Phoenix (age 5) and Baxten (age 6) are two ordinary donkeys that came to me a year ago from the Donkey Sanctuary. They are two lively young donkeys with an inquisitive attitude to life. At the weekend they went back 100 years in time to 1916. The occasion was the “Country and Rural Life” re-enactment hosted by Teagasc on their farm in Athenry, Co Galway and over 20,000 people were expected. Three months ago both the donkeys and I were totally unprepared for this journey.
A hundred years ago donkeys played an important part in rural life, providing transport for people and farm produce, preparing ground to plant crops and bringing turf off the bog. Phoenix was to pull a two wheel trap to demonstrate the role of the donkey in transport and Baxten would demonstrate the role of the donkey in harvesting turf, an essential resource during war years. I had to source a trap, harness and creels and then not only train the donkeys in their roles but also get them used to large crowds of people. The donkeys needed to get out and about and their first trip was to a training session run by Cathy Griffin, Donkey Welfare Adviser in Leinster, transported there by Joe Collins Senior, Donkey Welfare Adviser. Their next outing was to a Summer Fair where Phoenix and Baxten were stroked and brushed endlessly by small children. After another trip, this time to “My Lovely Horse Rescue”, the donkeys were well used to travelling in their horse trailer and meeting people.
Meanwhile at home training started by getting Phoenix used to the harness, piece by piece, taking particular care the first time I fastened the girth and placed the crupper under his tail. He had to adjust to his restricted field of vision when wearing the blinkers on his bridle. Phoenix adapted very quickly to the feel of the driving harness and moved on to long reining. For this step Baxten was shut in the stable and Phoenix had to learn not to fight me to return to him. Having got used to the voice commands of “walk on” and “whoa” Phoenix progressed to pulling a tyre. A tyre is great as it will bounce off objects if the donkey cuts a corner and hurts less if he bashes it into my ankles. The next big test was pulling a heavier load and for this I used a chain harrow. Meanwhile I had sourced a trap, an original square tub – and miracle of miracles, Phoenix fitted. Many circuits of our arena later came the crucial moment when I could eventually put him to and drive him, even if steering was still a work in progress.
Michael Joyce, a Basket Maker from Clifden, Co Galway made the traditional creels and straddle which fitted on Baxten’s back, keeping the weight of the turf off his spine. Michael started by cutting 240 willow rods (120 per basket) and putting them to soak before making the creels. I collected them four weeks later. They had been scaled down slightly as Baxten is a small donkey. We started his training by getting him used to a light saddle and girth, moving on to hanging bags of hay from this. He was completely unconcerned by any of this, so we placed a piece of sheepskin on his back, put the straddle on top and then hung the baskets on the straddle. Baxten behaved perfectly and walked around the arena where Phoenix was being driven without any fuss. It was important that both Phoenix and Baxten were used to the look of their friend in their new role.
On the 9th June our big weekend arrived and Phoenix, Baxten and the tub trap were loaded into the horse box, the creels, harness, period clothing and people went in the car and we headed for Athenry. That evening our small donkeys looked even smaller penned at the end of a row of draft horses.
Friday was not the hay making weather required. My wife, Trudi, (who was to lead Baxten) and I were joined by Eugene Butler in his “genuine” 1916 coat. Paul and Theresa, who were in spectacular period costume, had brought their Donkey Sanctuary donkeys Cooper and Russell for demonstrations in the forge. Eugene gave three demonstrations during the day of hoof trimming to an enthusiastic four deep crowd, with a commentary from Paul, Eugene or me. Back in 1916 Russell and Cooper would have seen less of the farrier as they brought milk to the creamery and the farmers’ wife to the market, wearing away excess hoof as they walked on the road.
In the transport arena I was fitted with a mike and gave a commentary on how donkeys were used to take turf from the bog while Trudi led Baxter around with his turf baskets topped with turf. He was photographed from all sides. Next it was an explanation of harnessing Phoenix and “putting to” (putting him into the trap). Declan McArdle form Teagasc was the arena M.C. and took questions from the audience. It took Phoenix no time at all to learn that after one circuit I would stop to answer questions, challenging me to get him to start moving again. The donkeys behaved beautifully all week-end and were completely unbothered by the huge crowds of people watching them.
The Donkey Sanctuary team were very impressed with the standard of questions and it was clear that the audience contained many farmers and donkey owners. The attendance of 15,000 on Friday and 35,000 on Saturday got the opportunity to see the donkeys demonstrate their importance to people in our past and our importance to their welfare in 2016.
Phoenix and Baxten were pleased to make it back home and had no difficulty readjusting to the more leisurely life of a re-homed donkey in the twenty first century. We now have donkeys capable of bringing us for a Sunday drive. Their next scheduled engagement will be at a donkey care course in Tullamore where driving is not on the agenda but hopefully they will impress on the attendees that becoming a Guardian to two donkeys offers endless opportunities.