As I walked in the main gate of Carrick-on-Suir mart last Friday, I spotted Johnny Smith, the mart’s main yard man.
He was sitting on the bench outside the main office in the glorious morning sunshine, in conversation with a local farmer.
Nothing unusual in that, it was early, and the yard had no cattle in it yet. What was different was that Johnny wasn’t in his working clothes.
I settled myself down on the bench beside his tall frame. “You’re looking right spruced up, Johnny,” I say.
He explains he’s been to the doctor “Got a touch of an ulcer. Have to lay off for a while.”
As head yard man, Johnny’s been dividing and penning cattle in the sales yard in Carrick for as long as I remember — and like much in life, it happened by accident.
“I went to the monastery here in town and hated it,” he tells me. “Then, one Friday morning, the head brother says to me in the yard. ‘Come here, Smith, I think we’ve found you something you can do’.”
Johnny explains that the school at that time kept a herd of cows. “Half an hour later, I’m leading a red and white Friesian cow on a rope down the road to the mart, with the brother behind. The brother says I can have the rest of the day off. I’m delighted. Gave the whole day running around opening and closing gates. The boss man said I was a great lad, and the mart should hire me. I was down the next Friday at eight o’clock, and hid my school bag in the jacks. I watched the others getting on the bus, and then told the manager I had Fridays off. I was 13.”
He leans back on the seat with a chuckle. Now, aged over 50, he is a tall, sinewy, fit man with a passion for greyhounds and hurling, whose nature is still one of energy and good humour.
On mart days, however, he’s like a super efficient policeman. On those days, it’s men like Johnny Smith and his team of yard lads, who like scores of other similar teams in other marts across the country, turn the cold concrete and steel of a mart into a well-oiled machine.
They load, unload, pen, read, divide, mark, number, turn and twist their charges, so that the conveyer belt to the sales ring moves constantly. Because a lot of marts are situated in towns or just outside, it follows that a lot of the yard men like Johnny Smith are town-bred, hardy bucks, lads who didn’t mind the occasional splatter of dung, who like working with animals and are good mixers. However, working with humans and animals is always challenging, and the men who work the mart yards have to combine the physical aspects of their trade with an accurate awareness of the dangers that are ever present.
While farmers work their own stock in their own environment, take those same animals away from their familiar surroundings, and as we all know, unpredictable things can and do happen. Some of the breeds we now produce are highly strung and can be unpredictable and dangerous. Which is why Teagasc last year launched a dedicated phone line for farmers to report incidents where livestock threatened their owners. If memory serves, the idea was you noted the breed, and if possible the animal’s number, to help Teagasc compile a breed profile based on temperament. It appeared a worthy study, however I can’t say I saw any results yet.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved