LOCAL CULTURE :: Saturday April 5th 2014 :: Shrule Newsletter
A chance encounter leads to a WHBA member’s friendship with a legendary Irish farrier, by Fred Foy with Bruce Batson
(WHBA: Washington Horse Breeders Association).
It was fair time in Shrule, a small farming community in County Galway, Republic of Ireland. Racing in Ireland goes from county to county, each having its own fair meeting sometime during the Summer, and this was the week of the Galway Plate, an event for which it seemed the entire county would be on vacation. No one, except the American tourist who couldn’t break his early rising habit, would be out and about too early in the morning. It was the Summer of I985 and my wife Sue and I were visiting her European roots on one of those once in a Iifetime vacations. We were in Shrule as guests of the family of Father Sean Heneghan of Tacoma, an ardent racing fan who got involved in the ‘Great Sport‘ I S years ago.
One day my early morning wanderings led me past a shop from which inside I could hear the steady tap, tap, tap sound of metal striking metal. Curious, I went inside and discovered a gaunt older gentleman working at a blacksmith’s forge.
Because of my involvement in the thoroughbred industry, my curiosity was even more aroused. It didn’t become clear until later, but it turned out I had stumbled onto a legendary figure in the horse world. Like many of the Irishmen you hear
about, however, Paddy McDonagh didn’t put a lot of trust in outsiders. It wasn’t until Father Sean formally introduced me as a Yank with a keen interest in horses and who knew a little bit about what was under the skin, did he open up much. A
lifelong resident of Shrule, Paddy and his family were small farmer tenants of the Lord de Clifford, whose expansive Dalgan Castle dominated the area.
Besides working the land, the family was very much involved in taking care of the local gentry‘s horses, especially the jumpers. Having completed his grade school education—the extent of the educational opportunity offered in the local community—Paddy began his farrier apprenticeship under the direction of his uncle, Tom Monaghan, a respected farrier and well known all over Ireland for his iron work craftsmanship. In time, Paddy’s background led him to designing shoes for horses with particular problems.
In the I940’s Paddy opened his own forge in Shrule, working and gaining a reputation as an expert at his craft. The story goes, though, that at about 40 years of age, Paddy suddenly disappeared. Not telling anyone, he left for Dublin with hopes of attending the National Veterinary College. When he wasn’t allowed entry into the school because of his limited education, he appealed to the Board Na G’Capall, or National Horsemen’s Board, for help.
To their credit, the National Horsemen’s Board knew of Paddy and his expertise. Feeling that his knowledge and craftsmanship should be preserved and passed on, the Board successfully petitioned the college to allow Paddy to work at the school and attend classes so they could capture some of what he had learned over the years.
When Paddy returned to Shrule, he had become famous. In time people began bringing in their horses from all over Ireland, then England, and then from all over Europe, in the hopes that Paddy could save their horse from having to go ‘under the knife,’ sometimes waiting for days to get their horses worked on.
After Father Sean provided me with that first introduction, I went back to visit Paddy several times during our stay in Shrule. We had delightful talks and eventually I felt I had gained his confidence. I learned that all of his iron work was hand forged, nothing was done with modern tools and in fact his farrier shop doesn’t have any of the modern conveniences.
One day during our visit, I stopped into his shop and Paddy was kind of dressed up. He said some people were coming from the town of Calway to pick him up to work on a horse early in the morning. He told me I would be very surprised who this horse was and who the owners were, but he couldn’t reveal them to me. Instead, he decided to let me in on the secret remedy he was preparing for the horse. “Anybody can kill a splint,” he said. “But they can’t get rid of the knot on the leg. I can.” He would tap a piece of sheet lead around a hollowed out piece of elderberry wood (“It must be eIderberry,” he cautioned) roughly the shape of a cannon bone until the lead was paper thin. Then he would saturate some gauze in Oil of Canphor and bind the elderberry with the sheet lead around it to the horse’s leg, where it would be left for I5 days, not I4—I /2 or I5—I /2 days, but I5 days exactly.
When you took it off, he said, the splint would be dissolved with absolutely no sign of it remaining. The townspeople of Shrule explained to me that no one was sure exactly how much of the procedure was actually needed and how much of it was just Paddy’s way of pulling their legs. But they added that the important thing was that it worked and that the ritual was that you do all of it. Paddy is ajudge at the farrier contest held at the Dublin Horse Show and also for the World Farrier Contest which that year was being held in France. In addition to judging the shows, he would also make the champion’s prize, which was a miniature anvil and tools he would make from scratch, beginning only with a bar of iron. The prizes were exquisite pieces of craftsmanship and took him some two years of spare time to create. As we continued our vacation into other parts of Europe, I found that Paddy was truly a legend.
Whether we were in Newmarket or Dublin, they knew all about Paddy McDonagh. The sadness of it is that nobody is
picking up Paddy’s trade. He returns to Dublin each year to teach a few short courses, but he explained to me that the school wanted him to teach only the scientific methods, not his so called secret methods. But to me his treatments of lore were just as interesting as the proven methods. And, as the people of the town said, they work.
(Source: The Washington Horse June I986 pp.958—959. Note: Fred Foy is President of the Washington Horse Breeders Sales Cooperative). Thanks to Mr. Ger Heneghan for making this article on Paddy McDonagh available.