The Road to Tipperary
by Jack Enright
(Buxton, Derbyshire, England)
The Road to Tipperary
Celtic stories and poems have a strange feel to them – as though, even when set in this world, they have at least half an eye on somewhere which is . . . elsewhere. And this is no whimsy. Bards, poets and musicians have always been revered in the Celtic tradition, as they are to this day – for they are not seen as mere entertainers, but as custodians of the history, philosophy and sacred beliefs of those peoples.
Over the years, many psychologists, social scientists, and churchmen have tried to define human qualities in words – I’ve yet to hear of one succeeding. The Celts were too wise to fall into that trap. They knew that, when dealing with the deeper levels of life, words alone cannot cope. It’s not that things like love, beauty, friendship and trust are too vague to put into words – on the contrary, words are too vague and shallow to describe them. If you try, you are forced to cut the reality down to that which words can encompass – and, in so doing, lose most of the meaning. It’s like the difference between a text message on a mobile phone, and a face to face conversation.
So, what did the Celts do? They wrote poems and stories, made music and pictures, which bypassed the mind, and connected straight to the heart. They nudged the audience towards the truth, but expected the audience to come at least half-way to meet them in understanding, rather than just be passive receivers.
There’s a well-known Irish story, so old now, its’ beard is probably down to its’ knees. As I heard it, a man was travelling through Ireland, when he came to a spot where a tangle of roads and footpaths met – and none of the names on the signposts meant a thing to him. As luck would have it, a local man was passing, so the traveller asked him;
“Can you tell me the best way to Tipperary from here, please?”
The other pondered the question, looking very dubious, and finally answered;
“Sure, if I was going to Tipperary, I wouldn’t start from here.”
It would be easy to write this off as a rather silly joke, but there’s more to it than meets the casual eye. For isn’t it the truth, that, given the choice, in so many of our personal endeavours, we “wouldn’t start from here” either?
When we make our minds up to do something, whether it’s applying for a new job, buying a horse, taking up painting, or saying something to someone which needs to be said, but from which we flinch – we never start from an ideal place.
We, all of us, have baggage from the past. Old fears, bad memories from times past when things went wrong for us, lack of confidence, lack of knowledge, constraints of time, money, family and work responsibilities – all of these conspire to hamper us on the journey to our particular Tipperary – whatever form that might take.
But it’s odd the way things work out. For some of us, our journey to Tipperary feels as though we’re forced to travel via Dublin, Bootle, Stranraer and Galway Bay – with a diversion to Amsterdam thrown in for good measure! Sometimes, though, hindsight gives us a different slant on the trip; sometimes that ‘diversion’ turns out to be the most valuable part of all.
I’ve never had a horse of my own, though I’ve ridden, driven and herded them, shod them, trained them, and nursed them when they were sick. The last time I did a rough count, I’d dealt with over 3,000 of them, one way or another.
Admittedly, with many of them, it was only long enough to knock off a set of worn shoes, trim up, and fit a new set – but that’s pretty close contact, all the same. One of the things it forced me to learn was how to size up a strange horse in a matter of seconds – because, as often as not, that was all I had. Hunched up under the belly of a half ton of unknown horse, with his hind foot in my lap, I found myself ignoring the assurances of the owner (who bought him a week ago, at auction!), and relying on reading the feel of the horse’s muscles, and my own gut instinct. It may be true, as Samuel Johnson said, that “The prospect of being hung in the morning concentrates the mind wonderfully” – but shoeing horses can, at times, give the hangman a run for his money in that respect!
Though I came to heartily loathe the job, that awareness has given me a great deal – and got me out of real danger, too – but mostly what I’ve learned from it is how deceptive appearances can be, with both horses and people.
Once, my boss and I went to shoe a horse called Murphy – I think a Percheron cross Welsh Cob. Like O’Rafferty’s Pig, as immortalised by Val Doonican, Murphy was “built like a battleship – solid and stout!”, and as tough of mind as he was of body. Murphy was fighting fit, having been used as a pony trekking escort horse, up and down the steep sides of the Mendip Hills, all day, six days a week – and I’m pretty sure that, on their day off, Fran took him out on the Mendips again! But then, Murphy was sold.
Fran told the new owner what Murphy was like, and made it clear that he had to be worked hard and ridden frequently. Two days later, the new owner broke his arm (nothing to do with Murphy), and left Murphy in the box . . . all day . . . all that week . . . and the following week . . .
Two weeks later, Geoff and I arrived to do Murphy’s feet, and the fireworks started. At one point, Geoff was nailing on a hind shoe, and Murphy was reared up on the other hind leg, with me hanging on like grim death to his head collar, with a yard or so of thin air under my boots. When Fran found out what had happened, she was furious with the owner – and very apologetic about Murphy. But, as I said to her, “There was no malice in it; he wasn’t trying to hurt us - just larking about.”
On another occasion, we went to shoe a newly bought horse. When we arrived, the horse was standing quietly looking out of his box – the owner was out. I took one look at the horse, and told my boss “I’m not touching that one.” Geoff gave me a startled look, and asked why – I’d never said that about any of the horses we dealt with. All I could say was “He’s a wrong ‘un – he’s dangerous,” and I wouldn’t budge.
So Geoff shod him, with no trouble at all, and I sat in the van. Next time we went to the same yard, the new horse was gone. I tried asking the owner what had happened to him, but he was very evasive – I never did find out what happened between them, but I’m convinced to this day that horse was a disaster just waiting to explode.
But imagine how things could have turned out if I’d gone by surface appearances. I might well have refused to touch Murphy (who was loopy but harmless – no, really! There was no spite in him at all) – but willingly worked on the time-bomb horse, just because he looked quiet. Or how if I’d been offered those two horses for sale, and seen them both being shod?
And look at the flip side. I was once booked to ride a big chestnut Thoroughbred called Indian, at the riding stables I went to. On arrival, I was told we weren’t in the school, but out in the woods for the first time after three weeks of relentless rain. The instructor said I could have another horse for that day if I wished, as Indian was notorious for tanking off with people, but my gut feeling was that he was fine. It was just that people rode him wrong. Hauling in on the reins, clamping with their legs, and so on – they might as well have put him in a strait jacket.
So I trusted my instincts, and rode him as light as a feather – and Indian repaid me by giving me the ride of my life through the woods! It was, I think, as close as a man can come to flying, without growing wings. He was bred to be a three day eventer, and that day, he was in his element – though I could never quite imagine him doing dressage, “working in a nice outline”. No, Indian was adrenaline on legs, and I will never forget that day in the Sussex woods, when he showed me just how much a good horse will give you, if you trust yourself, and him.
My time in that blacksmith’s shop in Somerset left me battered and bruised in many ways, and very disheartened at the time, but now it shows in a different light. That detour off the direct route to my learning horsemanship has not only saved my neck, on more than one occasion; it’s also given me memories that I’ll treasure all of my life, too.
I think, all in all, it was worth the extra mileage.
26th January, 2009