A wake for a cow in a pub in rural Ireland sounds like an episode of Father Ted. We knew we’d get no further that night
A neighbour came a-calling lately with talk of an amazing cow called Lucky Polly who had just celebrated her 22nd birthday. ‘Twenty two years’, he marvelled. Twenty two years be damned, I scoffed. Did you never hear tell of Big Bertha?
And I rolled back to that starry-eyed New Year’s Eve of 1993, motoring through the back roads of the Kingdom of Kerry – four of us in a clapped-out Datsun, destined for a farmhouse party on a distant shore. It always takes an age to get to Kerry, a mountainous peninsula down in the south-west of Ireland.
By late afternoon, the sumptuous views had vanished and the dark of night had engulfed the roadsides. Bored of the blackness, we fell prey to a seasonal thirst.
“Next pub,” we agreed.
A few eye-straining minutes later, someone yelped, “Look! That sign! The Blackwater Tavern.” The car veered left down a road with a thick grass strip down its centre. We noted a build-up of vehicles on the roadsides, primarily tractors.
A very tall man with no teeth and a peaked cap appeared in front of our windscreen, calmly directing us to drive through a gap in the hedge. “You’ll be grand,” he assured us as the car squeezed scratchily through the hedge and came out in a field where there were more tractors and cars parked.
We alighted and proceeded to the pub. The establishment was “packed to suffocation” as one man put it, but in that majestic way that Irish pubs used to be packed, with old men guffawing into creamy black pints at every turn. Red-cheeked children ringing rosies around a turf fire. Giddy fiddles and bodhráns rattling out of the darkened corners.
OK, so it’s New Year’s Eve in County Kerry, I deduced, but there’s surely something above and beyond that going on here.
Which is about when we were told we’d stumbled upon Big Bertha’s wake. “Did you never hear tell of Big Bertha?” asked the barman in surprise.
Big Bertha, a Droimeann cow that had died that morning, boasts two entries in Guinness World Records. First, she is the oldest cow ever recorded, passing away just three months short of her 49th birthday, which is comfortably more than twice the lifespan of your average cow. Second, she holds the record for lifetime breeding, having given birth to 39 calves.
Attending the wake of the grand old dame of the bovine world was one of those moments where time stood still. We knew we weren’t going any further that night. We were in for the long haul. Several hours later, I got chatting to Big Bertha’s owner, a lovely farmer called Jerome O’Leary, since deceased. He told how she used to lead the St Paddy’s Day parade in Sneem, raising money for cancer relief, and how he gave her whiskey to steel her nerves amid the crowd.
It was Jerome’s intention to have Big Bertha immortalised by a taxidermist. I am delighted to report that Big Bertha was indeed stuffed and is on view today at Hazel Fort Farm in Beaufort, County Kerry.
Published in The Guardian, Saturday 4 December 2010.