I met a Midwesterner the other day that lives in Perth, Scotland. He met a Scottish girl, fell in love and moved there to be with her (sounds familiar) and he works in the thoroughbred horse business. During our brief conversation he made a very telling remark about the Irish people when he posed this question:
“The Irish are the only people I know that when they get into money, the first thing they do is get into horses. Why do you think that is?”
I rolled this around in the noggin for a moment and the first thing that came to mind went back to our English-Overlordship. I don’t usually blame the English for Irish problems, if anything, I think they’ve shaped us into the amazing people we are today.
So off I went with my answer “I’d say that land and horses are still deeply rooted in the Irish psyche as symbols of power and wealth, just as it used to be viewed as ‘being English’ if you planted a lot of trees on your property and we always aspire to be what oppressed us.” He took my reply with a grain or two of salt and went back to his dinner.
However, this conversation got me thinking about my own family, ‘cause these days my Dad and new Mom are mad into horses. They’ve built stables, an outdoor arena and have something like seven or eight horses running around the place. That in turn made me think about my sister's horse Bob she had when she was a teenager, then that nugget of a memory pushed the old mind back to when we were kids and we had a donkey called Eh-aw.
I’m not sure where we got Eh-aw from, but I know I couldn’t have been much more than three or four years old when we got her and she lived on Mick O’Donnell’s land with an old horse called Dusty. Mick O’Donnell’s land backed up to my aunt and uncle's, but his was all fenced in and was about 30 acres of some of the most amazing land you could imagine. We called it ‘the mountain’ but it was more than that, it had a view of the other mountain Slieve League, a hypnotic monolith of vast geologic proportions, you could literally stare at that giant rock for hours on end, clouds wisping over the peak and squinting at little dots as people climbed over the horizon of it’s peak.
Eh-aw and Dusty’s paradise also came right up to the edge of the estuary of the Salmon Leap river. When the tide was out we’d walk down there in our wellies, digging for razor fish, picking mussels off the rocks, checking the old abandoned oyster bed for a small harvest and turning over a kelp covered rock to tackle a scuttling crab. All the time keeping a weary eye out for the returning tide and often a stray goat or sheep wouldn’t be so lucky and get trapped out on one of the tiny islands of grass and they could only pray to the farm gods that it wasn’t a spring tide and they’d be safe till the tide receded.
When we went up to see Eh-aw and Dusty we’d walk on our side of the fence and call out to them and it usually didn’t take long for one of them to pop their big head up over a hilltop. They knew we’d have some apples or potato peels for them. Eh-aw would could come right up to the fence and sometimes she’d let us feed her from a flattened palm, but Dusty would always hold back and wait for us to leave before he came up to the fence to nibble the peel off the barbed wire.
Eh-aw and Dusty had become the most unusual odd couple. She was a little grey jenny, not much to look at, but friendly and welcoming with her braying speech. Dusty on the other hand was beautiful, the color of deep rust with a long flowing mane, standing about 15 hands high he towered over his partner. But he had become feral like a mustang or more appropriately a wild Connemara pony, and you only approached him at your own risk. We entered their field with trepidation and as we did the two animals paired up together and kept us within eye contact, but always thirty or forty feet away. You could tell that Eh-aw wanted to come closer to us and have us stroke her, but she played the role of a good wife and attended her husband’s will.
Within their realm there was a Celtic ring fort and us young boys would go over there and pretend to be Cuchullin and the Red Branch knights or Finn McCool and the Fianna, defending the fort against invaders coming up from the estuary, usually Vikings, Germans or English, our enemies of choice when we were the same age as our shoe size. Air raids were a bitch to defend, but the sequoia-like ferns provided plenty of cover.
Eh-aw and Dusty would look down on us shooting invisible bullets and throwing invisible spears, and we would incorporate them into our imaginary games by assigning them the role of Indians coming to attack our fort held by brave cowboys. Bang, bang.
So, all this gets me thinking back to the original question of wealth and horses. As children a donkey worth five bucks and a Celtic ring fort made us feel like the last of the high kings of Ireland, a priceless sense of completeness. You can throw money at houses, cars, stocks, women, even drugs and alcohol, but there is something primal, innate in the sense of ownership one has in possessing and just knowing that that semi-wild donkey was mine, was enough.
When the Celtic Tiger economy made Ireland a rich wee Island, people rushed out to buy their Five Dollar Donkey no matter the cost, so they could feel the tangibility of wealth that no amount of zeros on a bank stub can reproduce. And the ironic part is that the poorest sub-class/culture in Ireland: The Travelers have always kept horses and donkeys. So by my thinking we all aspire to be rich English landlords, but really we’re just a bunch of Knackers!