When some people travel, I see them mentally (or sometimes physically!) checking big-ticket items off their bucket lists. Going to Italy? Then we must hit the Vatican, the Coliseum, the David, the Uffizi Gallery. Check, Check, Check, Check. Never mind that in order to see all these places in one trip they will be running with their coats flapping open, eating at easy, touristy places where the menu is in English, and forgetting to put their smart phone cameras away to soak in the view. Everything must be documented, reserved, fit into the memory book, or posted in the first five photos on Facebook to draw “friends” in for a look.
When people come to visit us in Ireland, the urge is the same, but because Ireland’s big tourist attractions are all fairly far apart (except in Dublin where you could spend a week trying to zoom from hit to hit) the reality is that it is hard to fit it all neatly into a playbook. Want to kiss the Blarney stone? That’s a whole day trip. Want to see the ring of Kerry? Don’t do it in less than three days. Want to go to Dingle and boat with Fungi? Take four days to drive from here to there and really SEE the peninsula and the Blaskets. The treacherous roads in Ireland make it impossible to get anywhere quickly, and part of me thinks this is why people find it so charming. It physically forces you to slow down and pay attention to every curve for fear of losing a side mirror.
After twenty something years of ticking off the must-dos, we are now in a phase of our exploration where we can slow down, go deep, and stop at the quirky and hidden spaces. It’s not on many people’s itinerary to drive to Schull community college to sit in their tiny planetarium and have a college student teach you how to find Orion and tell you the story of Cassiopeia. I get blank stares from some people when I tell them I’m on a search for interesting standing stones and sheila-na-gigs. You want to see a stone? Standing? In a field? Why? I want to know the thought processes of the people who came before. Why did they erect a stone here, using enormous physical labor and resources, to lay out a celestial marker? What powers were they hoping to harness? What myths or fears did they need protection from? I may never get my answers, but in the meantime I will experience fields buzzing with bees, filled with wildflowers, and free of tourists taking poorly composed cellphone photos.
So it was with great anticipation that I booked the West Cork Farm Tour for Tom, Clare, and I after seeing a flyer of a happy cow in the tourist office window in Clonakilty. For 20Eu per person, it sounded like something completely different than the usual fare. A quick visit to their website had us paid for and our Wellie size recorded. Frankly, the fact that they asked for our Wellie size was super important to me because that meant that I might get dirty. Dirty means interactive. Interactive means fun. It’s really the little things.
We arrived to Denis, Collette, and Eoghan’s Roury Hill Farm in Rosscarbery on a socked-in misty morning to find a tidy wall of Wellies and sky-blue rain jackets emblazoned with the Wild Atlantic Way symbol. A lovely table was laid out with Collette’s fresh scones (a wonder in their own right,) whipped cream, jam, pitchers of frosty milk, and the offer of tea or coffee. A plate of white and red Dubliner cheese sat in the middle of the table, and on the walls hung beautiful photographs of Drombeg stone circle, Coppinger’s Court, and the views of the bay from the hills of their farm. Denis’ sweet mum and dad joined our group for a cuppa then wandered away again, and Eoghan sat yawning in embarrassment in the presence of Clare’s cool gaze. She has a way of making young men uncomfortable that I find incredibly amusing to watch. Denis explained the difference in the milk his cows make, offering facts about protein content and cheese production, and patiently explaining the co-op process as Tom asked many questions.
We tasted the sharp, meaty Dubliner cheese (a product that we actually buy at home in the States) marveled over the scones and cream, compared facts about Kerrygold butter pricing here and there, enjoyed our cuppa, and then it was time to go out into the farm. After a quick stop at their loo (complete with toilet seat printed with a happy cow which made me snicker out loud) we loaded into the Range Rover and hit the rutted roads to visit the cows.
When we found them in a lovely verdant field, some wandered over to check us out at the electrified fence. They all seemed content and relaxed, with no agitated mooing or scuffling about. Denis explained the importance of the genetic crossing he was doing to create a cow with hardy black hooves, a compact body type that wouldn’t put too much weight onto the wet grass and sink in, and result in great milk production. Along with the required yellow tags in their ears that hung like earrings, a third tag told him in code everything he needed to know about the genetic history of that particular cow. He spoke about them with pride and affection, and they stared silently back, batting their long eyelashes before wandering off to chew their cud.
Some had red bands around their back legs and Denis explained that if a cow got mastitis they often found it better to dry off that teat and reduce the milk production rather than dose the cow with a bomb of antibiotics. The band let them know when they were eye-level with the business end of the cow in the milking shed that they had less teats than normal. We then toured the milking shed, and he explained how they scrupulously cleaned each surface in the milk production process. From udder to floor to pipe and pump and catch jars, each step of the milk capture was tightly controlled and kept immaculate. Clare was amused that they hung photos of cats at the shed doorways to deter birds, and we saw a wild cat skulking around the periphery, waiting to see if she could catch a drop. They explained that the cats were a vital way to keep the vermin population down, and it seemed like such a simple solution to a banal problem. Rather than employ poisons or traps, the natural instincts of wild cats kept on the fringes of the farm closed the predatory loop.
The thing that struck me the most during our tour was the obvious pride the O’Donovan family had for their operation. From the flowerpots spilling over with bright blooms, their tidy home and garden, to the specialized portable unit they placed in the yard to accommodate the tours, each detail was thought through and executed gracefully. As a visitor I could feel the welcome, and as a new resident of this town, I got a better sense of the people who live here and have worked the land for generations. I’ve watched with interest as the animal husbandry practices have changed over the the years in Ireland, and I was impressed with how carefully and completely the O’Donovan's attend to their herd of 150 cows. Everything was considered, from the type of crushed gravel laid down to help the cows walk safely, to rationing fresh water from their three wells to last this unusually hot summer, to the comfort of the cows at calving time.
Collette recounted a particular calf that she was nursing one season. Denis told her not to waste too much time as it was looking poorly and there were plenty of others that needed attention. Collette refused to give up, bringing it hot water bottles, coddling it, and seeing it through that spring. At mid-summer she drew Denis' attention out to the field where all the cows were happily munching grass and said she queried sweetly, “Now… which one was it that wasn’t meant to live?” Denis just shook his head and smiled and kept his mouth shut, as a kind and smart and patient husband should. As it turns out, happy cows and a happy marriage both find harmony in a ruminated silence.