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President’s Remarks at the Opening of the Donkey Sanctuary’s New Walkway

Liscarroll, Co. Cork, 15th November 2013

“I gCinn Mhara a bhíos nuair a chuir mé aithne ar m’asal beag dubh i dtosach. Lá aonaigh a bhi ann agus bhí sé ina sheasamh ansin agus a thóin le gaoth, gan aird aige ar an saol ná ag an saol air.” Translation: In Connemara I was when I first met my little black donkey. It was a fair-day and he was standing there beside a fence with his rump to the gale, having nothing to do with the world and the world having nothing to do with him.

Most of you gathered here this evening will probably be familiar with these lines by Pádraig Ó Conaire, alluding to the donkey’s friendly and peaceful character. Donkeys are endearing animals, and I am delighted to have been asked by Paddy Barrett to join you here to open the extension to the Donkey Sanctuary’s existing walkways, which allow visitors to call on the soft-eyed and long-eared residents of Knockardbane farm.

Donkeys hold a special place in the Irish cultural imagination. They have become associated with the image of our country throughout the world, to the extent that we sometimes forget that they are not native to Ireland. Indeed, while asses were first domesticated more than 5,000 years ago in north-eastern Africa – a pivotal point in human history – the first mention of this animal in Irish history does not go back further than 1642, when a donkey was reportedly taken as spoils during the capture of Maynooth Castle.

But when donkeys were introduced in large numbers to our island, in the nineteenth century, people soon realised how strong, intelligent and useful they are. For many years, donkeys have been a vital part of Irish rural life, ploughing, hauling turf, seaweed and hay over rough terrain and up countless bóithríns, carrying milk, groceries and children on their backs or on heavy carts. A farmhouse in the West of Ireland was not complete without a donkey who was cherished by his master for its hard work and by the children as a friendly pet.

Although the radical changes undergone by Irish farming over the last four decades have, sadly perhaps, rendered irrelevant most of the tasks performed by the farm donkey, the animal remains a powerful symbol of Ireland. For many people, the famous photograph by John Hinde of the donkey and two small, redheaded children in a Connemara bog represents the quintessence of Ireland. This highly romanticised vision of rural life endures, often as a postcard sent from Ireland to far off places.

Whatever the transformation of farming techniques, the value of donkeys as companions remains intact. The social character and loyalty of donkeys are particularly touching: fidelity to their master, but also toward the other animal – sheep, goat or horse – they choose as their pal. It is often pointed out that a donkey and his mate can stay together for years, and that even short term separation can be stressful. In this sanctuary, one can observe some of the donkeys going about their daily business in pairs of their own making.

Twenty-six years have elapsed since the Donkey Sanctuary was founded by Paddy Barrett, with the help of Elizabeth Svendsen of the Donkey Sanctuary Devon. A previous incarnation of the Liscarroll Sanctuary had been established in 1964 by Paddy’s father, Garrett, as a small haven for various species of animals known by the beautiful name of “the Restfield.”

Today Liscarroll’s Donkey Sanctuary provides care and protection to over 1,100 donkeys and mules, regardless of their age and health. It has rescued numerous animals who were suffering from mistreatment; it has also taken in donkeys from caring owners who could not afford to mind them anymore, as well as donkeys left unattended on some of our off-shore islands.

The Sanctuary is equipped with an excellent veterinary clinic, which has accumulated considerable knowledge on donkey care and pathology. It also fulfils an important educational mission, welcoming about 40,000 visitors annually, and working with schools in order to raise children’s awareness of the care and welfare of donkeys, and of animals in general.

Such educational initiatives are of vital importance to our society, in a context where an increasing number of people have no or only tenuous links with the rural world.

Therefore I would like to commend each and every one of you – member of staff, veterinarian or volunteer – for your wonderful work which benefits both humans and animals.

Irish society has come a long way since the “Act against Plowing by the Tayle, and Pulling the Wooll off Living Sheep” – the first known piece of legislation in relation to animal welfare in the English-speaking world – was introduced in Ireland in 1635.

Two centuries later, Richard Martin, one of the founders of the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, in 1824, and a predecessor of mine in representing the people of Galway in Parliament, introduced the “Treatment of Horses and Cattle Bill” in the British House of Commons. Martin was mocked by his fellow MPs, who derided the notion of rights for animals.

Even nowadays, there can be a tendency to dismiss animal welfare considerations as misplaced sentimentalism. Yet, according to anthropologist Philippe Descola, domestication – and the utilitarian approach to animals it entails – is far from being a universal norm. Descola, who analysed the bewildering diversity of relations humans establish with animals, distinguishes between domestication, understood as the collective treatment of a community of reproduction, and taming. He argues that many civilisations around the world have deemed it necessary not to domesticate, although they could technically have done so.

For example, in the lowlands of South-America, the Amerindians have tamed numerous species around them – from tapirs to sloths – without ever trying to have them reproduce in captivity. The young of the mammals or birds killed in hunting are treated like offerings by those who slew their parents, and therefore are hosted and raised, generally by the women, until they can fend for themselves. These young animals are very rarely mistreated, and never killed deliberately.

This example shows that the “hybrid collectives” human communities form with animals vary enormously across time and space. The relations men establish with animals are the direct product of the positive or negative qualities that they have learned to detect in various species. These relations are informed by circumstances, the whims of technical innovations, and the milieu in which humans are socialised: indeed animals are treated differently whether they are perceived as a supply of meat, a substitute for humans in sacrifices, the vehicle of an evil spell, or a source of symbols.

Is é mo thuairim láidir go bhfuil modhanna nua gaoil á sáothrú idir an duine agus na hainmhithe sna blianta tosaigh seo den fhichiú haois – iontú bisigh tá súil againn. Is cinnte gur mar sin atá sé in áiteanna fearacht Tearmann na n-Asal ar aon nós, áit ina mbíonn daoine agus ainmhithe i dteagmháil lena chéile go rialta.

[It is my conviction that in these first decades of the twenty-first century, new modes of relations between men and animals are being tempered – hopefully for the better. This is certainly the case in places such as the Donkey Sanctuary, where humans and non-humans cross paths peacefully.]

The new walkway we are opening this evening will facilitate interaction between visitors and the donkeys lodged in the surrounding paddocks, bringing them closer than was possible with the existing walkways, and making it easier for walkers to rub the donkeys’ muzzle, stroke their neck, or scratch their poll – for the animals’ greatest delight.

It gives me great pleasure to declare this new path open; may many enjoyable encounters take place along its way.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.

Article Details

President of Ireland / 15th November 2013 / Michael D. Higgins