Memories of great characters and happy times in ‘Sheep Country’

By Paul Connaughton

The sensational news that Mountbellew, Co Galway, has been chosen for this year’s Kepak Shearfest 2024 All-Ireland and All-Nations Sheep Shearing Championships has been greeted with great enthusiasm.

The event will take place on Saturday, June 1st, and Sunday, June 2nd, at Mountbellew Livestock Mart. The organising committee, led by Chairperson Michael Cunniffe, have organised a mammoth festival around the event.

Young families will particularly enjoy it as the festival will contain all the fun of the fair for children of all ages!

Meanwhile, the adult dancing public will get a great chance to enjoy the magnificent Mike Denver and his band on the Saturday night, and the ever-popular Michael English on the Sunday night.

 

Sheep Country

 

It’s very appropriate that Mountbellew is holding this year’s festival, as County Galway is home to a fifth of Ireland’s sheep, with a flock totalling 423,000!

Sheep farming has always been a useful revenue earner for local farmers. Back in my youth, every field contained the great Galway breed of ewe – an animal of great strength with a good fleece, but which didn’t produce as many lambs as some new breeds. The Galway breed of sheep has held its own to this day, and all the credit must go to the voluntary efforts of the Galway Sheep Breeders Association.

 

Getting ready for the fair

 

As a youngster back in the 1950s, I saw my dad do all the necessary tasks to produce lambs for sale, to both the meat factories and the live trade.

I can still see the lines of horse carts and grey Ferguson TVO tractors outside the famous ‘Paddy’s Lamb Factory’ in Ballinasloe, owned by the late Paddy Lynch, on the site where Barretts/Chadwicks now stands.

But we sold most of our lambs at the sheep fair in Mountbellew – and what an outing that was! We wouldn’t have to go to school that day because it was typically closed, or I’d be kept out regardless to walk the lambs the three miles to the fair. I’ve the most pleasant memories of doing that walk on lovely June mornings at 6 am – watching the rising sun as we travelled slowly over Longford Hill to the sound of the chirping birds, intermingled with the bleating of the lambs and the voices of nervous farmers hoping trade would be good that day.

However, the action was not confined to the morning of the fair. A few day before, dad would yoke his pony and cart and bring up slabs of timber and nail them together to form rough penning to tie to the railings of shops and houses. This was to warn other farmers that this was his selling territory.

 

Great characters

 

I often saw some great haggling, with raised voices as buyers swooped down, handling every pen for weight and quality.

My dad used to spray each lamb with a light-coloured spray dip to improve the look of the animal, a type of cosmetic approach. Unfortunately many buyers did not fall for this marketing ploy; I remember hearing one shout, “Sir, feed your lambs better and never mind this codology!”

 

Few women

 

I never saw many women at the fairs, however one particular incident stands out in my mind down through the years.

I’d noticed a great deal of commotion at one particular pen; the selling farmer had just accepted an agreed price document from a buyer when the process was interrupted by the farmer’s wife, who snapped the ticket out of his hand and tore it to pieces.

“I’ll not take that price for my lambs!”, she said, “They are worth more”.

There was utter disbelief among the onlookers. It became immediately obvious who wore the trousers in that house.

The irritated buyer shouted “Keep the blooming lambs”, and then really put the boot in it, yelling, “It must’ve been love at first sight(!)”

 

Washing the sheep

 

Another big event took place before the sheep were shorn: the washing of the wool.

The sheep were brought to the ‘big river’ as we called it, and flocked together at the edge of the water. Our job as children was to keep them there.

The operation was organised by my dad and our next-door neighbour Ned Keane. As Ned was a great big man, his job was to stand in the middle of the river, nearly three foot deep, and my dad would catch a ewe and throw her to Ned, who would shove her up and down several times to wash the oil and other foreign materials off the fleece – a very exhausting job for both man and beast.

One time, we had been at it for a few hours when Ned called for the next animal, which turned out to be the ram himself. However Ned was getting tired by that stage, and he and the ram ended up having an enormous battle, resulting in the ram knocking Ned back and getting its nose caught in the zip of Ned’s trousers.

After washing, my dad would use a hand shears to take the wool off. While he was slow by today’s standards (it’d take a few half-days), he got the job done as he would say himself. He then showed us how to carefully spread the wool out, roll it, and tie it with a wool rope made from the fleece itself.

 

Wool Sales

 

Selling that wool was usually an enjoyable day for us.

We sold either to the Mill in Mountbellew (now Ganley’s store), or in Gilmore’s in Moylough. I can still see the friendly Mickey Gilmore, a wool merchant and father of John and Tom Gilmore, weighing the wool and checking it out. Gay Browne in Tuam was a large exporter of wool in those days too.

While wool prices back then did fluctuate, they were many times better than in recent years. Now it’s an actual cost to farmers to take wool from sheep, but I remember a story going around our village in the 1950s about a farmer who stored his wool for two years and was able to buy a new Ferguson with the price he got!

But on June 1st and 2nd, Mountbellew will once again give the public a close-up view of the best sheep shearers in the world, as visitors from Europe, New Zealand, and Australia compete against the very best of our Irish shearers!

Don’t miss out!

 

*Paul Connaughton was a TD for East Galway for almost 35 years and was Minister of State for Agriculture in Dr Garret FitzGerald’s Government in the 1980s.