Mulranny, in the shadow of the Nephin Beg Mountains on the north shore of Clew Bay, is a hill-walker’s paradise. Terns gathered in the harbour last week. Preparing to fly south for the winter, they were harassed by a piratical Arctic skua. Meanwhile, brent geese were on their way from the Canadian Arctic. Ballycroy National Park, to the north, is Ireland’s first ‘dark skies’ reserve. It’s a vast expanse of blanket bog with deer grouse and golden plover.
The area, it’s claimed, is home to another animal celebrity; the ‘old Irish’ goat. In 2013, a disused garda station, just outside Mulranny, became the Old Irish Goat Visitor Centre. Closed for renovation at present, it is expected to reopen shortly.
The goats I encountered near the village, during a four-day visit, didn’t seem to be traditional ones. According to the Old Irish Goat Society, Ireland’s ‘lost goat’ is small and stocky, with short strong legs, its multi-coloured coat resembling ‘a moving patchwork quilt’. Billies have beards, long hair and sideburns, their large horns, curved backwards like scimitars, being particularly impressive.
Domesticated in the Middle East around 9,000 years ago, goats thrive in mountainous and semi-desert locations, where other farm animals couldn’t even survive. They provide herders with milk, meat and skins. Trumpets were fashioned from their horns, goat fat was used as candle wax and water containers were made from hides. Dung can be burned as fuel and wigs were made from goat hair. Their best-known contribution to Irish culture is the bodhrán.
Bones unearthed by archaeologists suggest that goats were first brought to Ireland around 5,000 years ago. Conditions here suited them, although not that many bones have been found during digs. Numbers increased in medieval times; ‘the poor man’s cow’ became a mainstay of subsistence farming.
Nannies have been known to produce up to 1,300 litres of milk a year. Goats must have helped people ward off starvation during the great famine of the 1840s. It’s estimated that we had about a quarter of a million of them in Ireland in 1908, almost all being of the Old Irish variety.
Many were exported to England during the 19th century but the process was reversed after 1900; foreign ones were imported to improve the local stock. Subsequent cross-breeding contaminated the native gene pool but feral herds of the pure variety survived in remote mountainous areas.
A DNA study of Irish and British goats began in 2013. Geneticists from Trinity College Dublin obtained DNA samples from museums and skin collections at home and abroad. The results, the Irish Old Goat Society claims, show that ‘an endangered feral herd, living in the Mulranny area, is a unique population needing protection’. The animals there are genetically similar to an extinct variety of ‘old goat’ that lived on the Isle of Skye during the 19th century. Another DNA study found that feral goats on the Burren showed ‘distinct variations from other breeds’.
It took 5,000 years of adapting to conditions on our wet windy island to produce the old Irish goat. However, the jury seems to be still out as to the precise zoological status of this elegant creature.
The animal’s historical significance, however, is clear. As part of our cultural heritage, the remaining old goats deserve to be nurtured. Surviving herds need protection from mongrelisation.