'Popes come and go, but the donkey is here to stay'
Johnny Gallagher shakes up the straw and fills the water troughs before gently leading a donkey, a foal, sheep and goats into the makeshift city-centre stable.
In the weeks before Christmas every day before dawn, the 73-year-old has been braving the winter chill to ferry the animals from his land in Enniskerry to Dawson Street, where they are the star attractions in Dublin's longest running live crib.
Johnny picked up the reins six years ago following the death of his brother, Joseph, who had provided animals for the IFA-managed crib at the Mansion House for 25 years.
"I used to go in with my brother when he did it and I look forward to it every year.
"It's lovely to see the people enjoying it. You get kids that probably wouldn't have been seeing animals before, and they get to see them up close," he said.
From 11am until 7pm daily until Christmas Eve, thousands of visitors flock to see the nativity scene and make donations to charities selected by the Lord Mayor.
The authenticity of a nativity scene with animals was called into question last month in the latest book on the life of Christ by Pope Benedict.
While conceding that no nativity scene would give up its ox and donkey, the Pope pointed out that they were latter-day inventions nowhere to be seen in the gospels.
Johnny Gallagher chuckles at the very thought of it.
"Since I was a child everyone said there were animals in the crib. It's in the Bible.
"It's like everything, popes come and popes go, but the animals are here to stay. I hope so anyway," he said.
At another popular live crib outside St Michael's Church in Dun Laoghaire, parish priest, Monsignor Dan O'Connor points out that the animals were not essential to the central Christmas message, but had been introduced by St Francis of Assisi to explain the story of Jesus.
"What St Francis wanted to bring out was how Christ was born into poverty," he said.
Cork-based Franciscan priest, Father Iain Duggan (77) is proud of the association between the founder of his order, St Francis, and the first Christmas story.
"The crib is a tradition that was established by Saint Francis in 1223. He commandeered a local landowner to supply a donkey and a cow and he created a rough carving of a baby and put them in a cave so he could tell the story of how Christ became human.
"Legend has it that the carved infant came alive in his hands when he began to preach," he said.
Teresa Toner, who runs the Glenroe Open Farm in Kilcoole, Co Wicklow with her husband John, is convinced that the farm animals enhance the wonder that children experience when they visit the nativity scene in a converted stable in the farmyard.
Leah, a jersey cow, a donkey called Saoirse, and a sheep occupy pride of place behind statues of Mary, Joseph and an infant Jesus. Behind them a star lights up the dimly lit shelter.
"The children love it. Because it's an open farm, the animals are used to people and are very friendly. It is a very magical experience," she said.
Visitors to the farm at Christmas can also drop in on Santa, but Teresa believes the live crib gives children a sense of the true meaning of the festive season.
"Not having the animals would take from it. It is what Christmas is all about. It helps children realise that Christmas is a celebration of the nativity, and not just about presents," she said.