last day is known as the Scattering Day. As the fair winds down, only Queen Puck may remove the crown from King Puck’s brow, as he is deposed, and paraded out through the town, out beyond the golden fields to where the lonely mountains begin. Here he is released back into the wild, and as dusk falls, the fair ends with fire dancers and fireworks lighting up the night sky.
This is Kate Scuffle, for Celtic Cultural Alliance, Slainte.