I emailed my boss on Thursday afternoon: “I know it’s short notice, but is there any way I could have tomorrow off to go to the mart, please?”
Shortly after hitting “send,” I heard a guffaw from the other side of the table. Evidently, it’s not every day that an employee requests leave for the purposes of selling livestock. Thankfully, my boss is from a farming background himself and, understanding the importance of such events, agreed to the time off. As I was leaving, then, he asked, “What’s he selling?”
I wracked my brain for details, or at the very least, something that sounded somewhat intelligent. After a moment or two, I admitted defeat. “Cattle?” I offered, hopefully.
Which is why, perhaps, Jack felt it important that I continue my education with this, my first visit to the mart —that weird and wonderful place I’d heard so much about, where, all being well, a drystock farmer’s hard work throughout the year finally bears fruit.
Friday morning, and Jack rose early to round up the calves. He and his father would head to Blessington first, with his brother, mother, and I following soon after. On arrival at the Wicklow location, I made my way into what my father, himself country-born and reared, accurately likened to a coliseum of sorts — albeit one in miniature, and with an aesthetic that’s considerably more rural than Roman. There, I spotted a friend of Jack’s, and, beaming, I waved a hello, before realising that, with the bidding well underway, I should probably exercise more caution with my hand gestures. I also noticed that I was the only woman in the place. Lest I should draw any more attention to myself, I quickly located Jack and took a seat beside him.
What a feast for the senses! I watched as the ringman, stick in hand, moved quickly and assuredly, releasing one calf at a time into the sales ring. “He’s so cute!” I cooed as a solid little bullock with a fluffy coat and big brown eyes loped in. If that wasn’t enough of a giveaway, the audible gasp I emitted when another calf slipped on the slick surface, its legs looking like they might go from under it, definitely let those around me know in no uncertain terms, that there was a townie in their midst.
Subtlety clearly not being my strong point, I was amazed at how the slightest of hands was enough to signal a bid. As the auctioneer put horse race callers the length and breadth of the country to shame, calling out weights, sexes, and breeds at a rate of knots, I kept a close eye on the farmers, looking for the flick of a finger from the man with the flat cap pulled low, the nod from he who kept his arms folded but his ears and eyes open, ready to meet the gaze of the auctioneer who himself missed nothing.
With 40-odd more lots to go before Jack’s animals made their appearance, we stole away from the ring so that I might see a little more of the mart.
In the holding yard, I took in the rows of pens, each one holding several calves. When one animal let out a long and forceful “moo,” another would echo it until the vast space seemed to fill with this bovine cacophony.
Jack was selling weanlings. Due to the havoc wrecked by Ophelia, they were a little muckier than he would have liked, but, to my untrained eye at least, they looked well — Charolais crosses, and solid buttocks on the bullocks, which is what you’re going for, or so I’m told.
Later, I took my seat inside and watched, with a mix of pride and unexpected nervousness as Jack and his father took their positions next to the auctioneer. After months of hard graft, and quite literally, blood, sweat, and sometimes, something close to tears, it was time to discover if their labour would pay off. I knew how hard Jack worked, and I willed the bidding to reflect that.
The mart was an experience unlike any other I’ve had during my time as Jack’s girlfriend. There was something about the rows of identical pens, the discordant chorus of the auctioneer’s calls and the animals’ moos, the calves being released into the ring one at a time while humans watched and weighed up breed, form, and cash-flow potential before placing bids —or not . . . After the months spent rearing and caring for these animals, knowing the mental and emotional investment that’s involved, to this townie at least, the mart felt cold and transactional in comparison.
Ensconced in rural north Kildare where livestock roam the fields, it’s easy to forget that while it’s a way of life, farming is a business, too, in which animals are reared to be sold on. For me, the mart was a reminder of that, a reality check. One that —thankfully, I’ll grant— served its purpose in delivering a cheque of the other variety, too.