A nostalgic piece by Patrick O’Sullivan
One of the pieces we read in school was the story by Padraig O Conaire in which he recalled the purchase of a donkey from a travelling man, the latter heaping all sorts of praise on the animal in question.
Just a little bit of oats once a month and there wasn’t a racehorse in the country that could keep up with it. The travelling man’s wife went one better. She told of how the self-same donkey swam into the river and saved little Micilin from drowning. Was it any wonder that her husband had refused an offer of five pounds for the animal?
Padraig offered a pound, an offer which the travelling man finally accepted when Padraig agreed to give sixpence to each of his children. Before the day was out, it seemed that Padraig had given sixpence to every child in the fair, a sea of tousled heads and outstretched hands around him.
Later, Padraig discovered that the donkey moved more briskly when the wind made a rustling noise in the trees, so that he made a collar of leaves and hung it about the donkey’s neck.
One of the things I remember most vividly about the story was Padraig’s affection for the donkey. He wrote that they became the best of friends and learned to love one another as they travelled the little roads of Connaght together.
The writing made the little black donkey seem warm, agreeable, companionable: proud, so proud as he was of his little green cart.
I think it struck a chord because we had a donkey of our own, a little brown donkey, the colour of dark chocolate. He was the one who drew the fish from the riverbank at Coolinch to the fishery office in Killorglin in summer.
Then the rushy fields were resplendent with yellow flags, the vivid green of the sword-shaped leaves, the perfect foil for the splendour of the flowers.
He, too, took life at his own pace, the grey ribbon road of Collinch winding before him, the promise of oats in the evening when we came home at last. He drew the turf from the bog to the roadside, the smell of the heather wild and summery and sweet, the stonechat’s jangled tune heard among the yellows of the gorse. Apart from that, his time was his own, many of his days spent in one of the avenue fields on the nearby country estate.
Another favourite haunt of his was the windmill field, a sloping field with a windmill once used to pump water to the grand old country house. Our little brown and white sheepdog, Rover, liked nothing better than to spend time with him in the Windmill field, so that it was a familiar thing to come upon the little dog, head at rest on outstretched paws, his placid companion grazing away beside him.
It was one of the most iconic images of my childhood, the dog and the donkey together, the bond between them palpable at every turn, the sails of the windmill etched against the skyline.
Mrs Ruth, who owned the big house, was proud of her black Kerry cows, her sense of delight unmistakable when one of their number gave birth and a new little calf was added to the herd.
Then there was the ritual, the time honoured ritual, of giving the new arrival a name, then entering the name in the herd book.
The cows, sleek, diminutive, graceful, were part of the magic of the place, the loveliest thing in the world to see them grazing in the rain.
Our old neighbour, Jack, meanwhile, was a lover of horses so that his talk would be of nothing but the mare and the cob and the sound of their trotting: their soft ‘clippety- clop’ like music to his ears again.
Whenever he spoke of them, there was a warmth in his voice that told of affinity, affection, understanding too. It was as if he understood something of their nature and could not be happy unless they were equally so.
So much has changed of late, we may be inclined to think that young people have lost their feeling for animals. Their interest in technology seems almost addictive at times and yet so many of them still have the same love of animals as their forbears.
I remember a country fair, a man in his thirties selling a horse, his son, a lad of fourteen beside him. ‘Don’t sell her, Dad. Don’t sell her for that,’ the boy pleaded. He tried to make out it was the money that was wrong but it was his feeling, his fondness for the animal, that made him so anxious then.
When the deal was finally done and the horse was sold at last, the boy sat in the car, head in hands. There were those who tried to console him, telling him there would be other horses in the time to come. The more I think of it, the more I think that someone like Jack would have said it was a very good sign of him. Feeling for animals was always a thing to admire.