The latest incarnation of the Stars Wars franchise is expected to do great things for the little village that nestles on the coast of the Iveragh peninsula in South Kerry, across the bridged channel from Valentia Island.
It is from here that most boats depart to visit the wonder that is Skellig Micheal, which features in the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens. It is to here that Hollywood has decamped over the last two summers to film the scenes.
As the village awaits its arrival on the world stage, it’s worth reflecting on a past that is both colourful and drab. The colour will be on display again next Thursday night in the Old Man’s New Year’s Eve Festival. But first let’s acknowledge that Portmagee was not always the centre of the universe, not to mind the galaxy.
When I was growing up in the teeming metropolis that is Cahirciveen, the capital of Iveragh, Portmagee represented the back of beyonds. To us at national school, it was nothing more than a rumour, somewhere out there in the wilds known only to those who fished for a living. Nothing ever happened in Portmagee. When the occasional boy was transported from there to our school, we checked him out for signs of alien life.
Then something happened. The opening of the bridge to Valentia in 1973 sparked the village into life. The locals copped on that a lick of paint and a little marketing would polish off the dust to reveal a jewel hugging the fabled and beautiful coast of south Kerry. The result was a triumph of nature over the curse of peripherality.
In recent years, Portmagee has taken even further giant leaps with the routing of the Wild Atlantic Way right down through the main street.
And now, with the arrival of Han Solo, the secret has been revealed to an even wider world.
All of which brings us to the unique festival that has been a feature of the village going back a century and a half, down through the decades when the place was a world apart even to us townies.
Last year for the first time since my family folded the tent and headed north from Iveragh, I found myself back there for the turning of the year. Each Summer since my teens, I have returned to the area, but never for a spell of more than a night at the height of winter.
Anyway, a local woman, exiled many galaxies away in Dublin, told me about the Old Man festival and all it represented. As luck would have it, the possibility of a post-Christmas break opened up in a borrowed abode in Ballinskelligs, less than 10 miles from the village.
It was to Ballinskelligs that the monks came in the 13th century when they abandoned Skellig Michael after centuries of putting up with Viking attacks and worsening weather. They finally came ashore to put up their feet and kick back and reflect on the dangerous and austere lives they had led out on the rock.
But back in the present day, on December 31 last, and the clock was ticking towards the witching hour. We took off cross-country, en route to check out what was going down in Portmagee.
The Old Man festival consists of a parade up through the village. The Old Man represents the departing year. His passing is destined to occur when the clock strikes midnight. His death is followed by the birth of the New Year, in which Old Man’s corpse gives up New Man, raring to go.
By the time we arrived that night, the procession had already advanced down past the waterfront where darkened boats lay moored for the winter. Behind the Killorglin Pipe Band, a praetorian guard, with raised pikes bearing burning sods, escorted Old Man to his fate. He was cordoned in by a string of Christmas lights, lest he get notions of escaping the clock at this late hour.
The sound of the pipes, the burning sods, the crowd parading down the street in the dead of night could all have been taken in a snapshot for any time in the last century are two. Only the flashing phones taking pictures betrayed the times we live in. All that was missing was a “selfie police” to arrest and detain anybody who attempted to engage in compulsive narcissism.
You could see that Old Man was nearing the end. He shuffled slowly, face hidden deep inside the folds of an oversized coat, his crown covered by a dipping, wide brimmed hat. The large gathering followed him, many showing great indifference to his pending demise, some actually goading him on.
He made it to the top of the village and back down again, his gait now more laboured, his progress impeded by a stumble here and there. And then countdown to midnight was chanted out by the gathering.
Just as the bell for midnight was about to strike, a shot rang out. A plume of smoke drifted up from the fallen body. Another shot, just to finish him off. His inert body lay on the street, Old Man gone to meet his maker.
There was little time to dwell on Old Man’s departure, for something stirred within the oversized coat, and a figure rose Lazarus-like from the street. The coat was thrown off and out leapt none other than New Man.
This guy looked the business, suited and booted and bearing a sash across his chest as if he was a contestant in the Rose of Tralee. The sash bore the digits for the New Year, and its bearer bounded towards the little stage set up on the pier. As he grabbed the microphone a ripple ran through the crowd confirming he was something of a celebrity, none other than Gary O’Sullivan, a legendary commentator on Radio Kerry, known for his breathless dispatches from Croke Park on big days.
Gary launched into Auld Lang Syne, and the atmosphere changed and the procession began anew, the funeral dirge replaced by a jaunty introduction to another year.
Beyond, out through the channel, out there on the Rock, the ghosts of the monks communed at the turn of another year. They have seen centuries like this, worlds change, great powers come and go, humanity gamble with its very future. And tonight, from their perch, they observed yet another Old Man’s Festival, ancient and pagan and full of the hope.
They were hardy men, those monks, no question about it. Their spirits will require fortification against the flood of Star Wars fans that is inevitably going to arrive in Portmagee to be ferried out to the rock.
Keep the head down, lads, for they know not what they do, trampling on the past to imagine a future fashioned in Hollywood.
Happy New Year, and let’s hope it’s a good one.