From bog snorkelling to matchmaking, Ireland has a festival to entertain all sorts, writes Áilín Quinlan
We don’t bat an eyelid — but visitors from abroad could be forgiven for thinking they’re utterly demented.
From matchmaking to building scarecrows, crowning a wild mountain goat and snorkelling through a bog dressed as a leprechaun, there’s nothing to beat Ireland when it comes to staging wild and wacky summer festivals. Here’s a glimpse of some of the madcap festivals we can safely say could only work in Ireland.
National Scarecrow Championships
Runaway Brides, a 50ft dinosaur, a mysterious enclosed village, and a Statue of Liberty in the local river — and all of them made of straw.
This madcap event began life in 2010 in a Laois village as the local ‘Howya’ festival. Held last week, it attracted more than 120 colourful scarecrows — and some 20,000 visitors — from all over Ireland.
Held from July 24 to August 1, scarecrows peep from behind lamp-posts, swing through the trees, and colonise people’s gardens in the village of Durrow — when they’re not sitting down for tea, that is, in their very own Scarecrow Village.
Durrow’s ‘Howya’ festival became the Scarecrow Festival for one simple reason: The incredible reaction to the inclusion of a scarecrow-making competition in the festival programme on the suggestion of a local who had seen such contests while on holiday in the US.
They don’t let too much grass grow under their feet in Durrow — the following year the village changed the Howya festival to the Durrow Scarecrow Festival. That summer more than 9,000 visitors arrived to enjoy the festival — and in a village with just 800 inhabitants.
By 2015 the number of visitors had grown to 19,000 — and the quirky enclosed Scarecrow Village in the centre of Durrow is now a huge summer tourism attraction.
“Last year there was a Statue of Liberty scarecrow in the middle of the river, and a 50ft dinosaur on the village green,” says festival chairperson, Evelyn Clancy, adding that last week’s festival featured everything from a Runaway Bride to Alice in Wonderland and a jailhouse scene. The nine-day festival also featured a wrestling competition, children’s camp, a bale-decorating competition, arts and crafts, a country market, and a dog agility competition.
Puck Fair, August 10-12
One of the quirkiest festivals in existence, Puck Fair features the coronation of a wild mountain goat standing on a special platform high above the streets.
Killorglin’s Puck Fair, which runs August 10-12, is Ireland’s original and oldest Gathering Festival. The pinnacle of the celebration surrounds the crowning of a specially captured wild mountain goat as the festival’s King, honouring a tradition and heritage that, although officially traced back to 1603 when King James I issued a charter granting legal status to the existing fair in Killorglin, is believed to be much older.
This coronation ceremony traditionally takes place on the first evening of the festivities, in collaboration with Fáilte Ireland.
This year’s King Puck will not just be crowned monarch of Killorglin, but also receive the title ‘ King of the Wild Atlantic Way’. Local schoolgirl Kerry Lynch, 12, has been named as the Queen of Puck Fair and Bláthnaid Carney from Killorglin has been elected her ‘lady in waiting’.
Prior to the coronation, the King and Queen will be paraded through the town in order to bestow the ‘Freedom of the Town’ upon all in attendance. The festival itself features three days of ceremony, merriment, celebration, and music.
Another popular event on opening day, or Gathering Day as it is known, is the Horse Fair, Ireland’s oldest continually running horse fair. The second day of Puck Fair is traditionally known as Fair Day and the line-up includes a range of activities including free workshops for dance, circus skills, and a drum and Irish pipe workshop.
Friday, the final day of the fair, known as Scattering Day, offers more fun and frolics, from acrobats to the annual pet show and a chance to meet with King and Queen Puck.
The festival ends with a fireworks display over Killorglin.
Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival, September 2 to October 9
Love is in the air in the Clare village of Lisdoonvarna which annually attracts more than 40,000 singles to what has become the biggest match-making festival in Europe.
Match-making is one of Ireland’s oldest traditions, and for hundreds of years much of it takes place in Lisdoonvarna.
The tradition began when visiting gentry came to both ‘take the waters’ — the area’s mineral water was believed to have curative properties — and to ‘match’ their sons and daughters with wealthy partners. Matches were made through bringing grown-up children together at social gatherings, sporting events, dances, and musical evenings.
These days the matchmaking is open to everyone — local publican and traditional matchmaker Willie Daly expects to help some 140 people looking for love this year. The Matchmaking Festival runs in the town for over a month.
You’ll find Willie and his precious ‘Book’ of love-seeking profiles in his ‘office’ — the snug of the Matchmaker Bar dealing with a queue of hopeful singles of all ages and nationalities.
The Brexit controversy, he says, has already had an impact: “I find that when the economy goes down a bit, the marriage rate increases.
“During the recession the number of people looking for love increased,” says Willie, a third-generation matchmaker who’s been making successful matches since the 1960s.
In good times, he reports, women show more interest in a man’s looks, whereas in a recession the emphasis is very much on his financial situation.
In recent years, Willie noticed, the effects of recession were starting to tail off, and women were beginning once more to be more interested in a man’s looks rather than what was in his wallet.
But then, he says, the Brexit vote happened. “I’ve noticed that since the Brexit there has been a slight change again because there is a bit of uncertainty creeping back in and confidence seems to have hit a low spot.”
However, whether it’s looks or a fat wallet a woman is seeking, the Matchmaking Festival gives hope. “It’s been running for more than 150 years at this stage. It’s a festival for all ages. You get people from 18 at the festival, and people who are much older, even into their nineties,” says Willie.
“The dancing goes on three times a day beginning at noon, again at 4pm, and again at 9pm and that goes on for the full 33 or 34 days of the festival.”
Willie particularly enjoys the opportunity to meet up with couples he put together years previously. “Every year I meet people I would have introduced to each other 25 or 30 or 40 years ago,” he says.
“Nobody needs to be alone unless they want it that way — there’s somebody for everybody and you only have one life. It’s worth making the effort to combat loneliness.”
Irish Bog Snorkelling Championships, September 10
Forget the Cayman Islands — why not try something totally wacky like snorkelling through an Irish bog?
We kid you not: This is the eighth year of the Irish Bog Snorkelling Championships at Doohamlet, Castleblayney, Co Monaghan, which attracts some 50 competitors and up to 1,000 spectators every year.
Competitors flipper their way — swimming’s not allowed — through a 120m stretch of bog. The challenge is to break the 1.24-minute world record set by a member of the Irish Underwater Hockey Team back in 2012.
Organiser Declan Connolly explains: “Every year we go down to the bog and clean out a track of about 60m with a JCB clearing out the weeds. You’re left with a channel about 6ft wide and 3ft deep filled with lovely mucky brown water.
“People go in with a snorkel and flippers. You cannot swim; you have to use the flippers as it’s all about the leg power.
“The challenge is to get the fastest time so you go 60m down and 60m back.
“We have contests for the fastest men, fastest women, fastest boy, and fastest girl.”
And if all that isn’t enough, they also run a fancy dress snorkel: “People dress in the wackiest costumes — we’ve had a leprechaun, a bunny rabbit, a frog, and a bride,” says Declan.
The event, which takes place on September 10, originated during a phonecall between Declan, who runs self-catering cottages locally, and another tourism provider, John McKeown.
Back in October 2008 the duo were complaining to each other about the weather, when Declan mentioned how recent heavy rains had flooded the bog and turned a local field into a lake. John asked if he’d ever heard of bog snorkelling.
Declan googled it — and the rest is history.
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