The early years of the State were times of economic hardship and crippling unemployment. Competition for jobs, however menial, was razor keen, and nowhere more so than with those seeking appointment as a Warble Fly Inspector.
This particular occupation was much coveted in the rural community, and because the job was allocated by vote at public meetings of Mayo County Council, the procedure was avidly followed by the public.
The job had its origin in the prevalence of the warble fly, a parasite that inflicted severe damage on cattle. The warble had a detrimental effect both on milk yield and meat quality, but also damaged the animal skin to the extent that the hide was worthless on the market.
The government was forced to introduce regulations requiring every farmer to ‘dress’ his cattle in spring – that is, to apply a type of disinfectant that would ward off the warble fly, under threat of prosecution. It was widely believed that the measure was forced on the authorities by the British government, which warned that the import of diseased Irish cattle would be closed down completely.
To ensure compliance, county councils were directed to appoint Warble Fly Inspectors, men with a knowledge of farming practice, whose duty it was to visit every farm in his area and see that the ‘dressing’ regulations had been complied with.
In the spring of 1936, Mayo County Council advertised for the appointment of 14 inspectors under the Warble Fly Order – two to be appointed to each of the county’s seven electoral areas. The posts were temporary, from March until July; the wages were two pounds and ten shillings a week; they were open to farmers and farmers’ sons. In addition, each applicant had to provide proof that he had use of ‘a means of locomotion to assist him in carrying out his duties, such means of locomotion to be acceptable to the County Secretary’.
By the closing date, the Council had received 403 applications for the 14 posts. There then followed a test and interview of all 403, carried out by the Council’s veterinary officers, after which all were placed in an order of merit, depending on the marks awarded, and divided into their respective electoral areas.
It was then that the fireworks started. A special meeting of the Council was called to formally agree the appointments, the candidates’ scores having been furnished to the council members. The first warning of dissension came when it was mooted that the posts be only given to ex-IRA men. The order of merit was then questioned, with several councillors arguing that the markings were merely subjective, and that the difference between a man on 50 and a man on 49 was so minimal as to be meaningless.
The key question, as everyone knew, was where did the political clout lie, and it so happened that the Fianna Fáil party enjoyed a majority. All could see where the process was leading. Every position was voted on and, inevitably, in every case, the Fianna Fáil leaning candidate was successful, regardless of where his position was on the order of merit. Gamely, the opposition forced a vote on every appointment, but it was a meaningless gesture.
The Fine Gael councillors cried foul. The whole exercise was nothing but shameful and a farce, they said, deploring as a sham the calling in to Castlebar of hundreds of men when the results were already decided by caucus. But they had to endure ‘the same cynical exercise’ for several subsequent years until, eventually, the Warble Fly Scheme was phased out when veterinary science finally found the way to eradicate the destructive pest.