The festival committee was quorate. Twelve good men and women were sat in the hut and they had some decisions to make. It was mid-July and there were two weeks to go before the start of the festival. All was almost done and organised and in place, sand had been order, and the pumps had been primed and the people were ready and eager, they just had to wait on the weather and a decision on what was to replace the cow-pat competition.
In the past the meeting would have been assembled in the pub around black pints and packets of bacon fries and Tayto Crisps. There would have been plenty to cool a man down. But today the committee were in the hut bought with the proceeds from the previous years festivals. There were those that grumbled that the proceeds could have been better spent lubricating the thinking minds of the more established men but they had been quietened by modernity and those men were left to stare dismally at the cups of tepid tea and the plates of biscuits that were there was to keep them going in the heat of a mid-summer evening.
Two years had passed since the disaster of the last cow-pat competition and nothing had been found to replace it. There were those that thought that some lubrication would assist in the thinking process but they kept their counsel for now. There was agreement on there being too much risk, rancour and bad blood to be able to run the competition again and there were rumours that in the intervening year there had been a similar competition that had taken place in Ballycotten which had ended messily for two of the local lads.
Patrick Tobin swore that it was more than a rumour. He had a cousin who had been there and seen what had happened.
‘It feckin’ happened like this’ he said. ‘They had brought in the cow from outside the area so as to avoid any talk of it being tampered with. Well its alright not tampering with the cow but it still needs be fed right and this cow had not been fed right and it had been disturbed by the journey it had to take in the back of a dark van to get to Ballycotten. They brought it down on the day of the competition and they took the van right up to the field and as the competition was about to start they let out the cow to walk it to its place in the field.’
‘It was Billy who looked into the van and pointed out that the cow had taken its shit in there and would be no good for the competition. The consensus was to ignore that. Put any cow into a van and it will take a shit, that’s only natural, but then put it in a field and give it some time to relax then nature would work its way through and there would be a pat. And so the cow was led out to the field eyes blinking at the light and the crowd.’
‘Now the consensus was right but what it got wrong was the time needed for nature to take its course. As Billy had it “This cow had taken its shit and was not to be rushed for another one”‘
‘And so the cow walked to the middle of the field and having taken in the watching eyes and the eager sense of expectation it settled down to what all cows do which was to eat grass and then chew the cud sat down and moving its jaw with a dreamy look in its eye. The cow was led out at midday and it was still sat down and chewing the cud at eight that evening. This was fine for the men who could continue with their pints but the kids and their mothers had to take themselves home and there was hell to play in case they missed the fun.’
‘As they were starting to leave the cow started to bellow a great moo as if calling them back. An excitement picked up and through their pints the men who had their money on started to envision the cow laying its pat against the pink beauty of the setting sun. But the bellowing continued and still there was no pat. Then the man who had driven the cow down there in his van came out of the pub with the sound of it all and announced there was nothing for it but the cow needed milking and was there a stall he could take it to so the cow it could be milked in peace.’
‘At this the men who stood most to lose with their money rounded on him and prepared to send him back into the pub with a flat nose. But before their intervention could be taken too far the vet who had been on hand for the day to see fair play with the cow came out of the pub drawn by the shouting that was now drowning out the bellow from poor in milk cow.’
‘The vet was a professional man and despite the time in the pub was able to appraise the difficulties of the situation with some speed. He cast a calm professional eye over the cow and agreed that indeed she needed milking and he turned to go back in the pub.’
‘He was pulled back by the shouting from the men and the question they put to him as to how they could be sure the cow did not let off its pat the minute it left the field to be milked. The vet now had a half pint he had left on the bar and was getting impatient as he considered his job done but he turned to look at the cow again “Is there not something you could plug it up with whilst you take it off the field.”‘
‘Now this halted the hubbab briefly and the vet made use of the quiet to get back to his pint. The men pondered the solution briefly but then some of the practicalities of it took over not more so as to which man was prepared to plug up the cows behind.’
‘Billy now was wanting to help and so he threw his arm into the ring “Is there not a man here who can milk the cow in the field’ he said, and then his enthusiasm got the better of him ‘and if there isn’t then I can do it.”‘
‘The men were silenced now and the quiet descended like a dark cloud on Billy as he realised what he had committed himself to. It was one thing to milk a cow with your hands but quite another to milk one that had not laid a pat for almost twelve hours and might take it upon herself to lay that pat on the head of the man bent down by her backside. No matter. The men patted Billy on the back and congratulated him with his quick thinking.’
‘Ten minutes later his was in the field togged up nicely in a bright pink rain coat, goggles and a plastic hat. He was sat on a stool with a bucket tugging quickly at the cow’s udder. The cow in the meantime had stopped with its bellowing and was back chewing quietly at the grass. Around the field men drew at their pints and placed their bets on whether Billy would make it through.’
‘Well Billy survived the milking and walked away from the field with a bucket of creamy milk and the cow went back to its cud.’
‘Jack Ryan’s pub didn’t shut its door that night until gone three in the morning and still the cow was at it. The vet fell asleep in the corner and there were men that drifted home for an hour or so in bed. Two brave lads were left outside to watch over the cow and to mark the spot were it to lay its pat whilst the village slept.’
‘It was those two lads that got into the mess. At four in the morning the cow sat down and went to sleep. The two lads thought this would give them an opportunity to catch up their sleep as there was no chance of action from the cow whilst it had its eyes closed but through the drink in their heads they were still clear enough to worry about what should happen if the cow woke up. But see here is where their minds were not clear enough. A clear minded man would have tied a bell to the cows tail and the noise from that would have been sufficient to wake him. But these two lads their minds had been blurred with drink and rather than a bell they tied themselves – each of removing a shoe so as to tie some string around their big toes and attaching it to the cow’s tail. They then fell asleep under the early morning stars to sound of the cows wet breathe.’
At this point of the story Patrick Tobin’s voice took on a melancholy tone as he went on to tell the inevitable conclusion.
‘Those brave lads got it right in so many ways but there were flaws in their logic. The cow woke at seven in the morning as the sun was starting rise high in the morning sky. Having woken the cow pulled itself to its feet shaking its tail as it did so and at this point the two pieces of string did their job to excellent effect. The two big toes were pulled hard and the lads were awake in a rush with thick heads and dry mouths. But it was the timing of it all that did for them. The cow was awake and so were the lads but there was no time for the lads to undo the string before the cow took upon itself the need to sort out its business for the day. It had forgotten the dark van and the eager crowds and was relaxed now in a green field under the sun and so contented with the morning it lifted its tail.
‘The sudden pull of the string on their toes unbalanced the lads as there were trying to get up and they were on the floor again as the cow laid its pat. Now this was a cow whose stomach had been unsettled for a day and so on its morning after it delivered enough pats for five competitions. The tragedy was that rather than laying its pat on one one the neat squares laid out across the field it lay the pat over the two lads. They were then in such a fight to get away that the shit ended up being spread over most of the feckin’ field.’
Patrick Tobin paused for a while so the impact of the story could be taken in.
‘It was no rumour. My cousin Billy was there that day to see the mess the lads were in. It was another six months before they could get the smell off themselves and Jack Ryan would let them back in the pub and it was some months after that that any man would talk to them. The competition had to be cancelled and all bets were off.’
Edith Towmey was new to the committee and was sat on the other end of the table. She drew in a sharp breathe ‘And that says all we need to know as to why that competition will not be held again. Now what are the ideas to replace it?’
And the twelve minds were turned again to their deliberations.