On New Year’s Eve my wife and I went to join the festivities in Portmagee, a village not far from our home. We’d heard about their particular way of celebrating the New Year for ages but never been, so this year we decided to go. It was cold, with sharp winds and occasional gusts of freezing rain. The main street was lined with people waiting, wrapped against the cold and warmed by the drink they had been buying at The Bridge Bar and The Moorings. Two girls stood out from the rest, because they were dressed as if for summer and you had to wonder how they could stand the cold, but the rest were more sensibly attired.
The event began when a group of men appeared on the harbour wall. They were led by a man playing bagpipes and a youngster banging away on a drum. This was broadcast, somewhat erratically, over a PA system all along the main street. The men in the parade wore tartan hats and carried tall poles with flaming torches atop them. They came into the village and walked up and down a couple of times. In their midst was a bent old man, his back and legs covered in straw. He was leaning on two sticks. Once or twice he fell and was helped to his feet by the two men who were escorting him.
And then, as midnight arrived, a young man stepped up to the old man and shot him (ceremoniously, I should add). It was colourful, weird and moving. We all counted down the final seconds to the New Year and then there was much cheering and kissing.
The interesting thing about this, as we discovered later (thanks be for Google), is that it began in 1727, when a Kinsale smugglers’ boat came into the harbour with a French crew (almost certainly Breton, as you will see). Portmagee is named after a famous (or infamous perhaps) Irish smuggler called Captain Magee, and along with the rest of Kerry, was friendly to smugglers, so the crew were made welcome. Then, on the night of New Year’s Eve, the village was woken by a strange wailing sound, and looking out of their windows and doors, they saw the French crew marching down the harbour wall carrying torches. The men wore tartan, they were led by a piper, and the old man was in their midst, and he was shot at midnight by one of the crew. The Bretons are a Celtic people and they wear tartan and play the pipes, hence my presumption, but I have no definite proof of that. In any event, the sight amazed and delighted the villagers, and it was decided to adopt the practice, and so it was and has remained the festival of light as practiced in Portmagee.
I love that the people here so readily adopted the festival, that there was no prejudice or resentment. Try to imagine this happening in England (“Bloody frogs” etc. etc.). Of course, in Kerry, they were well used to foreign sailors turning up out of the blue, coming in to harbour or wrecked on the rocky coast. I mentioned before the slow acceptance of blow-ins here, but this shows that for all that hesitance, they do make foreigners welcome and, apparently, they take on their customs if they seem amusing and appropriate. Isn’t it grand?