BY MICHAEL GALLAGHER Their plans had read well and there was no doubt about their desire and determination, but I often wondered what the Old Irish Goat Society was actually going to achieve in a physical sense. They were making people aware a rare breed of goat lived in the hills overlooking Mulranny and explaining what a special resource the breed was for the Irish state. I really appreciated that and admired their unstinting work but a conservation-heathen such as I needed to see something solid.
I needed to look a goat in the eye and say, “This is what the Old Irish Goat Society are actually achieving.” Then I took a trip to Mulranny to see the results of their captive breeding program and everything changed! Wonderful little goats gamboled around my feet as their regal heads surveyed the visiting humans with a lot of interest and no fear. Their patterned coats provided a colour palette that was food for both the eyes and the soul as the sun danced invitingly in the heavens.
The kid goats were historic creatures – the produce of nine females and three males, all excellent examples of the Old Irish Goat. The 12 prospective parents had entered the pioneering captive breeding program a few months earlier and the fruits of their efforts were there for all to see. The kids had all been given names – Colleen and Davideen were the most prominent of the new arrivals, but there were other wonderfully- christened youngsters lurking in the background.
Their parents were also given regal-sounding branding with Croaghaun, Richard and Ned the three father figures of the group. Accompanying me into the midst of the goat families were Maeve Foran, a talented young conservationist, Carol Loftus of Mulranny Tourism and Sean Grady who works with the program on a daily basis ensuring that the goats have everything they need. Sean’s wok involves twice daily visits to water and feed the goats various oat and beet pulp mixes along with straw, hay and leaves and he displayed great knowledge and care for his four-footed friends. Maeve’s enthusiasm for the project is quickly gaining legendary status.
The Cork woman arrived in Mulranny as an intern and remains immersed in the project even though her internship is now over. “It’s such an exciting program. There’s something about the Old Irish Goats that draws one in. To prove that the breed is a rare one that stretches back through time is just wonderful and to work with the new breeding program, even in a voluntary capacity is very exciting,” she explained before Carol quickly cut in to add another dimension to the whole thing. “Maeve came here to work as an intern on the project and before her we had Rob (Corrigan). Both of them have been absolutely invaluable to us but they have also fallen in love with Mulranny and are now living among us with their partners. That’s just another wonderful aspect of the whole program – the Old Irish Goat is already attracting new people into our community,” she added enthusiastically.
Carol’s spirit of excitement was infectious and the goat project was wonderful from a scientific viewpoint but I wondered how it would benefit Mulranny on a day-to-day level into the future. “These goats were once domesticated here in Mulranny. They were the poor man’s cow, but that all changed in the past century and they moved to become a feral race for a time,” Carol added. “We hope to continue this breeding program and eventually come to the stage when we can have a Mulranny goat farm where they can alternate between their time on the hill and in the farm.” The possibilities of domesticating the goats are very strong if my visit to the breeding program is anything to go by.
Goats that were captured on the hill for characteristics such as stocky build, long dish face, small ears, long coat, cashmere undercoat seemed well accustomed to their new surroundings and Maeve was delighted with their progress. “We monitor everything here from their dung samples to their feeding patterns and it has been a great success. The project can now continue, safe in the knowledge that a healthy breeding population is being fostered that’s genuinely representative of the Mulranny Old Irish Goat,” she concluded and I was convinced that our regal friends were in safe hands with a wonderful future guaranteed in the hills over one of Ireland’s truly magical communities.
BY MICHAEL GALLAGHER Midway up a hillside overlooking the ocean in Mulranny sits a stunning building, nestled into the brush and foliage of a special part of the planet. The building, perfectly branded as ‘Essence of Mulranny,’ is the brainchild and artistic haven of Cheryl Cobern Browne a native of South Africa, but now most certainly blessed with a Mulranny heart. The world-renowned artist has become an integral part of the local community and last Tuesday night her fabulous studio hummed to the symphony of possibility and creativity. On Tuesday evenings and Monday mornings Cheryl hosts ‘Gift of Hands’ a volunteer community art group that has brought new life to the area since it was established in 2010. Cheryl is passionate about Gift of Hands and the impact it has, not only on the artistic world but on one of her passions in life, the preservation of the Old Irish Goat. “My husband is a Mulranny man and for years he told me about these goats roaming the hills around here.
They became something like a fairy story to me, but then on one of our visits we saw one and he said, ‘There’s your goat.’ “I’ve been enchanted by them ever since and through our work here at Gift of Hands we raise funds and awareness for the preservation and understanding of the Old Irish Goat,” she added. The ladies (and the group is all female, even though it’s completely open to men too) have learned to make stunning things from locally sourced and mostly-donated materials. They then, sell three out of every four items they create and the money goes to fund the local environmental initiatives, including the Old Irish Goat Project.
“This is a place where creativity and conservation merge,” well-known community activist Sean Carolan tells the Western People. “Of course, having a community-based funding stream is of huge importance for us but the amazing goat creations coming out of here also help build a greater interest and understanding of the animals,” he explains.
Many examples of the amazing creations Sean speaks about are to be found all around us in the beautiful studio over the ocean. Beads, glassware and clothing, all made from recycled materials are just some of sparkling creations decorating our eyeline as the riches of creative hands enchant the evening and central to it all are the goats – the wonderful goats! Cheryl has a soft spot for the goats that roam the hills above Mulranny.
At the entrance to the studio stands a collection of hundreds of driftwood sticks that perfectly form a goat, but it’s nothing to the production she has in her nearby dining room. There, stands a perfectly life-size driftwood goat created painstakingly to resemble ‘Oisin’ an animal that would regularly visit the artist’s garden. Back in the studio, the garden visits are a topic of conversation. “I have to be up at 6am in the summer to keep them out of my garden, but I love them all the same,” one of the ladies explains while another shows us the wonderful paintings she has produced. “That one’s Vincent Van Goat and the one with the bit of a quiff is Donald Trump while this one os ‘Goat with a pearly ear-ring,” she states, pointing to three stunning pieces of work on the walls. Around the studio are numerous goat puppets made by the willing hands and one has to agree that this truly is a haven for heritage-inspired craft.
BY MICHAEL GALLAGHER
The Western People has teamed up with Mulranny in a drive to save the Old Irish Goat. The groundbreaking project will leave a lasting impression on the heritage and history of Mayo and of the nation
THEY stand on the rocky outcrop and gaze out over the ocean like sentinels keeping watch over their territory. There’s a majesty about the herd of goats that sets the hair standing on the back of one’s neck. The goats know that they belong. There’s a confidence about them. They have been blessed by nature with body, structure and colour perfect for their Mulranny home. They’re small, stocky and strong. They have short legs and a deep body especially adapted to accommodate large quantities of forage. The head, adorned with impressively large horns, is delicately shaped with a dished profile and a long muzzle that serves to warm the air before entering the lungs. The ears are small in size to protect against frostbite and are worn in a pricked position. Coats come in a varied range of up to 12 colour patterns that blend with the landscape and are typically long, coarse, thick and ‘act as a natural thatch’ with an under-wool of cashmere that pushes hairs outwards in winter. It’s not hard to find the Mulranny goats. A leisurely trek into the hills surrounding the beautiful village is often rewarded with a glimpse of Ireland’s living history. Down in the village, a group of passionate, dedicated friends in the Old Irish Goat Society have banded together in an effort to prove that included in the goats roaming high over the ocean are some of the same breed that climbed the hills and supported families in this corner of the planet for more that 5,000 years. The Mulranny group are determined to prove that there is indeed a distinct breed of Old Irish Goat and that the goats in the hills over Mulranny are a crucial and integral part of that breed. They have worked tirelessly researching and developing the project and now they’re on tenterhooks awaiting the results of a DNA sampling program which will finally prove the existence of the breed and lead to official recognition for the Old Irish Goat. “We’re awaiting the results with great interest,” Sean Carolan vice-chairman of the group told the Western People. “This is just one of a number of studies being carried out to prove the existence of the Old Irish Goat, but in truth, it’s the most important part of the jigsaw. The DNA samples have gone to Weatherby’s DNA Lab in Kildare and we’re looking forward to the results. “We want to prove that within the Mulranny feral herd there is a subset of the goats who would be considered ‘Old Irish.’ The native breed is being extinguished here as a result of crossbreeding and uncontrolled cross-breeding is recognised as the primary threat to rare breeds all across the world,” he added. The preservation of the Old Irish Goat will be of huge benefit to the locality according to Carol Loftus of Mulranny Tourism.
“A huge effort has been put into this project, but the project is such an important one for the nation and for Mulranny.We’re determined to prove that Ireland does indeed have an ancient breed of goat and tell the world that it lives here in Mulranny. That will be a huge boost for the village and will only add to the great, varied opportunities we can give tourists right here.”
PROVING THE EXISTENCE OF THE OLD IRISH GOAT
In attempting to prevent the Old Irish Goat becoming another lost breed, it had to be proven that the Irish Goat actually exists. Those goats that might remain were dispersed in remote rugged mountain ranges, so the group were faced with a complete absence of physical measurements, accessible animals or DNA evidence. The Old Irish Goat Society looked to a time that preceded the importation of modern breeds into Britain and Ireland. The “Dead Zoos” – natural history museums – of Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales contained goat DNA from the early 1900s. This was collected and compared to feral goats in Mulranny, by the Smurfit Genetic Institute in Trinity College Dublin. The study totally supported the idea that the extant feral populations in Mulranny today are a distinct type of goat, seemingly unique to Ireland and Britain. A second study, run by University College Dublin in partnership with the Old Irish Goat Society and Weatherbys DNA Laboratory, found “distinct variation from other breeds”. Although the study was positive, the findings were not conclusive due to the limited sample set. In the intervening three years the Society had succeeded in gathering over 60 DNA samples, from counties Mayo, Galway, Longford, Waterford and Kerry to conduct a high resolution DNA study. The results are awaited with great interest. These studies, coupled with historical evidence, photographic images, observations and detailed measurements will hopefully lead to official recognition, for the Old Irish Goat this year or next.
HISTORY OF THE OLD IRISH GOAT
Recent research suggests that the goat has been on Irish soil for thousands of years and was here before the land bridge disappeared to make Ireland an island. The goat was almost certainly well established here before the majority of the present ‘native’ deer stock. The Old Irish Goat was once found across Ireland in numbers that exceeded a quarter of a million. Known historically as “the poor man’s cow” the goat was by virtue of its hardiness, a crucial component of Ireland’s farming past and everyday rural life. Indeed, this breed ensured the survival of Ireland’s earliest settlers and whole village communities, such as those that built the dolmens, and the Céide Fields and staved off some of the effects of the Great Famine when the potato crop failed. The goat is deservedly celebrated in Irish folklore, tradition, paintings and literature, but ironically, in these modern times, while the dolmens, the Céide Fields and suchlike are revered, the creature that was most essential and most valued by our ancestors finds itself cast aside and on the precipice of extinction.
BATTLING FOR A CENTURY
Calls for conservation of the Old Irish Goats began almost a century ago when Sir Walter Paget, wrote eloquently about them as far back as 1918: “The Irish goat in process of time has developed a coat, which acts as a natural thatch in the moist humid atmosphere of its native districts, and to graft Nubian or Swiss blood into this breed does not add to its beauty, and, to our mind, impairs its usefulness. The Irish goat, we maintain, is the best we have for the purpose, and it should be kept pure in type.”
WHY SAVE THE OLD IRISH GOAT?
It has been a native in our land for 5000 years and helped families survive starvation and malnourishment for generations. Additionally, maintaining the genetic stability of locally adapted rare breeds is vital for food security as they are an alternative genetic resource, often with increased disease resistance traits. The charismatic animal is a unique and untapped tourism, heritage, artisan food and conservation grazing resource, but most importantly, the Old Irish Goat is and still remains a diminutive creature, that is resilient and charismatic, that is living, breeding heritage and that is representative of our cultural and pastoral history.
CAN THE GOAT BE SAVED?
As they are not considered wildlife, there is no conservation program available in Ireland of a suitable scale or design to save a rare breed that is already extinct in domestication. Proving the existence of the Old Irish Goat is one thing, saving it from extinction is a much greater challenge. To achieve an ‘Endangered Stable’ status requires 1,000 Old Irish Goats to be registered. Currently, a pilot captive breeding program is being carried out to save vital genetic resources and assess the challenges of re-domesticating the breed Saving Ireland’s native goat breed from extinction would require a concerted effort by the state, interest groups and the public.With this in mind, The Western People is delighted to work with the community in Mulranny to achieve our shared goal.
■ More information on the Old Irish Goat project can be obtained from the Mulranny Environmental Centre and Craft Shop located on the N59, one mile east of the village.