Big thank you from

The mystical power of the goat

by the Rambler Ulster Star 4/01/2002

THE poet Rabbie Burns made 'the wee mouse' famous. Maybe some modern composer will do likewise for the one that my grandchildren chase around the PC screen daily.

Instead, I will try to put a neighbour's goats in the 'Star'.

As teenagers, my brothers and I had little else to observe between the wars. The electronic age had not dawned.

Anyone seeing Bertie Wilson sprinting across his farmyard brandishing a broom handle and aiming blows at the rumps of two goats careering ahead of him, might have jumped to the conclusion that he was a sadistic 'hardboiled' character. They would have been wrong.

Bettie was very good to all his livestock, and in fact goats held a kind of mystique for him, an inherited sentiment.

He believed that goats ate various pernicious weeds which caused animal diseases, and that their milk was less likely to cause tuberculosis in humans than cow's milk.

As well, he held the superstition that a goat's breath cures disease.

He had poignant memories of his parents bringing a goat into the sickroom every day when his two sisters were dying of consumption in a vain hope of warding off the end, which was then inevitable.

Both sisters had died young when he was still at school and his parents had never allowed a drop of cow's milk to cross his lips until he was a grown man.

Bertie had neither time nor inclination for deep introspection. Basically he just believed that goats were lucky to have about the place.

In some ways, his faith was even stronger than that. He would have expected bad luck to follow if he had got rid of them.

Strangely enough, the fact that he knew that goats' breath blasted every growing plant which they nibbled did not weaken his notion about the curative properties of their breath.

He hadn't an intact hedgerow about the place. Every thorn bush was misshapen and stunted and the foraging animals had bored holes in fences everywhere. To keep them in bounds he kept the two of them tethered together with a short length of rope attached to their collars.

This slowed them down, preventing them from vaulting over obstacles, but it certainly did not stop them from causing widespread depredation.

Even the younger fruit trees had been partially stripped of bark by the voracious animals which speeled halfway up them at every opportunity.

Bettie had overheard smatterings of goat mythology, and was inclined to credit them with supernatural powers in the fields of witchcraft and black magic.

He constantly talked about the big he-goat that he had seen at Killorglin, glaring down from a platform as high as a house. "Feth", he used to declare, "If ever there was a devil, he was looking out of the eyes of yon fellow."

Bettie was of course referring to the huge wild goat christened `Puck' who is crowned king at the annual Puck Fair in County Kerry.

He had gone to the fair on one occasion when he was on holiday in the area.

All this latent awe which Bertie had for goats did not save their hides when they got up to some devilment, which was brave and often.

The sagacious animals, for whom the term capricious was coined, lived up to their reputation for unpredictable aggravating behaviour. It was almost a daily ritual for Bertie to curse them 'into hell and out again' when he temper was raised.

His wife's precious garden was a favourite target for the animals, the herbage there being particularly sweet.

Bertie always got the length of his wife's tongue when harm was done. They were very very pointedly referred to as his 'old goats' on such occasions.

Clothes out on the hedge to dry were also very vulnerable. A goat could have taken the tail off a shirt without stopping in her stride and few of the mangled cuffs and collars of garments around the Wilson homestead had been caused by wear-and-tear.

In Bertie's domain, drills of turnips, fruit trees and meal stocks also suffered. One needed only to leave the hasp of the door of the meal-house unfastened for a few minutes to find the goats tucking into the contents of the bins and scattering meal all over the floor.

The animals made these raids on a kind of hit-and-run basis, fleeing with their mouths full, even before he let a gulder out of him and giving mischievous 'meh-hens' as they retreated, fast.

Part 2

Ulster Star