Wednesday 28 September 2016

Ireland's first female vet faced obstacles every step of the way

Ann Fitzgerald

Published 06/07/2016 | 02:30

Seabass and Katie Walsh clear the last in the Grand National
Seabass and Katie Walsh clear the last in the Grand National

I recently presented an open goal to my husband Robin and he duly booted the ball into the back of the net.

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I don't know what precipitated my disclosure. Maybe it was the occasion of our wedding anniversary (14th) that foolishly led me to believe I was on safe territory.

Anyway, what I said was, as a romantic child, I dreamed of becoming the first woman to ride the winner of the Aintree Grand National… and just after passing the line my stirrup leather would break and I could have been badly hurt except for the magical appearance of a knight in shining armour who would sweep to my rescue.

Even as the words tumbled from my lips, I could see a smirk spread across his gob.

What's so funny? I asked. I know the end of the story is corny but, surely, I said, the first part is perfectly aspirational. Yes, I wanted the soppy ending, but only after doing my bit to drive on female equality.

It turns out an entirely different image had popped into his mind; of me falling at the first fence and, instead of a shining knight, waking up a tubby member of the ambulance service.

Talk about shattering my dream.

As a teenager, I had a different dream, of becoming a vet. Which didn't happen either. Because I didn't get enough points in my Leaving Cert. What I didn't have to face was a societal barrier. That particular obstacle was shattered by Aleen Cust, the first woman vet in Ireland and Britain.

Born in Tipperary in 1868 into a distinguished family, when asked about her future, "a vet was my reply ever and always". Her father died when she was 10 and her mother moved them back to England.

Becoming a vet was considered unsuitable behaviour for a young woman of her position and Aleen became estranged from her family.

With the help of the enchantingly named Major Shallcross Fitzherbert Widdington, her guardian, she began studying in Edinburgh veterinary college.

Aleen completed her studies in 1897 but was refused permission to sit her final exams. Nonetheless, with a personal recommendation from the college head William Williams, she was offered a job in Roscommon by William Augustine Byrne.

She faced obstacles every step of the way; one reaction to her appointment as veterinary inspector in Galway read, "the County Council has made an appointment in the horse and brute kingdom which appears, to us at least, disgusting if not absolutely indecent."

It appears that Cust and Byrne lived as a couple and had two adopted daughters. On Byrne's death in 1910, Aleen took over the practice and, after the outbreak of WWI, she left Ireland to volunteer at the war front.

Finally, in 1922, following a change in the law - a quarter of a century after she had graduated - Aleen Cust was awarded her MRCVS, the first woman to be so accredited in these islands.

She retired in 1924 due to ill health and once said: "I have had the inestimable privilege of attaining my life's ambition." She died in 1937 while visiting friends in Jamaica.

For all Robin's slagging, he has always treated me as an equal. An aunt of mine, on first meeting Robin, said: "Hang on to him, he's a good one." She was right.

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