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My Life in Donkeys

Mary McAteerDonkeys and my love for them did not start in childhood.

Summer holidays on my grandmother’s farm in Co. Cavan meant that my earliest memories from the post-World War 2 years were of pony and trap transport to the town of Virginia and to Sunday church. By 1950 the car had replaced the pony and trap and, as a result. the countryside had lost a lot of its attraction for me.

I had no awareness of donkeys whatsoever as there were none around with whom I might have become acquainted. I was always in love with horses and learned to ride with Iris Kellett when her stables and riding school were based in Dubin 4. I enjoyed very much riding horses in Wicklow and on the north County Dublin beaches for a few years until I went to live in Kildare where I could ride my own horse.

In my mid-twenties, around 1971/72, there was for me what might be called a ‘ lightbulb’ moment in the West of Ireland. The exact location is unknown to me now but I know that there is a small photo of the event somewhere in our home. Two grey donkeys, a mare and foal, were standing in a large pothole as we rounded the bend in a narrow coast road.

We made eye contact, direct, intelligent and brimming with empathy – on their part. It was love at first sight! I simply wanted a donkey above all else. I joined the Irish Donkey Society while attending the RDS Horse Show in Dublin in 1973. The then Secretary was Group Captain John Heber Percy. We purchased a donkey in Prosperous, Co. Kildare and she could gallop like Arkle. From that time I was totally smitten and won a prize at the RDS in 1974.

Since then, there were prizes and trophies and countless great events associated with the Donkey Society. My donkeys were always mares and mostly named after great queens in history – Cleopatra, Sheba, Maeve, Helen, Amanda Jane, Annabelle and so on. Sheba was a Reserve All Ireland Champion. Nowadays, my donkeys are Angel, Chloe and Sinéad, all with us on’ lifetime loan’ circumstances.


Over the years my love for donkeys has become more reflective. I know from my own experience that they are good for me in body, mind and soul – perhaps, more correctly, for the body mind. Any person or animal that we meet with joy certainly boosts the immune response when levels of Serotonin happily rise. Donkeys connect with me through all the senses.

The sight of them never fails to please. The beautiful head with gorgeous, expressive eyes and alert ears tells me that they are listening and watching, paying attention to me. This for me is what empathy is about. Surely my donkey knows what is going on for me? She knows when I am happy – which is almost all the time, thank God. Equally she senses if I am sad about something.

Sadness around my donkeys is frequently when I think about those animals in developing countries where both man and beast have not got the resources for decent living. Nothing compares with the touch when she nuzzles at my cheek or nose. That velvety texture, for me, beats the most luxurious velvet that a Parisian

boutique could supply. Best touch of all is when I brush, stroke or comb the donkey coat. The relaxation for me is life-affirming as I feel my heart rate slow and visualise my blood pressure pushing the mercury down to my boots. As for the donkey sound, what a unique voice! A bellow that usually alerts when a car drives up near the house. The same voice that in world war situations was surgically silenced by the military lest their braying might reveal the presence of their troops and, thereby, hinder the surprise element of attack. So, what of the sense of smell?

I have only recently seen for myself how donkeys are attracted to the smell of mint and some donkeys will devour bunches of it if allowed. Smell informs their taste. Healthy, well kept donkeys impart their own unique scent. Sound, taste and smell intermingle to delightful effect when I hear the contented munching of fragrant hay when on winter evenings my donkeys return to their barn for the evening meal. Pure bliss.

The Biblical imperative was that man might have dominion over the animals. This exhortation requires our responsibility towards all those creatures. For me, my donkeys provide me with a reminder that I could do well to emulate some of their virtues – calm, dignity, humility and peaceful.

Mary F. Mc Ateer