By Padhraic Faherty
The ass and cart are relics of old Irish rural life. There is an occasional cart still to be seen, usually as a garden ornament, and any remaining donkeys are kept as pets or in sanctuaries. Is there a danger that they will become extinct in Europe? They are still used in Egypt, etc., and there are wild asses in the Urals/Steppes.
The donkey is a wonderful animal, gentle, placid, patient and loveable. Perhaps its greatest accolade is that it was Christ’s own mount. In Ireland, in times past, it was the faithful working animal of the West’s small farmers, in the field, bog and the road.
At Galway’s colourful Saturday market in the 1950s, the ass-carts were lined up all along Market Street, under the eye of St. Nichola’s Collegiate Church clock*, where Christopher Columbus, as a Spanish sailor, used to attend Mass, and where he got his idea of a western route to India, when two American ‘Indian’ bodies floated in on a raft to Galway port.
Yes, Galway discovered America!
The carts were always painted blue and orange-red. Turf, vegetables, hens, ducks and geese were sold at the market. One astute trader used to smuggle bottles of poteen in carts of turf. Many farmers would adjourn to the pubs at the close of “business” and drink half the takings, leaving little for wives, children and food. Indeed, there was a comical scene on the Spiddal road every Saturday evening.
One heavy drinker would be seen “stocious” sitting and swaying in his cart, head down on his chest, half asleep. The donkey would have to steer himself and find the way home – luckily there were no red traffic lights back then. The donkey would stand and wait patiently at the house until Mick woke/sobered up.
On one occasion, neighbours dissembled the cart and reassembled it, donkey and all, inside on the kitchen floor, with Mick fast asleep on board. One can imagine the shock and the ‘language’ when he woke up. True story!
An even more wonderful true story now follows:
Timmy was an eligible bachelor farmer in semi-retirement in the 1990s. His ass-cart was still in the shed and in pristine condition. He decided to sell it, putting in an advert, picture and all in the Connacht Tribune.
One day, a top of the range Land Rover drove in. An elegant dowager, landed-gentry lady stepped out and surveyed the scene with a supercilious air. She fancied the cart and bought it on the spot, an ornament for her demesne garden. But she fancied something else too – Timmy himself! Timmy was quite handsome, but was painfully shy, and he had never approached a woman.
An unlikely match, you might say.
He was a simple, dignified Catholic small farmer, living alone – never drank or smoked. She was Church of Ireland, bold, decisive, upper-class, Oxford accent, and she lived on 200 acres of prime landlord land, and in a castle/towerhouse!
She did all the talking and the buying. Soon after, Timmy sold his two cows, locked up the cottage and moved to the ‘big house’, and they still live happily ever after. Believe it or don’t. A fairytale story and a true life one, perhaps worthy of a film or a TV documentary or drama? Any takers?
And perhaps, the moral of the story is – mind that oul orange and blue ass-cart. It may hold the secret of fortune, aristocracy and love.
(Fictitious names were used here. The author knows ‘Timmy’ and told him).
* Desecrated by Cromwell’s troops and a Protestant church ever since.