Puck Fair in Killorglin, Co Kerry is a firm favorite with those on vacation and Irish locals alike, but many may not know its intriguing history dating back to the 4th century.
As part of Puck Fair, Ireland’s oldest festival, a wild mountain goat is crowned and worshipped as "King Puck" for the three-day festival, a strange tradition that has its roots in 4th-century pagan Ireland.
Jerry Mulvihill, author of the book “The Puck Fair – Ireland's Oldest Celebration,” wrote that in pagan times, the wild goat would have been sacrificed. Now the goat is treated like a prince, the center of attention for the three days.
The festival, which runs ordinarily in August and usually attracts over 80,000 visitors, was said to be linked to the Celtic festival of Lughnasa, which symbolizes the beginning of harvest. The goat was a symbol of pagan fertility.
Every year, locals capture a wild goat in the Macgillycuddy Reeks, Ireland's highest mountain ranges located close by, and bring it back to town. Mulvihill writes that one of the best-known goat catchers was Michael 'Butty' Sugrue, once known as Ireland's strongest man.
The “Queen of Puck,” usually a local schoolgirl, crowns the goat “King Puck.” The goat is placed in a small cage on a high stand for three days as the locals celebrate with markets, entertainment, and pubs that stay open until 3 am. At the end of the fair, the goat is released back into the wild.
(In 2023, however, organizers announced that the role of King Puck would "evolve." The committee unanimously agreed that "rather than remaining on the stand for three days, this year he [King Puck] will be raised on his stand for a short period following his coronation. He will then not be seen again until the final day of Puck Fair when a brief dethroning ceremony will take place.")
Mulvihill grew up just four miles from Killorglin and has only missed one Puck Fair when he was traveling in Australia. He said locals would rather visit Killorglin for Puck Fair than Christmas.
In 2016, Mulvihill told the Irish Independent, "If you're from Kerry, and especially near Killorglin, it's a very exciting time and a real reunion.”
The annual festival attracts visitors from around the country and the world. Day one includes a traditional horse fair in the morning. King Puck is then paraded through the main square where he meets his Queen. The Queen, who wins this honor by writing an essay on the fair, then reads the Puck Fair Proclamation and the new king is crowned.
The second day is Fair Day, the heart of the festival. This sees various types of vendors descend on the town with anything from animals to jewelry for sale. There is also live music and talent contests, a Bonny Baby competition, storytelling, and all sorts of other entertainment.
The third day, Scattering Day, sees the King relieved of his duties and returned to the wild after he’s paraded through the town again. Celebrations then continue late into the night.
* Originally published in Aug 2016, updated in Aug 2022.