85-year-old sheep farmer Mary O’Sullivan has plenty of mountains still to climb

Earlier this year, an 85-year-old sheep farmer was in court for allegedly allowing her sheep to wander under an 1851 law. What happened next? Noel Baker found out.

85-year-old sheep farmer Mary O’Sullivan has plenty of mountains still to climb

Earlier this year, an 85-year-old sheep farmer was in court for allegedly allowing her sheep to wander under an 1851 law. What happened next? Noel Baker found out.

God knows exactly how old the mountains on the Beara peninsula are, but they’re still fresh enough to display the fingerprints of the glaciers that made them, all angled fractures and latticed stone, each jutting rock face a snowless crevasse.

There’s a few million years stored in it, and today on top of one bicycle chain segment called Kilcatherine commonage, the call has gone out — one not heard for quite as long but still eternal: “Bring them in.”

It belongs to Mary O’Sullivan, 85 but looking at least 20 years younger and a woman with an intimate knowledge of the mountains. A court heard earlier this year that she first began walking the mountains and bringing in the sheep from the commonage almost eight decades ago.

Her sheep nearly landed her in trouble, but didn’t, ultimately. It’s been a bit rough and tumble since, literally in some ways, and now she is eyeing up her trusty red quadbike outside her house near Ardgroom, flanking the commonage, and wondering: When can I get back on it?

Mary, a mother of four, came to wider attention when, on the last day of February, a quirky case was heard before Bantry District Court. Mary was prosecuted for allowing her sheep to wander on the public road in contravention of a law dating back to 1851.

Mary told Judge James McNulty that she had been farming sheep since she was six years old and that she had done everything possible to keep them from straying onto the road adjacent to the 1,140 acre Kilcatherine commonage, of which she is one of the 74 shareholders.

That bestows grazing rights and allows her to have her scotch black mountain breed on the mountain, but a neighbour, Lotte Vox, had made a complaint to gardaí about the sheep being on the public road, giving rise to the charges that they were being allowed to wander on four separate days last year.

It was a unique case, with Ms Vox, who has been living in Beara since 1980, telling the court she had taken photographs to showthe sheep on the road, and Mary’s solicitor, Flor Murphy, arguing that none of his client’s other neighbours had complained at any stage about the sheep.

He also referred to Mary’s public liability insurance and a legal amendment introduced back in 1985, whereby sheep being on the road but coming from typically unfenced commonage were exempted in the event of an accident.

Mary O’Sullivan checks on her sheep on the Beara peninsula. Pictures: Larry Cummins
Mary O’Sullivan checks on her sheep on the Beara peninsula. Pictures: Larry Cummins

Asked by the judge whether her sheep would know the difference between her 14-acre lowland farm and the commonage, she delivered a characteristic turn of phrase:

I know the difference between brown bread and sweet cake, and sheep are cleverer than me.

Yet despite the pleas from Mr Murphy that sheep were a feature of Beara and south Kerry, Judge McNulty said he could not let his heart rule his head — the case had been proven.

In stressing that he wanted to treat her leniently, the judge proposed that Mary erect a number of signs warning: “Caution. My sheep may wander on this road. Take Care. Mary O’Sullivan.”

The case was adjourned for a month and, on its return, Mr Murphy said the sign plan was almost unworkable, as planning permission would be required. Judge McNulty is a much-admired judge and, perhaps unusually, not afraid to change his mind after a period of reflection.

Having thought about it, he said “sometimes modernity must bend to tradition”. He quoted Patrick Kavanagh’s poem ‘Epic’ — “I made the Iliad from such A local row” — and, self-deprecatingly, journalist Vincent Browne, before then referring to St Patrick, and his own grandfather, as men who had tended to sheep.

“The question is if traditional farming practices must yield to modernity or whether modernity should yield to tradition,” he said, dismissing the case under section 1 (1) of the Probation of Offenders Act 1997.

The judge referred to “due respect for ancient rights and the way of life of a woman of great age and admirable energy”.

Thrilled, Mary left court with a beaming smile, but life is a topsy turvy affair. Within weeks, she was getting out of the car on the street outside a physio’s office in Castletownbere when she fell over, ending up on the ground. Her daughter, Orla, was rapidly on the scene and before long Mary was on a trolley in Cork University Hospital and then into a bed.

The diagnosis was a broken hip and surgery. It took time to recover sufficiently before she could come home and, on the day she welcomes us, she is still using the stick to support herself as she walks, with the crutch, used outdoors, propped near the countertop.

The fall was “lucky but unlucky”, she says — bad that it happened at all, but fortunate in that people instantly reacted.

Mary O’Sullivan in her home on the Beara peninsula.
Mary O’Sullivan in her home on the Beara peninsula.

“If it wasn’t for that I’d really be flying around,” she says, not unreasonably, but she admits that, had the same tumble occurred up the mountain, her prospects would have been bleak.

The time recovering has been frustrating for someone so in thrall to the outdoor life.

She isn’t too keen on mowing over the case again, although she believes the end result vindicated her position from the outset.

“Sure the Healy Pass is pasted with them and how many of them go up and down the Healy Pass?” she asks, having made a pot of tea.

And over in Kerry, Maam Pass or whatever it’s called? Pasted with sheep. And you just stop and say ‘cush’ and hunt them off the road or beep at them. I mean, how seldom do people hit them?

The judge ultimately made the right call, she says, but if it had gone the other way?

“I’d have gone to jail first,” she says, giving new meaning to the phrase ‘you might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb’.

An 85-year-old heading up and down a mountain after sheep, occasionally on a quad, might seem unusual, but not so, according to Catherine Keena, a countryside management specialist with Teagasc and an expert on commonage.

“Sheep farmers aged 85 would be the norm,” says Ms Keena.

Ireland has around 5,000 commonages and approximately 15,000 farmers with shares in them. Ms Keena says not everyone has to farm it, and can claim a basic farm payment without requiring animals to graze it, although it’s a different story when it comes to the Glas scheme. It used to be that commonages — which have generally remained unchanged — were overgrazed, but Ms Keena says it might now be the reverse.

“As regards the use, it was hugely used when there were ewe subsidies — more ewes, more money, and it was overgrazed in general in the ’70s and ’80s,” she says. “Then there were a number of measures brought in to address the overgrazing. Agri-environmental schemes have attempted to do it over the years, commonage management plans.

“Sheep are making less money than ever, farmers are getting older than ever, “ says Ms Keena, explaining why many people with commonage grazing rights don’t bother putting animals up among the clouds and heather. Animals such as sheep are effectively natural lawnmowers — if they are up there in the right numbers, it is hugely beneficial for the natural environment.

“The abandonment [of commonage] is very detrimental,” she adds. Conversely, there are “huge benefits” if the right spread of animals graze it, including biodiversity and carbon storage.

Latest efforts to achieve the right level of grazing on the commonages included the Glas management plan which looked at commonages, in Ms Keena’s words, “as a collective [of people] whereas previously they had treated them as individuals”.

The aim is to get the best number of animals grazing the land with “a truly working commonage group”.

The prime example is the sustainable uplands agriculture-environment scheme (Suas) pilot project in Wicklow, officially launched in November 2018. The first project of its kind in Ireland, it has a funding allocation of €1.95m and a five-year plan to increase the number of sheep on the hills, extend the grazing period, improve biodiversity, protect water quality, and maintain recreational access, among other aims.

Ms Keena says:

You need the sheep, you need the people, even for the tourists, for it to be a vibrant place for other rural development. We are trying to get cattle back up there.

“It’s a very tough life farming it, it takes longer to get up to feed them [the animals] — they need supports. It doesn’t pay for the amount of food they produce, but they produce other benefits and services.”

Mary’s trips to court this year were far from her only claims to fame. For one thing, she is the proud owner of an All-Ireland camogie medal — for Dublin.

Her late husband Joe ‘Gorth’ O’Sullivan, who passed away in 2011, played senior football for Cork and Munster and was part of the team that lost the 1957 All-Ireland final against Louth.

“I have that one on him him all the time,” Mary says with a laugh. “I have the camogie [medal].”

She had previously played as a centre or wing forward but the Dubs popped her in at centre back. Whatever, it worked, although she can’t quite remember who they beat on the day. She picked it up playing for the Metropolitans when she was living in the capital.

“I didn’t want to go but I had to,” she says of swapping her rural home for Dublin.

Reared on bringing in the sheep and cycling to school, at 16 she headed to the capital to work in the civil service — the Board of Works — on an accountancy machine, staying seven years.

The family then moved to Capwell Rd in Cork City but even then they were back down to Beara every second weekend — the call of the mountain was too strong.

“This was always home to us,” says Mary. “Every time I came home I had to bring them [the sheep] in. I never forgot them.”

The old house where she was born is still standing down the hill from her current home and Mary lights the occasional fire in the hearth there. Once she was able to retire, the intention was always to come back to Kilcatherine and build a new house.

She says she and siblings were “raw” as children, she says — “pure cabógs”. Amid the smartie houses in nearby Eyeries, there’s a sign marking the birthplace of seanchaí Pádraig Ó Murchu and Mary has something of that tradition.

She peppers her speech with Irish words and knows every inch of the commonage.

“It’s all natural growth there, ’tis beautiful,” she says. One of the “great pleasures” was driving to one end of it with Joe, a welder, and then walking back. She describes an area above the upper lake at Derryveggill: “If you stood above that on a fine day and looked, you couldn’t move. You’d have to stop and see that and see Kerry across the way. There’s nothing nicer you could do.”

She’s back up to 50 sheep at present and says she’s lucky that the herd never seems to encounter any problems during lambing season. She takes them to Kenmare to sell them.

“As long as mine pay their way,” she says. All that hill walking and camogie put her in good health.

“I was never more than 40 lie, ’til I fell and broke my leg,” she says.

I hated saying my age [in hospital]. No one would suspect it. Above in the hospital they couldn’t believe it.

As we speak, one of her grandchildren plays away in the background and her daughter, Orla, helps brush her hair. Orla played junior football — “you’d know she was Joe’s daughter”, according to Mary.

The place is festooned with pictures of family members, such as an eye-catching photo of her son, Gearoid, with a shotgun draped across his arm. They participate in a clay-pigeon shooting competition every summer over near Allihies in honour of Joe, who was a good shot himself.

A framed poem, written by Orla for her father to mark a significant birthday, hangs over the fireplace. Some lines read: “The new people I meet they say to me, ‘No who exactly would your father be?’, ‘Did you hear of Joe Gorth?’ is my answer on file, ‘Ah Joe is your dad’ their face breaks to a smile. Their words are always enthusiastic and kind, one man’s words in particular come to mind. ‘Ah Joe Gorth, the finest footballer I’ve ever seen, When I was a lad he was my Roy Keane.’”

It seems today is the day — Mary is getting back on the quadbike. Orla is there to support her mother in getting back in the saddle; your correspondent is, frankly, unsure and a little frightened. Thoughts gather. What if something goes wrong? The fear that Mary, as indestructible and all as she might appear, could strain or snap something hove into view.

We needn’t have worried. Once she’s on board, it’s like she was never away from it.

Turning the key in the ignition, she pulls away on the quad, the wind whistling around her and does a quick loop of the house, her face lit up, beaming. Once she hops off she’s giving out hugs and thanks, even though it was all her own doing.

“I’m so happy,” she says.

Before long she has repaired down the road to the arcing corner of the road near the old house, and Lucy is off up the mountain to showcase her skills.

“Bring them in, Lucy, bring them in,” is the call from Mary.

The dog does her duty; except your humble reporter has left the gate open. The sheep are — momentarily — back on the road, only to be put in reverse gear within seconds by Lucy. In the blink of an eye they’re back where they are supposed to be, up on the heather.

Mary is thrilled. “Lovely,” she says. “It’s great.”

All the while you can’t help looking around at the elemental surroundings — the clouds gathered low over the nearby peaks, the dip of the valley, the lake in the distance, and the mountains, immutable and ageless. Except there’s a woman on a quad bike giving it a good run for its money.

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