"But how do they keep the flaming turf on the pitchfork?" my Dad asked, a year ago, as we prepared to witness the village New Year's celebration for the first time. I had no idea. I had just moved there. I wasn't even sure it would be happening, as my source kept noting the whole thing was "unofficial," a status my father, retired insurance executive, could certainly appreciate. But at midnight I walked down to the village main street with my visiting parents and waited, uncertain, for bagpipes and flaming turf.
A year later, it's all perfectly clear. At midnight, ten bagpipers from New Jersey will follow the flag corps in a procession from The South Pole Inn to the building formerly known as The Randy Leprechaun, and back again, skirting off to the Tom Crean park to acknowledge the 100th anniversary of Scott's (ultimately failed) Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole. Behind the bagpipers will be the flaming turf carriers. And behind them will be the village.
At about 11:30 I head down to the South Pole Inn with my neighbors, Ann and Pat. The sky is clear and the moon is full. The snow-covered mountains rising up behind the village are glowing in the moonlight. We are in our second week of cold, clear weather, unusual for a peninsula generally buried in clouds.
The South Pole Inn is packed. We squeeze in the left door just as the bagpipers are getting ready for a warm up tune. The men from New Jersey are wearing kilts, short-sleeved t-shirts and baseball hats (the one woman among them is in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt). Their tunes are greeted with roars of approval from the feeling-no-pain local crowd, turning to near delirium when the pipers launch a set of West Kerry tunes. It is nearly midnight. Time to head outside.
A crowd is gathering by the bridge, families bundled up in the below freezing weather, and a slightly jollier group hoisting champagne glasses by the stone wall. We hear the countdown to midnight emanate from the pub, and pause for muffled winter hugs and awkward kisses. Tension mounts. Suddenly, the New Jerseyites appear from around the corner of the pub, bagpipes and drum in playing position. They muster briskly on the bridge to cheers.
Now there is murmuring in the crowd. Who will the turf bearers be? This is not a job for the light of grip or the inebriated. A story circulates about Mickey Joe, who dropped his flaming turf under a car some years back. In the first version of the story, I hear the car ignited and burned to ashes. In the second version, men had to pick up and move the car to prevent it from igniting and burning to ashes. The third time I hear the story it's morphed into a few panicky moments trying to retrieve the flaming bundle. All versions share one detail: Mickey Joe was forever banned from New Year's turf-carrying.
And here they come! The crowd cheers again as this year's elected elite appear from around the other corner of the pub, holding their pitchforks high; impaled, petrol-soaked turf flaming brightly in the clear night. A man with a bucket of water circles the group, occasionally herding. They, too, muster on the bridge.
We continue to wait. The parade is not complete. Then here they are, the final component, the flag bearers! A group of children are hurried from behind the pub by their adult chaperon, and directly swiftly to the front of the parade. They are carrying two large flags and one smaller flag. I decide they're the flags of the South Pole Inn, Anascaul and the EU.
Suddenly the bagpipers sound a herald, the crowd yells once again, and the march begins: flag bearers, bagpipers, flaming turf bearers, man with bucket of water, and us. Ahead on the road people spill out of the village's other pubs, pints in hand, waiting to join the march.
About thirty feet from the South Pole Inn, it happens. A hefty chunk of flaming turf cascades from a pitchfork. Before anyone can react, the remaining turf bearers form a circle, lower their implements, and gracefully restore the fiery bit to its pitchfork. This maneuver brings a huge cheer from the crowd. It happens at least 10 more times during the march, and each time elicits the same crowd reaction. These guys have practiced. No more Mickey Joe incidents.
And so we go, up the Main street, civic minded citizens taking time to stamp out residual embers, mobile phone cameras flashing, additional marchers falling in as we pass. I lose my original friends and run into others, from back west, sick of the big city celebrations in Dingle, out here in Anascaul for the first time. I meet Binky from Alabama, of whom I've heard much but have never previously met. I lose these friends as well and find my original crowd again as we head into the Tom Crean park.
There, the bagpipers form a semi-circle around the Tom Crean statue while the flaming turf bearers complete the circle from below. Uncertainty ensues. Is someone going to make a speech? The New Jersey contingent decides "no" and blasts a few more tunes. Suddenly everyone is walking away, turf bearers now in the lead, scattering happily alarmed villagers ("jesus, get out of the way, they're going to kill us!).
We cross the road, back to the South Pole Inn, where the bagpipers get inside as quickly as they can and the turf bearers slope down to the bank of the Anascaul river, ceremonially lowering their pitchforks to douse the flames (more cheers).
It's over. Another New Year's parade in Anascaul. I imagine it will go kind of the same way next year.