Kevin O’Hara, a longtime Eagle contributor, is the author of “Ins and Outs of a Locked Ward: My 30 Years as a Psychiatric Nurse.”

During my donkey travels around Ireland in 1979, I met many unforgettable characters. However, none was quite so captivating as Queenie O’Brien, a traveler camped with her extended nomadic family outside the market town of Killorglin in County Kerry.


Queenie O’Brien as seen in July 1979 in Killorglin, County Kerry.

It was a steamy July evening, and my shaggy roadster Missie was slow on the hoof, when King and Queen O’Brien invited us into their encampment for the night.

No sooner had I accepted their generous offer than their multiple grandchildren settled Missie in the neighboring fields with their piebald ponies. That done, Queenie, as she favored to be called, put a mug of smoky black tea in my hands and three cuts of thickly buttered cottage loaf sprinkled with sugar.

“You must be famished,” she said in a motherly tone. “Now, eat up, can’t you?”

Meanwhile, Queenie’s little ones gawked up at me as if I were a distant alien.

“Have ye no manners,” she shooed them away, before saying, “Tisn’t every day we have a Yankee gentleman in our midst. Now, stay with us for the Puck Fair.”

“Puck Fair? When is it?”

“The 10th of August.”

“Oh, I’m afraid not,” I laughed. “I hope to be home by Christmas, and I’m already two weeks behind schedule. But, please, tell me about the fair.”

Puck Festival_2

The grinning goat deemed "King Puck" during the July 1979 Puck Fair in Killorgin, County Kerry.

“’Tis the oldest known festival in Ireland, going back to the time of James I in 1603. Each year the townspeople in Killorglin capture a wild he-goat up in the MacGillycuddy Reeks, and the goat is then crowned ‘King Puck’ and rules over the town on a high perch for three days.”

“’Tis an old pagan festival for fertility,” added the king with a mischievous grin. “Must be some magic in it, since we have 45 grandchildren scattered throughout the island.”

“What happens to King Puck after the fair?” I next inquired.

“He’s let loose back to the mountains, no worse for wear. Some folk grumble about the Puck’s welfare, but he’s well fed and taken care of during his short reign.”

That night, beneath a black sky speckled with smoky stars, the O’Brien clan, 20 in number, congregated around the crackling central fire. In short order, Queenie’s oldest son passed around pint bottles of stout he called “sergeants,” while Nellie, a charming, freckle-faced redhead, asked if America’s Great Lakes froze so thickly in the winter that a motorcar could cross over it, “as if Jesus Himself was at the wheel.”

As our festive night continued, I asked Queenie if she had any childhood memories of Puck Fair.

“When I was a young gossel,” she began eagerly, “I’d go with my dad to every fair where he’d always give me a penny for taffy. But one fair day, I came upon a fortune teller from County Armagh, who had a lovely basket of apples in front of her painted caravan. She was selling them for a penny apiece, but if you answered her three questions correctly, she’d read your fortune as well.

Irish Lass(1)

Queenie’s granddaughter, Nellie.

“So I gave her my penny and picked my apple, but I wasn’t allowed to bite into it. Instead, she asked, ‘What’s God’s only crayture that can see the wind?’ ‘Only a pig can see the wind!’ I rightly replied. ‘Now, name me the four colors of the wind?’ And I said, ‘The white wind blows from the south, black from the east, gray from the north, and yellow from the west.’

“‘Very good, child. Now, last question, ‘What is the only wind that can redden an apple?’ ‘Only the sting of a north wind,’ I answered with certainty.”

“Wow!” I exclaimed. “How did you know these archaic things?”

“I’ve always had a keen ear for bygone beliefs. Next thing, the kindly old woman invites me into her half-barrel caravan where she polished my apple to a lustrous sheen, before setting it on a table before window’s light. There, on the apple’s waxen wall, you could see the tiny reflection of the window itself. And squinting deeply into that ‘wee windie,’ she read my fortune aloud.”

“Was there any truth in it?” I asked, as a sniffling toddler on my lap wiped his nose happily on my sleeve.

“Not a morsel of truth! After all, amn’t I still waiting for my Bonny Prince Charlie on his white steed?”

“Won’t Kevin’s nut-brown donkey suit you just as well?” joked one of Queenie’s daughters.

“Arrah, what value is a prince when ye married yerself a king,” boasted King O’Brien to everyone’s amusement.

“Could you finally eat your apple?” I next asked.

“Aye, delicious, it was. However, if I didn’t favor my fortune, I could have rid myself of its curse by feeding it to any donkey on the Green. But, believe me, there’d be no fortune so severe that I’d go pegging a juicy apple toward an old crock of an ass. Begging yer forgiveness, kind sir.”

“No offense taken,” I assured this regal queen of the byways, as another “sergeant” was ceremoniously uncapped before me.

Kevin O’Hara, of Pittsfield, writes an annual St. Patrick’s Day for the Eagle. He is the author of “Last of the Donkey Pilgrims: A Man’s Journey Through Ireland.”