By Amy Hildreth Chen
Muriel Rukeyser’s only monograph-length travelogue, The Orgy (1965), depicts Puck Fair, an annual festival held in rural Killorglin, County Kerry, Ireland. The largest of Ireland’s annual horse and cattle festivals, Puck is celebrated from August 10 through 12 and is marketed as “Ireland’s Oldest Fair.” Puck centers on the display of a goat crowned “the only King of Ireland” by the Queen of the Fair, a sixth grade girl from the local school. Following his coronation, King Puck is lifted onto the top of a three-story tower in the center of town to preside over the festivities, which include extended pub hours, musical performances, and tent sales.
First published by Coward-McCann in New York in 1965 and then issued by Trinity Press in London and Pocket Books in New York in 1966, The Orgy went out of print until Paris Press, a feminist press dedicated to re-releasing work by women writers, published it in 1997 with a new introduction by Sharon Olds.1 While the Paris Press version of The Orgy reissues Rukeyser’s travelogue under an admirable agenda and Sharon Olds’ introduction provides an insightful preface to the original text, the elision of three supplemental texts included in the Pocket Books Press edition immediately following Rukeyser’s text–“The Horned God” by Margaret Alice Murray, “In West Kerry” by John Millington Synge, and John Purcell’s “A New Song on the Great Puck Fair”2–proves somewhat of a loss, especially for American readers. Murray’s, Synge’s, and Purcell’s pieces each provide a helpful, if brief orientation to the history and literature of County Kerry by situating the festival in terms of Irish legend. Murray connects Puck Fair to the “horned god” from the oldest cycle of Irish mythology, first transcribed in Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Taking of Ireland) in the twelfth century.3 These myths describe the Goddess as the supreme ruler and the Horned God, her consort, as representing the earth. Synge’s piece describes the ceremonies surrounding Puck Fair while Purcell’s song records verses written about the festival, many of which include a distinctively nationalist ethos.
Rukeyser did not visit Puck Fair in 1958 in order to write The Orgy; she traveled to Killorglin to scout the festival on behalf of the filmmaker Paul Rotha. Rotha previously worked in Ireland, directing the film No Resting Place (1951) on the plight of the Irish Travellers, an indigenous minority of nomads who suffer widespread discrimination as well as the lowest educational levels and shortest life expectancies of any European ethnic group.4 In his new film, Rotha intended to continue his interest in the Irish Travellers, who were a significant presence at Puck Fair, but the film was not produced. Even though The Orgy replaces the documentary Paul Rotha intended to create, it does follow his interests by exploring how Puck Fair becomes a space of contact between the settled Irish and the Irish Travellers. Rather than advocating for the creation of the film, Rukeyser wrote a book that created a “free fantasy”5 of Puck Fair by combining sociological insights with a first person perspective gained from her role as a participant observer. 6
In her fictionalized memoir, Rukeyser often highlights the locals’ reticence to becoming subjects for a documentary.7 Killorglin villagers try to dissuade Rukeyser from attending by saying, “It’s all very well to make friends and drink Irish,” but “that doesn’t mean that an American should go to Puck Fair” (22-3). They refuse to speak to her, explaining that she is “just another American to say things derogatory to the Irish people” (64); assert “she won’t be able to stand it. She’s American, after all” (66); and lie about the festival and its customs (28). In an attempt to correct the imbalance that she imagines occurs between herself as a prospective documentarian and the locals as her potential subjects, Rukeyser gives her camera to the queen of the fair (7, 86). By forgoing her ability to capture images from the festival, she indicates her desire to participate in Puck, rather than document it. This decision mirrors her aesthetic choice to situate The Orgy as a work of fiction rather than non-fiction.
Rukeyser perceives Puck Fair as situated in a contact zone, a place of transculturation where subordinate groups struggle to resist assimilation by dominant cultures. As contact zones often are marked by a history of colonization, Puck Fair’s symbolism retains markers of England’s presence in Ireland, which began as early as the sixteenth century.8 Tom Crimmins, a veteran of the Easter Rising of 1916, reminds Rukeyser that the Irish name for Killorglin, Cell Forgla, includes the word for choice (Orgy 120). Crowned in the ritual wording “the only king ofIreland,” the goat represents a local alternative to the English king. Puck also serves as a source of protection for the town: Killorglin credits a goat for warning the village of the advance of Cromwell’s army. Although Cromwell never came near Killorglin, making the origin story of Puck Fair apocryphal, Puck’s purported history instantiates the goat as a symbol of resistance. This narrative has political efficacy: Crimmins tells Rukeyser that one year the Black and Tans – traumatized English soldiers stationed in Ireland after World War I who terrorized the Irish as colonial administrators – shot King Puck in order to enforce a ban on public gatherings precipitated by colonial unrest (57, 119). Although Americans are not party to the historically hostile relationship between Ireland and England, the villagers’ wariness toward Rukeyser suggests they remain sensitive to the presence of outsiders.
However, when Rukeyser mistakenly believes that the Travellers are Roma, a nomadic people likely of Indian origin,9 Liadain Hilliard, a Killorglin villager, explains that they are native Irish. Sympathetic to the deprivation endured by contemporary Travellers, Hilliard imagines that they are victims of historical colonization, part of those “Great families of the Geraldine Wars”10 who were “stripped of their lands … and driven out on the roads – those not slaughtered – and rather than live under rule, they have lived on the roads ever since” (46). Rukeyser talks to several Travellers throughout her account: Mrs. Shaughnessy, whom she visits in order to learn her fortune (44-46); Mr. O’Connor, who describes the horse trade (48-50, 72-4); and Mary Filomena, to whom she is about to give something when a barkeeper interrupts their conversation by savagely kicking Filomena to punish her for entering the premises (142-3). As a Traveller, Filomena was expected to remain among the caravans on the outskirts of Killorglin, rather than come into the town, entering the villager’s business. The cruelty of this attack against Filomena provokes Rukeyser to reflect on the nature of bigotry. Revealingly, she uses the incident to frame her memoir, foreshadowing the event at the beginning of her account in order to provoke readers to try to understand how Puck generates violence and prejudice as well as hospitality and friendship (12).
The Travellers’ continued exclusion from civic life and their placement along Puck Fair’s margins can also be seen in the literature discussing the festival. While the Travellers are a considerable presence at Puck Fair because they provide the majority of its economic activity through horse and cattle sales, none of the accounts outside of Rukeyser’s memoir consider their importance to the Puck or show Puck’s significance within the annual calendar of horse fairs which provide the social focus to Irish Traveller life.11 Although Rukeyser avoided a documentary treatment of Puck in The Orgy, she nevertheless contributed to the anthropological literature on Travellers through her simple act of noting their presence at the fair.
Rukeyser also finds that Puck is a place to encounter herself; she achieves a symbolic rebirth while attending the festival. After arriving in Killorglin “goat haunted,” hurting from fresh reminders of the pain of her lover Otto’s death in the Spanish Civil War and the failure of her current relationship (20), Rukeyser battles loneliness, fear, and occasional disgust (76-77). She recognizes the insight behind the Killorglin locals’ accusations that Americans cannot understand Puck Fair: the festival represents “sex and money and death,” three things Americans are not supposed to discuss (88-9). The Irish know that the muck of Puck Fair and its characterization as “a firkin and a fuck”(75) are repellant to Americans, who use synonyms when referring to the toilet (24). Rukeyser attempts overcome this reputation by emulating the villagers. She chooses to walk through the manure of the cattle fair in her regular open-toed shoes, rather than purchasing the Wellingtons offered to visitors. Slipping and falling into the filth, Rukeyser begins to embrace Puck’s atmosphere. She recognizes that the orgy provokes a symbolic rejuvenation and rebirth for participants because the festival refuses to avoid the wet and dirty aspects of life. By comparing Puck to the Day of the Dead in Mexico, ceremonies found among the natives of Vancouver Island (86), and the placement of the festival of Mardi Gras before Lent in the Christian tradition,12 Rukeyser recognizes Puck’s value is found “in love, in touching, in violation, in sorting out, in arrival” (124).
At the end of Puck Fair, Rukeyser resists the idea that the Travellers or the villagers should be captured as the subjects of a film documentary. She states, “I would not go to Dublin, and find writers, and try to promote a movie. I did not care – I would rather a film crew never came to this town (160). Following villager and inn owner Katy Sullivan’s plea to “go easy on Puck” (151), Rukeyser celebrates the fair by providing a responsive account of her experiences in Killorglin. The Orgy tabulates moments of resistance and ignorance alongside flashes of personal transcendence in order to illustrate how “the single creature held in a square” provides “a diagram of the world (159).”
1New York: Coward-McCann, 1965; Worchester and London: Trinity Press, 1965; Ashfield,Mass.: Paris Press, 1997. For this essay, I used the New York: Pocket Books, 1966 edition.
2Originally published in 1933, Margaret Alice Murray’s The God of the Witches can be found in recent editions by NuVision Publications, 2009 and CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012. For John Millington Synge’s “In West Kerry,” see his Complete Works (New York: Random House, 1936). Synge included John Purcell’s “A New Song on the Great Puck Fair” in his In Wicklow, West Kerry and Connemara (Maunsel, 1911), which later became In Wicklow, West Kerry, The Congested Districts, Under Ether (J. W. Luce, 1912).
3 Patricia Damery. “The Horned God: A Personal Discovery of Cultural Myth.” The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal 23.3 (August 2004): 17-18.
4 “The History and Culture of Irish Travellers.” The Irish Traveller Movement in Britain. http://irishtraveller.org.uk/find-out-about-irish-travellers/history-and-culture/. Web. 9 Feb. 2013.
5 The Orgy (New York: Pocket Books, 1966), n.pag.
6 Franz Boas pioneered the concept of the participant observer, according to which the researcher becomes closely involved with a studied group by spending an extended amount of time interacting with them in their home environment. Tasks involve establishing a rapport; going into the field; recording qualitative and quantitative data; and analyzing results. In The Orgy Rukeyser demonstrates what is considered a moderate degree of participation, as she is included into festivities but remains detached. Rukeyser briefly mentions Boas in Chapter 9, page 27.
7 Rukeyser’s perspective acknowledges the influence of Erving Goffman’s work on front and back regions within performance space in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1961).
8 Mary Louise Pratt. “Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation.” Travel Writing and the Empire. Ed. Sachidananda Mohanty. NewDelhi: Katha, 2003. xiii.
9 Rukeyser’s error is replicated in the title of the recent popular television show, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, which follows the weddings of Irish Traveller women.
10 The Geraldine Rebellion took place between 1565-1583. Fought between two English Earls, the Earl of Desmond, who had converted to the Catholic faith and led the Geraldines, and the Earl of Ormond, who remained Protestant and headed the Butlers, the Geraldine Rebellion centered on control over land in Waterford and Cork, which, alongside Kerry, formed part of the province of Munster. The Earl of Ormond’s triumph lead to an expansion of English power in Ireland as well as widespread famine and the near depopulation of the Munster region. Edmund Spenser captured the devastation of the Geraldine wars in A View of the Present State of Ireland (1596). Most likely, however, the Travellers split from the settled Irish population in the medieval era, many centuries prior to these events.
11 Artelia Court’s Puck of the Droms (1985), George Gmech’s The Irish Tinkers (1985), Jim MacLaughlin’s Travellers and Ireland (1995), and Mathias Oppersdorff’s People of the Road (1997) mention Puck, but each of these works only notes the festival as a point on Traveller’s migrational patterns through County Kerry or as a location of a photograph rather than discussing the Travellers’ historical presence at the festival.
12 Puck Fair’s veneration of a goat replicates the Christian religious association of sheep with purity and goats with evil. Orgy, 72 and 100.