One of the drawbacks of living in a garda barracks is that minor comforts such as keeping domestic pets are often impractical. At any rate that was my father’s view. Animals, he maintained, could be troublesome and cause disputes and a public building was no place for them. No amount of pleading would influence him otherwise. So my stepbrothers and sisters had to wait until he retired to Sunnyside, a four-acre holding near Broadway in his native Wexford, before pets became part of the family
The first arrival was a Kerry cow. Years before, my father’s brother Pat, who farmed two miles away near Tacumshane, had hit hard times and was about to sell out and emigrate. My father lent him some money after which his farm prospered. Pat never returned the money fearing that to do so would forsake his good fortune. The gift of the Kerry cow was his way of repaying the debt. She wandered freely around the place for years and was showered with affection, occasionally sticking her head in the front door or peering through the window as if inviting human companionship.
There was a succession of cats but only one of them made any impression. She climbed on to the roof of the house and dug a hole in the thatch to give birth to a litter of kittens which she then carried down in her mouth and installed in a small upstairs room used mainly to store junk. They were two months old before my father discovered them. Wild and untamed, they scattered in all directions having never laid eye on a human being. Eventually they were tamed and homes were found for them.
The dogs are more readily remembered. Toby was a Kerry blue and Prince a cocker spaniel. They came to Sunnyside as pups and were inseparable. Although well fed, they made a daily round cadging food in every house in Broadway. At one time they went missing at night and my father’s suspicions were aroused. Sheep were being harried in the district and a few had been killed. A neighbour reported that he had seen the two dogs one morning at daybreak returning to Broadway on the back road from Tacumshane. My father locked them up at night and by coincidence or otherwise the sheep attacks stopped. None of us could believe that two lovable pets were capable of such cruelty but some circumstantial evidence remained. Prince developed some disease when he was about ten and had to be put down but Toby survived into old age.
Ted came later, a black and brindle collie who used his expertise to round up cattle in a field behind Sunnyside. Having gathered them in the centre of the field he would then lie down at a distance to observe them. If one of them made the slightest move to break away, he was on his feet in a shot. First thing every morning Ted went up to my father’s bedroom, licked him on the face and came back down again. His abiding passion was chasing cars which proved his undoing when he was eventually run over.
Then one day in early summer a young male white goat came to Sunnyside. His ownership was never established but my father thought he belonged to a travelling family who had either lost or abandoned him. Billy settled in quickly and became a great favourite. He had a trick or two which he had learnt on the road. He allowed you to pet him but the minute you turned your back he ran at you and pucked you in the posterior with his horns.
This practice of petting him and turning your back quickly became a game with the younger ones. Shrieks of laughter echoed around Sunnyside as they incited Billy to chase them, evading the charge by darting behind a tree. The orchard became a bullring as smallfigures ran hither and thither making passes with the goat on their heels. Some evenings neighbours’ children came along and joined in the fun.
Trouble wasn’t far off. My stepmother began to notice torn clothes where Billy’s horns had made contact. She saw bruises on legs and other parts of the body. A warning was issued that the games had to stop. As with all enjoyment banned by authority, it became clandestine. When the damage to the clothes continued my stepmother decided that the goat must go. The question was, how to get rid of him?
My stepmother put him out on the road and closed the gate, hoping that his wanderlust would be evoked by sight of the open road. Billy found a gap in the hedge and made his way back in. She put a tether on him, led him down through Broadway and left him in a field the far side of Lady’s Island. Billy ran past her on the way home and was back in Sunnyside before her. A bond built up between them. The goat had adopted the family and didn’t want to leave.
Then Billy got on my father’s wrong side. He ate several young blackcurrant and gooseberry plants and developed a fondness for apples. Worse still, he began to eat the bark off the trees. In my father’s eyes this was an outrage. The goat’s fate was settled a second time. My father bundled him into the back of the Ford Prefect with the children beside him and set off towards Killinick. Billy was let out four miles away at Ballymore crossroads where my father hoped he would be confused which road to take. Three small tear-stained faces watched out the back window at their beloved pet staring after them.
Two days later he was back. One of my young stepbrothers ran in, panting with excitement. Billy was home again. Everybody rushed out and there he was on his favourite perch on top of the gate pier. This time it seemed that the relationship between the family and the goat had finally been sealed.
The last twist in the story came one September evening as the sun was setting behind the Saltees. Billy saw his reflection in the dining room window and thinking it was another goat charged head down into the dining room shattering the glass and the window frame. This time there was no reprieve and all pleas to my father on Billy’s behalf failed. Once more he was bundled into the back of the car with small hands holding on to him. My father drove him to Castlebridge on the far side of Wexford town where he let him out. Even from that distance there was a hope he would return. But he didn’t. We never saw him again.