Short and Sweet Like a Donkey’s Trot
by Ian Sherry of Rostrevor, N. Ireland
Ours was a valley of working horses, ponies and donkeys. A steep sided valley of small farms running from Rostrevor village on the shores of Carlingford Lough to the mountains of Gruggandoo.
‘I asked of Eoghan Farnan; where do your lands lie?: And Eoghan he replied to me, with a twinkle in his eye: My lands they do not lie at all; as clearly can be seen: They hang upon a peg for me; above Moygannon stream.’ (Nora Cooper circa 1930)
We bought *six quarters, one each year, *clibs we broke-in and sold on. We often bought from Travellers. That was when Travellers travelled round the country in barrel caravans pulled by horses. Solid cobs they had often crossed with the best blood stock in Ireland. Who knew their ‘secret wiles,’ as they passed the stud farms on The Curragh of Kildare? We broke our horses (if broke is the word) very quietly and over time. The magic of the televisions ‘horse whisperers’ instant results is lost to me. ‘Do nothing sudden and do nothing rash.’ That was our mantra. *The Clib was wintered with the cows. Put in and out each day. By spring when he/she started to be schooled they were so well buffeted by us children to be ready for anything. What boy or indeed girl could resist getting on the young horses back as they drove the three cows and a goat to the pasture up the road – on their way to school. Then bridled and driven on long reins, first with collar and hems, then with additional traces (this for a time) only then the young horse was paired with an older one and put in the plough. This too was gradual, a while in the morning, then a half a day at first. I have the photograph to show I was about twelve when we bought Dolly from the McMahons on the halting site along the Lough. We were well acquainted with them, having for generations bought foals, and tin goods – buckets and cans. It was fine to call the McMahons ‘Tinkers’ then – they worked in tin – it’s NOT ok to say that now. Dolly was from the first; eye catching. ‘Easy on the eye’ as we say. Well made, black grey, with pure white spots dappled on her rump. I led her up the road on a halter of soft red rope. She turned into a 15:2 hands *shilty; I delighted in the circus trick of grabbing her mane, her trotting forward and I being propelled up on her back. But she was tricky. In harness, springing unprovoked over a hedge into the next field; the plough and my uncle Stephen attached. She was on the mountain behind the house when McGaffen arrived. He bought horses for the ‘Fox Hunting Set.’ We watched her sporting with a herd of ten or twelve others. Rearing and plunging, springing over clumps of whin and boulders of cropping rock. The others an assortment of good farm stock; merely a foil. Renamed ‘Drumreagh’ she went on to be one of Irelands premier show jumping mares – and I’d had her for a year. We didn’t cut turf on the mountain but McGoverns did. They had creels on their donkey, wicker work panniers for taking it home and Morgans had two donkeys and a small horse plough for putting in potatoes and corn. But for my money the most noteworthy outfit in the valley was Sprickeldys donkey and cart. Sprickeldy was a musician, he played fiddle and accordion at wakes, weddings, parties and fairs. He was a tall light man who needed two crutches because he had no power in his legs from the knees down. His means of transport was his donkey and flat cart. He sat on a cushioned side of it, his legs dangling down. I marvelled at his ingenuity, one crutch and supported by the donkey he could put on the harness and hitch the donkey to the cart. Often in his stone flagged kitchen I’d sit with him. The open fire, the fan bellows, the door to the other room, and he’d play for me. Sometimes the fiddle, others the accordion, and he’d sing of the river at the bottom of the fields. I started with the first verse; here’s another:
‘I remember my young days for younger they’ve been: I remember my young days by the Moygannon Stream: Its not marked on the world map, no place to be seen: A wee river in Ireland, called The Moygannon Stream.’
- Six quarters – Young horses under two years old.
- Clib – Young horse starting to work.
- Shilty – A horse pleasing to the eye.
All three were affectionate terms.