In Ireland, they say its either raining or about to. Unfortunately, the traditional Irish weather pattern stayed true to course during Premier’s 2010 Sheep Tour to the Emerald Isle. Most of the 10-day trip consisted of long periods of clouds and drizzle, punctuated by moments of sunshine. The constant windy conditions allowed the weather to change every 5 to 10 minutes. After three or four days of variable weather, our group of 50 USA sheep producers became quite accustomed to frequent doses of Ireland’s “liquid sunshine”.The 6th day of the sheep tour took our group far into Northern Ireland to the coastal sheep farm of Victor Chestnutt, who raised Mountain Blackface and Texel ewes alongside beef cattle. After a morning stop at the farm, we were to journey south to the city of Antrim to attend the International Sheep Dog Trials.
As our extra large coach meandered the narrow coastal roads to the Chestnutt farm, we all peered out the window, gasping in awe at green fields that extended all the way to the edge of rocky cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. As we were admiring the countryside, we felt our coach roll to a stop, even though we were miles from the Chestnutt farm. Due to the increasingly narrow width of the road, our coach could not maneuver past a parked car along the side of the road. We needed just a few more inches to slither past, but unfortunately the owner of the small vehicle was MIA. So what was a group of savvy American farmers to do? Employ some muscle power, pick up the car and simply move it over.
After the car was moved our coach rolled on, and minutes later we met Victor Chestnutt at the rented ground where his flock grazed. As we stepped off the bus we could hardly believe our eyes. Through the drizzle we could see a small laneway that led to what appeared to be old barracks, and to the right, leading to the edge of the cliff, a runway. As we gathered around, Victor explained that while the Republic (Southern Ireland) was officially neutral during World War II, this piece of (technically British) soil in Northern Ireland was the site of a small American airbase.
The rain started to become a bit more persistent as we followed Victor down the old airstrip, which ended right at the edge of the cliff. Someone in our group remarked that by the end of the runway, the aircraft of the 1940s would have been airborne whether they had obtained liftoff or not!
We followed Victor out in the pasture that was nested on the corner of the property, overlooking the cold ocean. Jagged, rocky cliffs that plummeted violently downward were only steps away. A few brave souls from our group ventured to the cliff edge despite the now incessant rain and wind. The view was stunning and several of Victor’s sheep appeared in our photos, perched haphazardly on a small cliffside trail.
Before too long, the cold (now horizontal) rain got the better of us. We boarded the coach and Victor led the way to his home farm, where his wife and children had hot coffee and scones waiting for us in his hay barn.
As our group mingled with the Chestnutt family, it was brought up that our afternoon destination was the International Sheep Dog Trials, which were being held in a farmer’s field near Antrim. We wondered out loud if they would postpone or cancel the Trials because of the rain. Victor assured us the Trials would be held—after all, this was Ireland! He made a quick phone call to his brother, who was in Antrim attending the Trials. He reported back to us that the weather there wasn’t any better, to the point that some of the locals were leaving. But despite that, the Trials were in full swing. As Victor simply put it, “you know it’s bad when the Irish leave because of the rain!” After many thanks to the Chestnutt family, we boarded the coach yet again and settled back for the hour-long drive south to Antrim.
After about a thousand swishes of the windshield wipers, our coach pulled into the farmstead that was hosting the Trials and was met by the pour soul that was directing traffic. His rain gear was dripping wet as he came aboard our coach and spoke with our driver and tour guide. We couldn’t hear what was being said, there was a lot of head shaking and shoulder shrugging by all three of them. Eventually our coach slowly lumbered down the muddy lane and parked next to a cattle barn. “This is as far as I can take ye, folks,” our driver said in his thick Brogue. Our guide, Barry, took over the microphone. “Unfortunately, the coach cannot drive any further because of the mud, so it is up to us to walk the rest of the way to the trial grounds,” he explained. “How far are the trial grounds?” we asked. “Only a few hundred yards,” Barry said, lowering his eyes as to not meet our gaze.
A few from our group elected to stay on the coach, but for the rest of us, we had a long, arduous journey ahead. We strapped on our boots, put our heads down and forged ahead. The few hundred yards that Barry had promised turned out to be more like half a mile. The rain intensified as the temperature dropped, and some members of our group threw in the towel and turned back for the coach. Exiting vehicles splashed mud on us as they barreled past, with passengers giving us odd looks as they no doubt questioned our sanity. Tractors roared as they towed vehicles that didn’t make it through the mud. The ruts in the field were severe that it made your ankles hurt just looking at them.
After a 20 or 30-minute walk through deplorable conditions, we finally arrived at the trial grounds. Thoroughly soaked to the bone, our saving grace came in the form of a dry place to sit. Two rows of bleachers had been reserved for our group underneath an awning. Though not completely dry and certainly not out of the wind, we took refuge in our VIP seats and settled in to enjoy the Trials.
Through the downpour we watched dog handlers call and whistle commands to the real stars of the show—the incredible Border Collies that retrieved small groups of sheep and maneuvered them around a set course. We were visiting the Trials on the third day of a three-day event. During the first two days the course was 400 yards with 5 sheep competing in a series of tests. On the third day of the Trials, (the day we attended) they “upped” the stakes for the highest placed 15 competitors from the previous days. The course was lengthened to about 800 yards and the dog was to guide 20 sheep around the course. It wasn’t for the faint-hearted dog (or handler). Communication between handler and dog came in the form of whistles, words (often in long forgotten dialects) and actions.
It was during the Trials that something became very clear—that no one visits Ireland because of the weather. The charm of the country comes from elements that transcend beyond the gray skies and raindrops, like the history, the scenery, the kindness of the Irish people, and the chance to connect with century-old traditions and customs. The cold rain only added to our experience in Ireland, and left us with only warm memories.