Farewell to Wicklow legend - 90-year-old Peter McGrath

Retired society secretary Peter McGrath, at the 71st annual Wicklow Mountain Sheep Breeders Society Show and Sale at JP&M Doyle Mart, Blessington. Photo: Adrian Melia.
Retired society secretary Peter McGrath, at the 71st annual Wicklow Mountain Sheep Breeders Society Show and Sale at JP&M Doyle Mart, Blessington. Photo: Adrian Melia.

Patrick O'Toole

The recent death of Peter McGrath in his 90th year brought to an end the life of a man who made an extraordinary contribution to the sheep farmers of Wicklow.

Peter was born across the Wicklow border in Killerig in Co Carlow and graduated from UCD in 1955 with a degree in agricultural science.

His first appointment by the then County Committee of Agriculture was as an adviser in Tinahely. It was during these early years in Tinahely area that he first acquired a real interest in the Wicklow Cheviot through his very good friend and mentor, the late James 'Nap' Kavanagh from Ballinamanogue.

'Nap' was the local Department of Agriculture inspector, a great judge of stock and for many years Peter would drive him to various shows all over the country.

These outings would be very much social occasions and in a short space of time, Peter not only became a great judge of sheep himself, but also became known to everyone in sheep circles as the 'sheep adviser'.

Peter also immersed himself in community activities including helping to organise a commemorative ceremony to honour the Lacy brothers, two local 1798 patriots.

This commemorative ceremony in 1960 was one of the biggest days ever held in South Wicklow with the then Taoiseach Sean Lemass, Sean McBride, James Dillon were among those who attended. There was much praise for Peter who performed his duties as committee secretary.

In his day job, Peter understood both the need for and benefits which would accrue if the sheep industry in Co Wicklow was better organised. He was instrumental in forming the Wicklow Mountain Sheep Breeders Society in 1964 and was appointed its first secretary - a position which he held unbroken for the next 47 years.

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In 1968, he became secretary of the newly formed Wicklow Cheviot Sheep Owners Association - a position which he held without a break for 44years.

Peter was very conscious of the importance of feeding to any successful sheep enterprise and he immediately organised a group purchasing scheme with the Carlow sugar factory via the Department's Sheep Subsidy Scheme.

Much of the paperwork for this scheme was handled by Peter's wife Breda who brought her superb organisational skills to the task until her untimely death in 1986.

In those days, Peter and his colleagues in the advisory service were general advisers - imparting their knowledge and advice on all aspects of farming.

Peter, however, was spending more and more of his time attending to the needs of the sheep farming community throughout the county - often to the annoyance and disapproval of his superiors.

He fought hard and long to become a 'specialist adviser' for the Wicklow sheep farmers and following many years of petitioning, Peter was officially given the status of 'Specialist Sheep Adviser".

Peter retired in 1988 and devoted the next chapter of his life to rearing his young family, Peter, Brian and Niall, as well as being a very active secretary to both sheep organisations.

Twenty years ago, Peter moved to Ballymore Eustace where he knew he was truly "among his own". While officially in Kildare, he was only a few minutes away from all the West Wicklow sheep farmers he had come to know, respect and have a great affection for.

This affection and respect was very much reciprocated and testimony to this was the massive number of sympathisers who came from the hills and valleys throughout Wicklow and much further afield to pay their last respects to Peter.

Members of the Wicklow Cheviot Sheep Owners Association and the Wicklow Mountain Sheep Breeders Society formed guards of honour at Ballymore Eustace and Rathnew Cemetery.

Peter was of a quiet disposition, was highly intelligent, thoughtful and far seeing.

His enduring legacy to Wicklow sheep farmers will be long remembered.

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