Farm Ireland

Saturday 17 March 2018

Larger-than-life Johnny was a pioneer for change -- we will all truly miss him

John Shirley

Now and again in the agri-sector you find a person who is delightfully different and who makes a difference. Johnny Vaughan, a Gorey-based vet, who died earlier this year, was such a person.

Large in stature and intellect, Johnny was equally capable of tongue lashing the powerful and uplifting the underdog. His career brought him to the top in Irish veterinary bodies and livestock breeding. He could quote Shakespeare, history or philosophy as easily as talk on breeding or animal health.

Born in Dublin in 1937, Johnny moved to Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, when his father, Martin, became manager at St Senan's Hospital farm.

His first agribusiness venture was in the 1950s when he and his father established a cattle market in Enniscorthy. This was the forerunner to the large mart which is now operated by the Wexford Farmers' Co-op group. Johnny was the mart auctioneer, a post he retained during his veterinary studies in Dublin. Given his sharp wit, and his disdain for messing, I can imagine that his performance from the podium was entertaining.

His fellow students recall Johnny as being in the top two or three in the year. After qualifying as a vet in 1961, he spent a year in UCD's vet faculty surgery section before joining the Larry Kinsella practice in Gorey.

In 1972 Johnny branched out with his own practice. His business flourished on the back of long hours and utter dedication to the calls from his clients. One farmer remarked how Johnny could calve a cow at 3am and then head to the airport for a plane to Brussels. He did not spare himself. During this time he also farmed cattle and sheep in his own right on rented land. His family recall being wakened on summer mornings at 4.30am to move livestock before the tourist traffic hit the roads. He also bred pedigree Herefords.

Johnny's involvement in veterinary politics began in 1970. Vets felt under siege from the Department of Agriculture over TB testing, and the Wexford vet was a prime mover behind the establishment of the Irish Veterinary Union (IVU). The Veterinary Association was seen as too gentlemanly to tackle this challenge so negotiating rights were transferred from the association to the union. Joe Connolly, the first IVU president, got that job "when my close friend Johnny Vaughan ordered me to take the chair at the first meeting".

Attempts by the Department and Farm Minister, Mark Clinton, to bring in lay TB testers later in the 1970s led to further rows between the IVU and the Department, plus a cessation of testing. More recently the IVU and the Veterinary Association amalgamated to become Veterinary Ireland.

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In the late 1970s Johnny became president of the Veterinary Council of Ireland, the statutory body charged with overseeing veterinary practice. (His daughter Lindy is the current veterinary council president).

This post led to huge involvement with the EU Commission. First contact was with the EU veterinary bodies and then on to the European Economic and Social Committee, a post Johnny held until 2006. This high-level committee was hugely demanding.

An already busy man found himself travelling to meetings in Brussels up to 50 times a year, many times more than once a week. nd staying silent at these meetings would not have been in the nature of Johnny.

From his contact with Belgium, Johnny was to become Mr Belgian Blue cattle in Ireland. Along with Michael Woods, in Louth, he imported the first Belgian Blues to Ireland through the Spike Island quarantine station in December 1979. Johnny quickly helped to establish the Irish Belgian Blue Herdbook and acted as breed secretary for 21 years.

His investment in Belgian Blues progressed to a peak of more than 100 breeding females, making his Samarkland herd the country's biggest. And most of this was on rented ground, as he did not buy land in his own right until 1995. Samarkland cattle won many shows and several bulls from this herd entered AI.

I once mentioned to Johnny that I was looking for a bull. He immediately loaned me the use of his prize winner, Fandango. That was typical of his impetuous generosity.

Johnny also liked working with sheep and this led him to being the first to introduce the Beltex breed from Belgium into Ireland. Absolute mayhem from foxes eventually forced him to exit the sheep sector.

Life was not always smooth for the Gorey-based vet and cattle breeder. His hectic lifestyle and dashboard eating probably contributed to his first heart attack and quadruple bypass in his early 50s. Despite this, and other health setbacks, he drove on for another 18 years. His vast intellect never diminished.

Another setback came via the taxman. He assumed he was tax compliant, but the Revenue authorities thought otherwise and demanded a huge sum, which was made up of mostly penalties and interest. Close friends and family believe that the stress of this episode brought on the premature death of Johnny's wife, Mary, from cancer in 2005.

Johnny had met Mary White when she was nursing with his sister in the Mater Hospital. They married in 1963 and had five of a family. Daughter Mary shared the herd and herdbook work with her father and is married to local farmer Donal Tobin.

Lindy is married to Shane McGuckian, a vet and former Offaly hurler now based in the practice in Gorey. Ag Science graduate Susan is a teacher. Medical doctor Shelly is married to Michael D'Arcy TD and son Martin is a Dublin-based dentist.

When Johnny was X-rayed after his first heart attack, the medics marvelled at the size of his heart. Those who knew Johnny could testify to this man's big heart without the need for any X-ray.

Johnny Vaughan, RIP.

Irish Independent