Saturday 24 September 2016

Sheep and lambs, tears and some smiles

Joe Kennedy

Published 28/02/2016 | 02:30

Happier times: a sheep with two new-born lambs at Castletown Cooley. Picture: Jim O’Kelly
Happier times: a sheep with two new-born lambs at Castletown Cooley. Picture: Jim O’Kelly

It was a breech birth with triplet lambs for the ewe. And she had no milk for them. Life for sheep farmers can be full of unpleasant surprises.

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Bottle-feeding every four hours became vital and an extra family member rowed in to help in the emergency. Sheep folk have many such tales, and worse (two 'back-door' lambs worried to death by a locally known dog; completely unexpected).

I remember my own times in a small way with bottles, straw bales, hay beds and, then, broken-hearted children - and their mother - when things went awry: The red stain on the grass where there was nothing left after a dog or fox; deaths in a shed when the bottles weren't enough; the little graves at the end of a paddock where the children placed crosses they had made with twigs.

And then, much earlier, there were happier times with a jaunty self, to whom sheep were a novelty, walking a flock down a road with an old retainer who gave quizzical side-glances as his dog guided the charges into my father-in-law's yard.

Later, musical memories, too, of now departed friends, Archie Fisher of Edinburgh and Liam Clancy, singing "O the broom, the bonny, bonny broom/The broom of the Cowdenknowes/ Fain would I be in the north counterie/ A -herding her father's ewes…." Ghosts linger now at gates and bridge crossings.

And there's a ribald and folklorish side from a pub, where drovers gathered after a livestock mart to regale customers with a long rigmarole about a ram that was the biggest in the county - Cavan, I imagine, as it was the Ram of Arva.

The drovers, a manure-spattered, rumbustious crew, (I'm going back 60 years), were declaiming a ballad which had developed many hues since James Francis Child collected it in Northumbria, or wherever, 200 years before.

The storyline was of the great meals made from the choice cuts from this, the "biggest ram, sure, that was ever fed upon hay".

There was a great cheer when one particular verse arrived - probably at the end - which related how it took "all the people of (named place) to roll away its (testicles) etc etc".

The drovers and bullock-men usually got presents from their day-employers (butchers mostly) of large brown paper parcels of meat and bones which went, usually, towards topping-up a large cauldron of perpetual stew which simmered 24 hours a day on a range in a house where the bachelors of the crew took their rest.

This pot was a legend in its longevity and was never known to be empty. Folk songs about animals, birds and fish - long in the telling but all the more interesting for that - are, I am sure, still to be heard.

I particularly remember one from the bottomless repertoire of the late Seamus Ennis about a giant fish washed up at Kinsale and the beneficial uses its various parts were applied - fins, eyes, tail etc. But the clincher was in a last verse with "the grandest auld cure for alcoholics, abair o-bheal, abair o-linn." The audience (I heard it in Mooney's famous pub in Ring) being expected to make it known what that was!

The sad news is that the triplet lambs could not be saved. It was not the feeding; the mother may have rolled on them causing internal damage.

Last word from poet Katherine Tynan: "I saw the sheep with their lambs and thought of the Lamb of God...Rest for their little bodies and for their little feet."

Sunday Independent

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