Cattle rsz

The man who knew everything

Durt Donovan’s claimed areas of expertise extended far beyond his vocational knowledge of farm animals.


By Tom Phelan

For all the years I knew him, in fair or foul weather, our distant neighbor Durt Donovan dressed in a beltless gabardine coat that had witnessed the birth of many a calf; it had been worn while he examined a variety of animal orifices; it had been present at the castration of calves and at the daily milking of cows. His paddy cap, with its peak broken in the middle, was used as a glove while he handled boiling pots and kettles, as a basket to carry eggs or transport newborn kittens, and as a rag to wipe animal dung off his face.

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Only the lower part of Durt’s wellington boots had ever been cleaned, accidentally, while their owner walked through ankle-high dewy grass. The cloth of his trousers, their legs stuffed into the top of the wellingtons, had been stiffened by years of milk spillages, splashes of bovine urine, and dirt in a thousand manifestations. In a hundred million years, the same trousers would be a paleontologist’s lode, with their compressed layers as evidentiary as the Burgess Shale.

Above Durt’s lantern jaw, the forehead was furrowed and the furrows were like miniature potato drills, with farmyard manure already teased out along them, ready for the reception of seeds. His sagging neck was mindful of loose flesh swinging from side to side at the throat of a plodding bull so feeble it could only sniff, remember, and wish.

Looking out on the world through omniscient eyes and speaking with the assuredness of the infallible pope, Durt would address the lower forms of life who had the misfortune to encounter him. Whenever Dad saw him coming in the distance, he climbed through the nearest hedge and hid.

One spring, I was spike-harrowing in Conroy’s field with the Lame Mare and Whiteface. My brother Eddie was cutting back the previous year’s briars, which had insinuated themselves like snakes out of the hedges and into the clay. Durt Donovan, who had his nephew Packie and Packie’s pregnant wife, Molly, living with him, suddenly appeared at the whitethorn hedge beside the lane. There was no escape for Eddie and me.

Durt summoned us over. Without preamble, he addressed us across the low hedge. “Dey took yer wan”—meaning Molly—“to the hospital last night to have her babby. Hospital, me arse! In my day a woman took a batter of flour and water when she went to bed and the next morning she put the babby from her like a snot.”

Having spoken ex cathedra, he adjusted his papal tiara, uttered not another word, and processed up the lane, picking his teeth with a thorn he had broken off a gooseberry bush.

Decades later, I told Mam about this nugget of Durt’s wisdom, and she threw back her head and laughed long and loud. Then she said, “Wasn’t he a terrible oul eegit?”

When I was fourteen, I met Durt Donovan on our lane as I was riding my bike home after serving Mass. The smell off him was fierce.

“I hear yer an altar bye now, chappie.”

“Yes,’ I said, and continued pedaling until I emerged from his cloud of stink.

“I hear you’re goin’ off to Knockbeg in September,' he said, referring to the diocesan minor seminary.”

“I am,” I said. I braked, put my foot to the ground, then twisted on the bike seat to look back at him.

“Schooling won’t change who y’are, chappie. Look at me…I never got beyant fourth class, and I can talk with the best of them, teachers and bank managers, and I know more than the whole lot of them together.”

He paused for a moment. “And what will you be doing when you've finished school?”

“I’m going to be a priest.”

“A priest! Well for you! Nothing to do all day only play golf with the big knobs; eating the best, drinking too; warm and clean all the time with a woman to buy the food and cook for you, and you not having to marry her. Say Mass, eat, and play golf. Grand life. But still and all, a lot of them fellas turn into contrary old shites, all thorns and no flowers. Mark my words, chappie: if you become a priest, you’ll be sorry in the long run.”

He walked away.

I felt resentful toward Durt for squeezing my balloon while everyone else was keeping it inflated. But as I grew older I remembered the stone of doubt he had placed in my boot. A lifetime later, I still wonder how he got this one thing so right after spending so much of his life mouthing liquid horse manure.

© 2017 by Glanvil Enterprises, Ltd. For more information about Tom Phelan’s work go to