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Irish Eyes

By Mattie Lennon

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(Or ask me ass)


Recently, while reading a piece by spiritual writer Peter DeRosa, it set me thinking about the part the humble donkey played in Irish life, literature, music and song. Mr. De Rosa (a writer that nobody ever even From Omar Khyy attempts to contradict) tells us that in school his favourite poem was Chesterton's "The Donkey". He reminds us that the Gospels do not say that there was a donkey in the manger but promptly adds, " . . . Isaiah dec ss lared ' the ass knows its owner and the ox its master's crib'."


My late father always claimed that at midnight on Christmas night every donkey kneels down and who am I to say that this is not a fact. 

The donkey features more in literature and song than the horse. In "Red Haired Mary"  and "Sullivan's John" the Donkey is a kind of hero. And sure you can forget about Arkle compared to "The Day Delaney's Donkey Won The Half- Mile Race".


From Omar Kyyam 's " Wild A,"  to Patrick Kavanagh's "Kerr's Ass" you won't hear a bad word about the donkey.  (Personally, I can identify with Benjamin, the donkey, in "Animal Farm" ; I'll have to work no matter what political system is in operation.")

   And further afield, in " Don Quixote", "Pinocchio" and  "A Midsummer Night's Dream" the donkey is prominent.  The humble beast of burden is the central character in the film "Au hazard Ballthazar".


In simile, metaphor and cliché the Equus asinus is regularly alluded to. In the Kylebeg of my youth- when vowels were frequently transposed- a person who was in the habit of mistaking  the property of others for their own would be said to be likely to,  "Stale the crass of an ass". It would be said of a young lady who wasn't very "co-operative" that, "She wouldn't let you within the bawl of an ass of it".


There is a Greek expression  "Onos pros phatnen" which could apply to many of our Bankers and quite a few of our politicians. It means, "a donkey at the feed-trough".


In West Wicklow the donkey would not be described as an "odd-toed ungulate" but it's name  would be used to indicate  ignorance, stupidity, stubbornness and lack of skills. ( Of course it is the symbol of the Democratic Party in the USA.)


There's the "Abyssinian Donkey", the American Donkey", the "Cypriot Donkey", the "Spanish Ass" but not a word about the Irish donkey.  Of the world's estimated 44 Million donkeys (China has 11 Million) we have a very small proportion, yet we almost claim the donkey as our own. And perhaps the ould ass wouldn't be disappointed with that. Irish writer, Leo Cullen, puts the following words into Neddy's mouth; "Oh, Ireland I have a history with you and your dispossessed. At fair days  in small towns you would have heard a buyer say, ' I'd buy that oul' ass off you, only she has two lobbed ears and a hollow back, sir' . Trying to bring down my price he would have been. As if it wasn't low enough already".


You all know that the offspring of  a "Jackass" and a female horse is a mule. And the issue of a male horse and female donkey is a jennet.   Mules and jennets are usually sterile. I'm told this is because horses have 64 chromosomes and donkeys have 62 which results in an offspring with 63 chromosomes which, seemingly, means sterility. Donkeys will also cross-breed with zebras; the offspring, not surprisingly, is called a "zonkey".   


And here's a true story told to me by a cousin, in Ballinastockan, who wouldn't know how to tell a lie. He was drawing out turf with an ass and cleeves....the cousin was. Do you know the creels (baskets) that you see on the backs of donkeys in Bord Failte postcards and such like? Well up this way they're called "cleeves" and they're held in position by a cleeving-straddle"; which is a saddle-like harness with a spike, or hook, on either side to hold the cleeves. Anyway the cousin was using said mode of haulage when, due to inadequate upholstering, didn't he cleeving-straddle irritate and cut the ass, leaving a nasty lesion on either side of his (the ass's) backbone.


The weather being warm of course the flies attacked the open wounds, which festered (savin' your presence) developing into two raw nasty-looking holes in the ass's back.

   The ass, tired after a hard day's work, went out and lay down at the back of the house under a hawthorn tree. And what do you think but didn't a couple of haws fall into the holes in his back. The holes eventually healed but the next Spring didn't two little whitethorn trees sprout out of his back.    

Do you know what the cousin did? He waited for them to grow fairly strong and then he sawed them off about four inches from the base. And thereafter he had the only ass in Ireland with a permanent cleeving-straddle.


And how did I end up in a book of award-winning photographs published by Lilliput Press?

One day, while doing my day-job, ace-photographer, Bill Doyle spotted me in the company of one of the asinine species (I'm the one on the left) and the rest is history

[See pic bottom of page.]



I wish you all a happy and peaceful 2009 and (Courtesy of the late John B.Keane) here is a  Kerry Blessing;


That the frost may never afflict your spuds,

That your cabbages may always be free from worms,

That the crows may never pick your stack,

That your she-goat may never dread the puck,

And should you by good fortune come into possession

Of a mare ass may she always be in foal.



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