Cattle Breeds in Ireland: A History by Greg Walsh, The Borie Press, 558 pp, €50, ISBN: 978-1999871109
I don’t consider myself as a writer. It’s like someone who builds a model of the Eiffel Tower out of matchsticks. It’s a devotional work. Obsessive.
I think it was Patrick Kavanagh who once said that you can find genius in any walk of life. Get a man to elaborate on his enthusiasms and you may well find that elusive quality – as well, perhaps, as finding out lots of things you did not know before. This Christmas I read – or rather partly read – a very unusual book. It was called, of all things, Cattle Breeds in Ireland: A History, a topic I would not normally be attracted to by any stretch of the imagination. Its author, Greg Walsh, a retired farmer in Co Wexford, is also a writer and playwright, with several produced plays to his name. I don’t have the slightest interest in cattle breeding. But then, you don’t have to be interested in whaling to love Moby Dick, or interested in Dublin in 1904 to love Ulysses or interested in the Fens of East Anglia or the history of Antwerp to like WG Sebald’s writings. What all these have in common is the ability to see the world in a grain of sand. This is the sand of detail and it can come in many forms.
Walsh’s book is no mere compendium of prize bulls such as you might have seen fifty years ago at an agricultural show. It is something far bigger than this – in every sense of the word, not least physically, coming in at almost six hundred pages and just under 3kg. And it brings to life a world culture: the love of animals, more specifically in this case the love of cattle and cattle breeding and the multifarious variety of the mixings of bovine DNA. While it is presumably aimed at the farming community – Walsh has pictures and accounts of the lives of dozens of farmers and their families in many countries and regions of Europe – it is also a wide-ranging compendium of historical information of interest to the general reader. And this is not the undisciplined thinking of the amateur scribe who cannot resist including his most irrelevant thoughts. These stories blend seamlessly into an impressive and detailed whole. This is a sort of Bible, a Book of Kells of the bovine species in all its variety, with plenty in the pot for everyone.
“A little over 2,000 years ago, a tribe which inhabited the estuaries of the Meuse, Rhine and Ems rivers became known to the Romans. They were of German extraction and were called Frisii.” So begins Walsh’s account of the origins of the Holstein Friesian, the black and white cow now most commonly found in Ireland. This gives the flavour of the book. The twenty-five odd pages on the Friesian typify Walsh’s amalgam of human and animal history, geography, geology, archaeology, climate and veterinary medicine, all illustrated by maps detailing various eras, reproductions of old prints and drawings, brief biographies of various significant individuals and photos of contemporary herds and their owners and families. You will find similar potted histories in every chapter.
Among the things you will discover from one such chapter – that on the French Montbéliarde breed – is that Jakob Ammann, the founder of the Amish community, disappeared some time after 1712. That is to say, there is no record of what happened to him or where he died or where he is buried. Ammann, a Swiss native, had converted to Anabaptism during the 1670s but soon found himself in doctrinal conflict with the Mennonites, another branch of the Anabaptists. As a result he moved, with some of his followers, across the French border, first to Heidolsheim in Alsace in 1693 and, a few years later, south to La Petite Liépvre. Meanwhile, back in Switzerland, despite attempts at reconciliation, a permanent breach took place between the remainder of Ammann’s followers and the Mennonites, with the result that the former left the Berne area and settled around Montbéliard, then a small semi-independent canton within the French kingdom. They chose the area because it had long been home to significant numbers of Protestants who had moved there after the Peace of Augsburg (1555), and the area remains one of the strongest enclaves of Protestantism in France to this day.
Jakob’s adherents did not have it easy. In 1712, Louis XIV expelled all Anabaptists from Alsace. Some of these moved south to join their brethren at Montbéliard, while others left for America to become what are now known as the Amish. When they moved from the Bernese Oberland to France, Ammann’s Anabaptists brought their farming practices with them. The cattle breed they brought with them were named after the Simme valley where they had lived: the Simmental. Once ensconced in Montbéliard, they began to cross-breed their Simmental cattle with local French breeds. The result, by1889, was a newly recognised breed, the Montbéliarde.
You will also learn in Walsh’s book about the origins of farming itself. Agricultural practices are believed to have evolved with the domestication of cereals and legumes in the Fertile Crescent of what is now northern Iraq and eastern Syria between 10000 BC and 9500 BC. However, domestication of animals had begun earlier, with the domestication of the mouflon, a horned and magnificent ancestor of modern sheep, which took place around 11000 BC, and goats, which took place a thousand years later. Because sheep and goats could move with migrating tribes it is believed that their domestication represented a half-way house between the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and the settled way of living of the later farmers.
Around 8500 BC the first cattle were domesticated in the foothills of the Taurus Mountains in modern southeast Turkey, hence the Latin name taurus for a bull. As tribes from Asia Minor migrated west – in two branches, one going south of the Alps, through Greece, into Italy and on to France, Spain, Britain and ultimately Ireland, while the other went north into what is now Germany, Denmark and Poland – they brought their cattle and their farming practices with them. The movement westwards is believed to have started around 7700 BC. They are believed to have reached Ireland before they reached Britain, around 4600 BC, from the French coast, not so much displacing the original hunter-gatherer tribes as assimilating them with their superior farming practices. This can be shown by DNA analysis: While 80 per cent of the DNA of the inhabitants of the Balkans is shared with these migrating Neolithic farmers, only 20 per cent of the DNA of Irish people come from this source.
Reading Walsh is like reading an illustrated version of Sebald, where unexpected links are made between disparate historical occurrences, sometimes centuries apart, except instead of deliberately arcane language you get up-to-the-minute maps, colour photographs and high-end design (though I have to say I was not gone on the cover). But once you get over the initial shock, this kind of thing can become surprisingly compelling, even if it not always easy to say why. I am sure Kavanagh, who loved Moby Dick for its obsessional totality, would have approved of this, since it comes from a place he was very familiar with.
I was once given a brick of a book by a former pupil about a boarding school in Co Cork. Even though I only read small sections of it, I never had the heart to throw it out, though it took up more than its share of space on my shelves. It was written with such love and care that to chuck it in the skip would have counted as some kind of sin, particularly since the author subsequently had a serious breakdown and never, so far as I know, wrote another word. There is something strangely moving about this sort of thing. This is the kind of respect you would have to have for, say, Nietzsche, who saw the whole world in various grains of sand, if you found him racked in uncontrollable sobbing with his arms around the neck of that horse in Turin, the first visible sign of his descent into madness. This overexpression of love is heartbreakingly human.
Of course there is another, subliminal, message at the heart of all of this. In this era of Brexit and debates about sovereignty, when the face of populist nationalism is again raising its head, it is worth being reminded of the interdependence of communities from various regions of Europe – and to be reminded that this interdependence has always been there. It is also worth remembering that we are all descended from a small number of tribes. In this book you will find insights into the movements of people and kine: about the Céide Fields of Co. Mayo, for instance, courtesy of Professor Seamus Caulfield who excavated them, about the history and geology of the Dithmarschen region of northern Germany, home of the high protein-producing Rotbunt DN breed, where the names on the streets and houses in the towns are so similar to early English that you would be forgiven for thinking that you are being transported a thousand years back to a village in East Anglia – shades of Sebald again. Yet while Sebald’s peregrinations constitute a meditation on the destruction of European civilisation in the last century, Walsh is concerned with one of the forces that created that civilisation in the first place.
For this is ultimately a human story; his massive volume contains thumbnail sketches of the history of almost two hundred families, from Kerry to Northern Ireland, from Denmark to New Zealand, from the Pacaud family of Bréche in the Brionnais region of France – whose ancestors were among the original breeders of the Charolais – to little Matthais Brickner playing with a dropped calf on his family farm at Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. The beauty – and the love – is in the detail. Like Tim Robinson’s books on the Aran Islands, this is an astonishing achievement. If you are interested in animal husbandry or interested in what your neighbours are doing or even in the forces that make civilisation itself, go out and get this book and keep it on your shelf. If you grow tired of reading in the newspapers about the onward march towards nastiness it may actually even cheer you up.
Gerard Murphy is a lecturer at the Institute of Technology, Carlow and is the author of several books.