A wrinkled man with a stick and a jaunty hat stood near the entrance to the fair field at Puck and offered advice.
“If some fella asks you to hold a reins, don’t, because you could be left with the horse,’’ he warned.
Inside, the place was full of fillies, foals, cobs, half-breds and nags of varying pedigree, but few people were buying — no spitting on hands, no slapping of palms, no calls to split the difference.
Trade was described as “slack” and “tough”, and if you wanted to buy, you could get bargains, we were assured.
The age-old Puck Fair in Killorglin, Co Kerry, still retains its primal appeal and thousands still flock there to savour the atmosphere.
On Saturday, many of the same faces, including Paddy Cournane from Caherciveen, gathered at Evans’ field on the Tralee Rd.
Paddy, who brought seven riding and driving horses, which he corralled in a corner of the field, voiced a familiar refrain, saying the horse trade had gone down all over.
“If horses were dear, they’d all be going mad for them. It’s a terror! There’s no meas in anything cheap,” said Paddy as he awaited bids.
In agreement was Pa Murhill, of Killarney, who recalled the heady days of the Celtic Tiger, when 4x4s towing horse boxes clogged all routes to the fair. Like the tiger, they, too, have disappeared.
“Money is scarce,’’ said Pa. “When things were going well, people were paying big money for horses. Now, horses are going for half-nothing and no one wants ’em.”
A four-year-old draught mare, non-registered, fetched €450, a snip compared to what a similar animal would have made during the boom.
Puck Fair 2013, which ends tonight, is celebrating its 400th anniversary and it’s the year of “fours’’ — an extension of the event from three days to four, while public houses have an exemption to 4am.
Once, Killorglin pubs could open round the clock for three days, with a short closure window in the dawn hours to clean up and clear out, but the exemption has for many years been to 3am.
Lower Bridge St publican Declan Falvey said the fair was still very important for the 17 pubs and others businesses.
“There are mixed views about the 4am opening and it will be reviewed by the vintners after the fair,’’ said Mr Falvey.
Killorglin’s streets are lined with scores of stalls selling a vast range of goods, from power washers to bracelets, from perfumes to wellies painted in county colours.
Buskers and characters abound. Three-card-trick sharks are also drawn to Puck and nowadays they operate in €50 notes.
Trying to keep ahead of the gardaí is a constant challenge for those with the sleight-of-hand gift. “You’re too young, I’ll lose my licence if the Garda Síochána come,’’ shouted one at a teenager who offered to bet.
Amidst all the madness, the “God people’’ were also around and a sober elderly man stood near the bridge over the Laune handing out cards with a prayer of repentance.
Gardaí, who said crowds were up on last year, had no serious incidents to report, but were called to a row involving a gang of men on Friday night.
Michael Houlihan, a local whose family has been steeped in the event for generations, has republished his book, Puck Fair: History and Traditions, with new information and photographs from the collection of his late father, Patrick.
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