There are goats, as they say, and then there are goats, and some just happen to have more tradition and ancestry to them than others. And a goat breed which can lay claim to a heritage stretching back to the Céide Fields has, by any measure, an acquired superiority.
Here in Mayo we are unique in being home to herds of the Old Irish Goat. But like all creatures of the wild, it is in danger of extinction, its numbers falling and its innate purity at risk from cross breeding with newer, imported breeds.
Enter then the Old Irish Goats Society, a largely voluntary movement formed ten years ago with the objective of preserving from extinction this most Irish of animals. Based mainly in Mulranny, where a couple of hundred feral goats still roam proud and free, the society has done admirable work both in promoting its cause to a wider audience and, more practically, implementing policies to conserve the genetic signature of this unique breed.
Old Irish goats, however, are no doe-eyed Bambis, and Society members are well aware of the nuisance factor when they choose to invade the carefully cultivated gardens of local residents. On the other hand, the Old Irish Goat played an important role in sustaining life in the darkest periods of our history. Often referred to as ‘The Poor Man’s Cow’, the goat provided nutritious milk to the poor and hungry of an impoverished race. It has been said that, in famine times, a community which had access to goats and fish had a much greater chance of survival than did others dependent on the potato alone.
One of the most favourably received programmes of RTÉ’s ‘Countrywide’ last year was that devoted to the Old Irish Goat and the poignant folk tale from Mulrany, ‘A Famine Love Story’, narrated by local playwright Michael J Ginnelly.
The story concerned an incident of the Great Famine. On the little island of Inishuaigne, the islanders would row their dead across to the Mulranny mainland, so that they could be buried in consecrated ground. However, they themselves were often so weak they could only reach the shoreline, where they would leave the dead so that the mainlanders might complete the burials on their behalf.
On one such occasion, it was noticed that among the victims left for burial was a young girl who happened to be still alive. A young man carried her back to the hovel he shared with his mother and there, thanks to the healing properties of the goat’s milk, she was restored to health. In time, the young couple fell in love and, although so traumatised by her experience that she was unable to speak, they married.
In time, the ravages of the famine passed, and slowly life returned to what it had been. The islanders began again to journey to the mainland village to trade and barter, and it was thus that one day one of the islanders encountered the young man, who was wearing an Aran geansaí which his young wife had knitted for him.
“Where did you get the geansaí,” the stranger enquired. “My wife knitted it for me,” came the answer. “And what is her name,” he was asked. “I do not know, she cannot speak,” he replied. “The pattern on your geansaí is my family pattern,” the stranger explained. “Each island family has its own pattern, so that in case of drowning at sea, even after weeks, we are able to tell the identity of the fisherman.”
“This means that your wife must be my daughter, and the little girl we thought had died is alive and well.”