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Cormac MacConnell - The West's Awake
It’s a Donkey’s Life
September 25, 2008
The West's Awake by Cormac MacConnell
YOU don’t see many donkeys nowadays. If you do see one you can bet that the price tag on the sturdy little back is close to $3,000, especially for a mare.
Donkeys, once the power sources for poor men, have now become almost exclusively the living toys of the powerful and wealthy. And they are living the life of Reilly with no heavy work to do, the best of grazing and food, warm sheds to sleep through the winter in, animal welfare officials ensuring their petite little hooves are regularly cut and shod.
Good times have come for the last asses of Ireland!
I was talking to a farmer’s son this morning about yesterday’s asses (which is what we always called them) and the tough lives they led.
In my childhood they were quite literally worked to the point of death. They lived lives of hardship from foalhood to grayears.
They pulled loads that would test a horse, they lived outdoors in the harshest of weathers, and often enough they went unshod for so long that their hooves grew to be a foot long, curling upwards like the slippers of a mandarin and making it impossible for them to walk properly.
I suppose the rural lives of many of those who owned them were not all that much better in terms of creature comforts but, in fairness, nothing in the world looks so forlorn or pathetic as a neglected ass.
In Connemara 20 years ago there were many of them wandering in the boglands along the tourist roads. Already most of them had been replaced by tractors and jeeps and were of no use to their owners.
A high percentage of those along the roads had probably gone near-feral at this stage. You could buy two or three of them for a fiver back in those days; that is, if you could catch them afterwards to bring home!
With their long ears and soft eyes they became experts at stealing the hearts (and the bread) of the tourists that queued up to photograph them. One year, it seemed, they were there in huge numbers just about everywhere.
I saw herds of them being driven into trucks at the Ballinasloe horse fairs of that era. It was said they were on their way to pet food factories. Most people neither asked nor cared.
You have not really lived if you have never ridden an ass as a child. There was a great sense of security up on their bare backs. You were not too far off the ground if things went wrong.
There was a certain strong aroma from their coats and you viewed the world through their long furred ears. In the late fifties and for years afterwards there was a national fad for Donkey derbies, with considerable cash prizes and trophies, and I remember at that time the king ass of Ireland was a black male called Roslea Hero who dwelt in Tipperary, ran like a stag, and won the All-Ireland Derby for years.
Back then donkeys were still working hard, especially in the bogs where their nimble feet and small carts were vital for getting the fuel out to the main roads. And you met many of them on their way to the creameries, the farmer sitting with his legs dangling over the front of the cart, his one or two milk churns glinting behind his capped heads.
In the high summer the asses that went to the creamery were often brought to the beaches afterwards as their canny owners sold sixpenny rides along the strand for the city children.
My friend this morning was claiming it was wrong for people to ever say that asses were stupid. He had many stories to prove his point.
The best of them was about a pair of “tourist donkeys” posted for many years at the Stone Age crannog (fort) erected at Craggaunowen near Quin in Clare. It has become a major tourist attraction down the years, and the donkeys were a popular feature. He worked there for some years as a boy and knew them well.
There was a tubular-steel cattle grid at the gateway to the estate to prevent the donkeys straying on to the main road. However, they began to escape regularly and there was no other route available to them but over the grid.
They were observed closely one day, and dammit if it was not discovered that they would walk to the grid. And then they would lie down and roll over it! That was real brainpower.
The same donkeys one morning discovered two large plastic drums beside a wall. These had been placed there by two young bloods who were countering the rising price of beer by endeavoring to brew their own. The drums contained about twenty gallons of fermenting beer.
Not for long once the asses discovered them! My friend recalled seeing one bleary-eyed ass staggering down the center of the path and blundering into the paths of amazed tourists.
Meanwhile, his companion was in even worse straits. Her head was jammed inside one of the plastic drums, now well emptied, and her legs were splayed wide as she attempted to maintain her balance. The asses had clearly enjoyed a mighty party.
Fools, they also had their hour! One farflung hour when fishes walked!
As the poet said . . .
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