The unknown fate of lonesome goat from the south... lost in the north!

Ireland’s two great street fairs - Puck Fair in Killorglin, County Kerry, and the Oul’ Lammas Fair in Ballycastle - have been held every August for hundreds of years.

Wednesday, 17th June 2020, 6:00 am
Puck Fair circa early 1900s
Puck Fair circa early 1900s

But the coronavirus pandemic has cancelled them this summer, for the first time.

The fairs run independently, but there was a conscious effort in the 1960s to link them.

A delegation from Ballycastle made the 260-mile journey (almost the entire length of Ireland) to Killorglin as guests of the fair committee there and Killorglin people reciprocated later in the month.

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Puck Fair in Killorglin, County Kerry. Celebrating 400th Anniversary of its Charter in 2013

The Ballycastle folk brought gifts of yellow man, the honeycomb candy that’s a signature delicacy of the Lammas Fair, and a recording of Bridie Gallagher singing the iconic song:

“At the Ould Lammas Fair boys were you ever there

Were you ever at the Fair In Ballycastle-O?

Did you treat your Mary Ann

King Puck with Puck Queen

To some Dulse and Yellow Man

At the Ould Lammas Fair in Ballycastle-O!”

And out of this fair-swap emerged an incident that is recalled in Ballycastle as ‘the death of Puck.’

Regular-contributor Mitchell Smyth, formerly from Ballycastle and now living in Toronto, recalls the story as he heard it, the story of how King Puck, the goat mascot of the County Kerry fair, came north to be honoured in Ballycastle, only to die a lonely death in the wild heath of Fair Head.

Bronze statue of King Puck in Killorglin

First a word about the County Kerry fair. Every summer a group of hunters go into Macgillicuddy’s Reeks, Ireland’s highest mountain chain, south of Killorglin, and capture a wild he-goat (‘poc’ in Irish).

They bring the goat back to Killorglin, which is near the northern end of the famed Ring of Kerry tourist drive.

In the town square, the goat is named King Puck by a ‘puck queen’ (usually a local schoolgirl), who places a crown on its head.

Then it’s put in a cage, which is raised high above the street. From there the goat presides over the three days of festivities, always on August 10, 11 and 12 - except, of course, in this year of the pandemic.

Puck in his cage

Something like 80,000 visitors attend the fair, to enjoy a parade, music in the streets, dancing, late bars, stalls and traditional horse and cattle sales - just like the Lammas Fair.

As you might imagine, there have been protests from animal lovers’ organisations, but the health authorities regularly give the green-light that the goat is not abused in any way.

And when it’s over the cage is lowered, the door is opened and King Puck is taken back to the mountains and freed.

Except, says Mitchell Smyth, in that one year, in the early 1960s, when King Puck didn’t go ‘home.’ He came to Ballycastle, where it was planned he would lead a parade and then be freed at Murlough Bay or nearby Fair Head, where lots of mountain goats roam.

King Puck got to Ballycastle all right, but there the plan went awry.

His minders stopped at a house (some say a pub) in Ballyvoy, on the road to Fair Head and Murlough.

And while they were inside, Puck escaped. Locals say he became a menace, tramping down fences and head-butting sheep with his 2-foot wide horns.

But no one could catch him, though someone tried to shoot him, leaving a bullet mark on one of his horns.

And then the mini reign of terror ended. No one knew what had happened to King Puck.

Now, more than 50 years later, the mystery is solved. Partly solved, anyway.

A writer on Facebook recently recounted how he was involved in the rescue of a sheep trapped on a ledge at Fair Head many years ago.

After the rescue, he said, he was making his way back when he saw a skeleton of a male goat lying between rocks.

“I knew it was the goat from Killorglin. The bullet mark was still on his horn,” he added.

But we still don’t know how Puck died.

Did he die homesick, pining for the green hills of Macgillicuddy’s Reeks?

Did he starve to death, trapped in the rocks?

Or did another bullet, maybe in the torso, end his lonely life?

Meanwhile, if you are wondering about this strange ritual, the crowning of a billy goat as a king for three days, here’s the back story (which nobody can either confirm or deny, Smyth emphasizes).

It is said that Oliver Cromwell’s English forces, seeking to subdue the Irish, were sweeping toward Killorglin.

On the way, they disturbed a herd of wild goats, which dispersed.

But one big goat ran to the town of Killorglin, raising the alarm that the Roundheads were coming and the townspeople were able to resist the invasion.

In admiration, the townspeople named their hero King Puck and made him the centrepiece of their August fair.

(It is never made clear how exactly Puck was able to communicate that an attack was imminent. But some legends don’t need much verification!)

The fair itself dates much farther back than Cromwell (mid-17th century).

It is widely assumed it was part of Lughnasa, the pagan festival of the harvest, where often a billy goat was a fertility symbol.

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