Goats, Taxes and Rampaging Armies- The Story of Puck Fair 

By Marie MacSweeney

When, in 1603, King James I put quill to parchment and signed the Royal Charter – which gave legal status to the fair at Killorgan, Co. Kerry, he could not have anticipated the enduring consequences of his action.

There is a strain of thought which suggests that a fair had been held in that region in ancient times, when a goat was regarded as a symbol of fertility and these celebrations related to the anticipation of a bountiful harvest.

So, in this case, the good king was simply endorsing a centuries old practice! Thus Puck Fair began. Or did it? Another local story traces the origins of Ireland’s most renowned fair to the grim Cromwellian times.

Oliver’s soldiers were rampaging through the countryside at the foot of the McGillicuddy Reeks, so the story goes. They pushed so forcefully through that terrain that they terrified a herd of goats and scattered them further into the wild uplands.

There was one exception to that frenzied dispersal. A large male broke loose from the herd, and whether through confusion and distress, or for some other more fortuitous and calculated reason, made his way into the heart of the town of Killorgan, where the inhabitants were immediately alerted to the impending threat. Certainly, the wild billy goat – who is the centre of the Puck Fair celebrations each August, is historically a much appreciated species.

At one time, this island had many goats as farm animals. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, thousands of goats were exported to England. Milk, meat and hides were the much valued products obtained from a herd of goats. Even today, goat’s milk is on virtually every supermarket shelf. And the bodhrán, with its goat skin soundboard and its vigorously fluttering tipper, is an essential part of most traditional music groups.

Today’s ‘Puck’ has an interesting week in August. He is selected and captured in the mountains. He is feted and crowned in the town. While wheeling and dealing, in the customary style of old Irish fairs, he is there, a dominant and somewhat superior presence in a high place, surveying all. The horse sales proceed.

A young Queen of Puck is chosen from among the local schoolgirls. The Bonny Baby competition produces a bonny winner. Traditional music sessions happen in the pubs. Pipe bands march on the streets. Excitement mounts. 

Then, after three days of commence and commotion, the king is released back to his upland wilderness, no doubt glad to be done with the strange shenanigans of humankind and be to sniffing and eating the purple heather again. 

Whether an ancient Celtic celebration associated with the god, Lugh, or the valuing of the goat who saved the inhabitants of the area from attack, the Puck Fair is probably the most interesting fair in Ireland. But there is another theory as to its origin, associated with none other than Daniel O’Connell.

It is said that one Harman Blennerhasset, a local landlord, was in the bad books of the Viceroy at Dublin Castle. As a consequence, he was punished by the said Viceroy by being forbidden to levy the usual tolls on livestock fairs. Daniel was called upon by our Mr Blennerhasset to assist.

The young barrister argued that goats were not covered by the Viceroy’s dictate, and that therefore the frustrated landlord was perfectly entitled to hold a goat fair and to levy all around him as he once had done. The fair was then advertised widely for August 1808, and on that auspicious day a goat was hoisted onto a high platform in the town to indicate to all and sundry that the fair was indeed a genuine goat fair.

Thus, Mr. Blennerhasset collected his taxes, the people enjoyed the fun and games of the fair and Killorgan got a temporary king who, by a yearly metamorphosis, has now become a permanent annual fixture!