That was the most epic and outrageous weekend so far. I think that I’ve begun a post at least twice now by saying that, but really it was! 6 festivals attended this week, eggs busted on my bulb, pumpkins carved, eaten & viewed, craft beer drank, Penguins playing tunes, a Conker Championship title in the bag and a prize purse i m’poca. How bad!?
The name Viriginia conjures up wonderful images of Cowboys, Indians, Western Deserts and galloping theme tunes in my mind. As I drove into Viriginia in Co. Cavan on Friday evening I wasn’t disappointed; “Welcome to Pumpkintown” the neon sign proclaims in a manner that wouldn’t be out of place in Las Vegas. What’s a pumpkin festival about..? Everything Halloween, but most especially pumpkins. Lots and lots of pumpkins.
Signed up for the haunted walk around Ramor Lake (there are very few things in life finer than hearing the name of this lake in a decent Cavan accent. Love it!) and woods on Friday night. The gist is that you follow a path through the woods and around the lake. Various things go bump, crash and wallop in the night, but if you make it through the woods in one piece, there is a barbecue, bonfire and live music at the end of it. The organisers of the pumpkin festival could have had no idea of how many people were going to turn up for this event. One of the crew I talked to the next morning estimated that there were upwards of 2,000 people there on the night. As a result there was a lot of queueing, but everyone got there in the end. One of my favourite things about the festival, and something not in the programme at all, was the local butchers window on the main street in the town. Somebody put a load of work into it and it looked deadly…. literally! Besides the crazed maniac with the knife, the severed limbs and the various horrible creepy crawly things, there was an intricately carved out pumpkin, that was a cell for a manic manadarin orange. So effective is the shop window, that while waiting in line to go on the walk I heard a kid shakily ask their parent: “Is the butcher going to be in the woods?”. The butcher has become the stuff of legend in Virginia. The effort this Victualler put into getting into the festival spirit is why I’m digging smaller community festivals much more than I thought I would.
Was nearly finished the haunted walk, thinking that it wasn’t really that scary for adults, when a head-a-ball started up a chainsaw and came lepping at us through the trees. Put the heart sideways in me! It wasn’t really a chainsaw, it was leaf blower which was nearly as bad in the dark because when he swung it past you, the wind from it made it a bit too interactive. It was obvious that the festival organisers weren’t ready for the hordes that turned up on the night, but they managed to deal with it and you have to admire them for that. The following day was a bit more sedate in “Pumpkin Wonderland”. Similarly to the haunted walk, this was also a fiver to get into (but no burgers and music) , that was probably a little over the limit for what you could charge for entry into what is essentially a garden centre filled with pumpkins. If you came out of this underwhelmed, I wouldn’t be shocked. Wonderland in so far as it might leave you wondering “Is that it?”. There were some interesting things in there though; our new president Micky D, carved into a pumpkin and giant obese pumpkins that reminded me of those huge people who have to be lifted out of their houses by cranes. In fairness the lady taking the bobs was a bit apologetic and explained that later in the day there would be activities, workshops and entertainment going on and our ticket would entitle us to come back later to learn how to make a motorbike helmet out of a gourd and some polythene.
If you think I’m messing, have a look at the promo-video. Hang on to your hats, it’s Pumpkin Wonderland!
As I drove out of Cavan with Domnic Kirwan warbling away at some Country & Irish tune (‘I love it when my honey plays camogie’ or somethin’ like that) on Shannonside radio, I couldn’t help but reflect that the whole experience had been a little like the Father Ted fun-fair where punters were warned to keep both hands on the rails of the ladder of death. But the kitsch is to be celebrated and it has it’s charm as far as I’m concerned. The market on Saturday morning was really nice. Bought some pumpkin chutney from Therese, who recommends adding volcanic ash to your soil for a ginormous bulbous squash (squahes, squashi?? Get the plural police on the phone, stat!). Got caught for more of that feckin’ mixed olive tapenade. I can’t help meself, I try to fight this middle class taste, but the bastard monkey won’t get off my back; should probably just invest in a crack-pipe and some koka noodles. I think yer man with the olives is following me around! The hot-ticket for the festival seemed to be the fancy dress ball on the Sunday night, which promised to be a scream I couldn’t stay, had to go lob eggs at culchies in Leitrim.
On the way to Leitrim the surreal nature of the weekend was becoming more obvious as I stopped to take pictures of some odd animal sculptures somebody had for sale in their garden. One of the signs simply read: “If you steal anything I’ll break your arms”. This is a community alert area, alert to stay the hell out of this fellas yard! He was charging a euro to go in the gate, I wonder did he have something to do with that Pumpkin Wonderland!?
Touched down in Mohill and you couldn’t get around a corner without the community out on the road shaking a bucket at you for their collection for cancer research, every laneway was manned. The Fire-Brigade lads were out washing cars lending a hand. I stopped at the lights and rolled down the window to get directions and threw a bit of change into the bucket, the auld lad with the bucket winked at me, stuck the flag on my lapel and said “Wear this, it will give you freedom”. WTF!? This was starting to get worrying, it was like being in some border-county version of Alice in Wonderland. Somebody, somewhere was takin’ the piss. They were, and I found the whole lot of them. They were down at the local GAA club throwing eggs at each other.
I’ve been to one or two festivals at this stage, and I can tell you in all honesty that I haven’t laughed as much at any of them (excluding Cats Laughs ) than I have at the Culchie Festival in Mohill, featuring for the first time this year, The Irish Egg Throwing Championships. Mixing together the Culchies and the Egg Throwing produced an omelette of entertainment on a scale that has never been witnessed in any GAA club in any parish or pueblo previously.
When it comes to egg throwing (and I can actually speak with a little bit of authority here, as I actually practiced for this event with Ella in her back yard), it’s not so much the throwing that’s important, it’s the catching of the feckin’ thing that requires the skill. You have to take the momentum out of it or you’ll end up yolked. Competitors came in all ages, shapes, sizes and degrees of culchiness. Fair to say that everyone present enjoyed this immensely and it only cost…. FECK ALL MISSUS to enter. Yep, it was free. Proceeds from the event were going to a charity that trains dogs to become companions for autistic children and you could buy a commemorative mug (and they are decent china mugs) for €3 or 2 for a fiver. Get on to the lads and see if they’ll post you out a pair! http://www.culchiefestival.com/
This years festival also featured the Culchie Cailín competition for the first time,and was all the better for it too if you ask me They may be culchies, but they’re not sexist. Ask any farmers wife: “Who does most of the work?”.
When I was in the field I was chatting to two of the Culchie competitors about how there must be a clatter of pints torn into in the evening. “I’m a pioneer and he doesn’t drink that much” says the lad with bailer twine holding up his pants to me. Here we go, back into Alice mode I thought. “No mushrooms either, only with the fry of a Sunday”. The lads were serious. They do it because they can have such a laugh at it without having to drink. One of them met his now wife at the event 11 years ago and he was her escort at the Macra “Quenn of the Land” competition the next year. Two sound lads, but seriously deranged in the most wonderful way possible. Eoin won the title in 2003.
By far and away my favourite Culchie was Hughie. Hughie wasn’t dressed up or play actin’ or hiding any mixed olive tapenade in his straw bag. Hughie was Hughie. He was pulling on a fag drinking tae out of an old lucozade bottle that he had produced from his pocket when I asked him if I could take his photo. “Fire away lad, so long as I don’t break the camera”. Hughie had earlier eaten six raw eggs… complete with shells! He didn’t win the Culchie Crown title on Sunday, but on Saturday he was certainly my man of the match.
There were competitions for kids, women, mixed pairs and men. All competitions were hilarious with people busting eggs off each other by the new time. There was even an official from the World Egg Throwing Federation present on the day to help officiate and keep things above board, including his hands
‘Twas just as well the English fella was there, because after the main mens event, there was a mixed pair of a lad from Mohill and a Dutch Dude who had flown in especially for the event (the two Dutch champions didn’t even get a look in against the strong local contenders during the main event). The lad from Mohill who was part of the winning mens duo had an arm on’im like a horse’s leg! He’s a Road Bow-ler (not bowler, that’s a hat English fellas wear ;-P) and he used the bowling windmilling arm technique to fire an egg 61 metres across the width of the field, and in fairness the Dutch lad caught it! Between them they set a new World Egg Throwing Record. I felt humbled and privileged to have witnessed… nah, I didn’t, but I fairly enjoyed it. It was fitting for what was a great days sport, in the widest meaning of the word possible.
When the fun in the field was over, that wasn’t the end of the eggcitement (ah come on, I’m allowed one!?). We all adjourned to a hotel down the road for Egg Roulete. It’s like that scene from ‘The Deer Hunter’, but instead of a gun loaded with just one bullet, you have six eggs, five boiled and one raw that you must take turns in breaking against your head. I failed miserably, the first egg I busted of me bulb was far from boilt, twas raw. So with an eggy head and a pain in my face from laughing, it was back on the road. Phil and Eoin were right, you didn’t have to drink in order to have a good time, but balance is good, so it was off to a Gypsy Jazz and Craft Beer festival in North Tipperary. Cloughtoberfest ho!
Craft Beer and Gypsy Jazz is pretty much a match made in heaven for me, so Wanderly Wagon was in overdrive to get to Cloughjordan and settle in for the night. Upon arrival the town was quieter than Kim Kardashian’s 73rd day wedding anniversary bash. Was this the right place a-tall!? Nope, that’s definitely what I wrote down. It was the right place okay, but it was so quiet that I didn’t think there were going to be many bodies at the gig that evening. I was wrong. 35 minutes later the hall was packed. The Lollo Meier Quartet were fantastic, banging out tunes that sounded like they were marinated in stored smoke from a 1930′s Paris jazz club. If if was just the Gypsy Jazz, that would have been good enough, but this was also a Craft Beer festival, so it was off to the pub where all the Gypsy Jazzers who had been playing and attending workshops all day, gathered for a session and a few bottles. The music was great and the brew of the night for me was a lager called “Brew Eyed” imported all the way from County Offaly.
Chatting to Lilly who organised this shindig was another one of those positive stories of people going out of their way to do something in their community to bump up the positivity factor. She is unemployed since last year, and as a result she wanted to find something to do to keep her busy and to promote the area. She didn’t receive any funding this year, so the cost of the event fell on her (an unemployed lone parent), with support from her partner, friends, family and the community. This explained the lack of bunting, posters and hoopla around the village. It’s difficult not to be impressed by some of the people who invest so much of their time, energy and money to promote and organise events, in the hope that something good will come of them. More power to them!
There are some people, god love them, who don’t know what conkers are all about. So here’s Conkers for Dummies: You get the fruit of the horse chesnut tree and take the brown round shiny bit (the nut) out of the outer shell. Put a hole through the nut and thread a string, with a knot in the end of it, through the hole, find another conker fiend and proceed to lamp the bejangles out of each other’s weapons. As they say in Monagahn “Chape clane fun!”. The square in Freshford is an ideal setting for this type of thing and it had a great carnival atmosphere on the day. Brenda Cooper told me that they have been running the Conker Championships there for 12 years now, trying to keep the event as uncommercial as possible. Not a bad aspiration, and they are doing a good job. This is fun, simple as that.
Well, fun to a point! The shinpads were a warning of what was to come. I enquired about what they were for “Ah don’t be worrying about them, they’re only for wusses” says the fella from the county where they feed babies hurleys instead of Farley’s Rusks. I wasn’t sure what he meant until I got into the practice ring for a few swings. Ow! Elbow, arm, knee and gongle-pouch are all areas prone to receiving the brunt of a misfired swing. I don’t remember conkers from childhood as being an extreme sport!? The fun gets toned down a notch when you enter the competition ring, this is a championship and these Kilkenny fellas take the Championship seriously (if it was a league we might have some hope ). You’re not allowed bring your own conker to the event, incase they’ve been knocking around with Michelle O’Sullivan or Cian O’Connor (could I get in trouble for that?). All competitors choose their weapons blind from a cloth bag and each match is assigned a referee. Three strokes each at a time, after a limit of 5 minutes if there hasn’t been a bust-up, whoever makes the most strikes out of the following 9 strokes is the winner or if it’s still a draw, sudden death until someone misses and the other person doesn’t. Are you still with me? See I told you, it starts to get serious!
Over the course of the day, I developed a technique of swinging in hard from the side, rather than straight down, seemed to work for me. Part of the trick of the thing is not to go full tilt at it or you run the risk of breaking your own conker (are you writing this down John ). After about 5 rounds, I was still surprised I was involved, but it seems that there’s a lot of luck involved in this caper. In the heel of the hunt, I got into the final and was psyched up, ready to go the distance with John from Dublin. Introductions were made and the scene was set. I won the toss and let john strike first. Bang! He busted his nut off mine first swing. That was it. Crown, trophy, and €500 all taken back across the bridge to the Deise. Bring on the World Championships in Honolulu in 2025! Meself and John are going to meet up next year to have another go at it. I’d love to tell you that I developed a knack and that I’m shit-hot at conkers, but…. well hang on…. actually…. I’m the All Ireland Conker Champion, bate that Tommy Walsh!!!
It was just like Las Vegas on Big Fight Night. There were lots of celebs there like Jarlath Regan and…. Jarlath Regan was there. He’s traveling around Ireland performing stand-up in unusual places, imagine that, traveling around the country going to odd festivals!? Weirdo! http://www.jigser.com/index.html
Before the Kilkenny lads figured out that a Blaa was after taking the swag from under their noses, I was in the van and passing Piltown on the way down the road to catch The Penguin Cafe Orchestra in Waterford at the Imagine arts festival. I was looking forward to this gig ‘cos some of my drums were performing at it, well when I say performing… It was a bit weird, like nursing a hatchling and eventually reluctantly releasing it into the wild and finally appreciating what it was created for; “Ah, that’s what they’re meant to sound like!”. Pimping out my gear did mean that I got tickets for a gig that I had planed to go anyway, so it seems fate has been smiling my way a bit recently; hope I can keep her attention without weirding her out, which is what usually happens when someone smiles my way.
The gig was top drawer and had an almost meditative quality to it in places. Found sounds and odd objects adding to a rich sonic tapestry that shimmered on occasion during the performance. The festival line-up this year was really strong and I feel bad for not getting to more of it, seeing as it was on my doorstep. There are some exhibitions running into this week, so I’m determined to get to those.
Bank holiday weekends are tough going and since becoming King Conkerer, I’ve done 4 radio interviews, been mentione in The Independent and brought my blog pimping to a level Snoop would be down with. It really was a wonderful weekend and it brought a bit more clarity to a notion that has been tossed around in my head as Wanderly Wagon bounced along by-roads and high-ways of this island of ours. We keep being told that we lost the run of ourselves and that’s why we find ourselves facing all manner of real and imagined economic horrors. Everywhere I seem to end up, I’m meeting people who didn’t lose the run of themselves at all, in fact some are quite the opposite, they are people who strive to make the places where they live better places to be. So what festivals are all the people who lost the run of themselves going to!? Are they in a different place all together or do they even exist? More questions that I’m probably not going to find the answers to at a Match Making festival in Ardara in Donegal next weekend, but sure that’s not the kind of thing to be looking for at a festival like that anyway I’m armed with a crown made from chestnuts, a sticker that will bring me freedom, an altruistic mug and a jar of mixed olive tapenade; best just to go conker!