The Cowpat Competition

It is the Ahakista Festival in a few days time. There are some that may enjoy the rereading of this story of a festival from a few years back.

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It was the weekend before the festival and we were stood on the grass across the road from Arundel’s Pub. We stood in bright clear sunlight blue sky in front of and it was raining. Great drops being blown in from a cloud that hung over the hill behind.

‘Are you here for the festival?’ the man with the black beard asked me.

‘We are,’ I said ‘And I guess it is going to be busy this year?’

‘Oh it will be, it will be. There’s your famous neighbor doing the pub quiz on Friday night and there will be all sorts on Saturday and Sunday. But you know for the eighth year running they won’t be holding the Cow Pat Competition.’

We both drew on our pints. The rain had stopped now and I could feel the sun prickling against my skin where it was wet. The man carried on.

‘There had already been a disaster that year. Bridget Cronin’s Jack Russell had eaten the crabs for the crab race. It didn’t have name at the time. She was so angry she could hardly talk to herself again. Three of her grandchildren had spent a day catching the little green fecks off the pier using her best bacon. Then she herself used her best pink nail varnish to write out their numbers of their backs. Thirty of them he ate in less than five minutes. She could only call it That Feckin’ Thing after that.’

‘The Catching the Duck went off okay although by the time the poor feckin’ duck had been caught it was near enough drowned and someone had to blow some air through its beak before it revived.’

‘The Cow Pat Competition was to finish off the afternoon. The field was marked out with squares about a yard across and then each square was marked so that it has its own number. The cow needed to be a good cow and the man whose cow it was had to be sure it was fed up well. The game was played by letting the cow into the field and waiting for it to drop its first pat. As most men will tell you if a cow goes into a new field it likes to start manuring it early as it starts to eat the grass but there is normally time for a couple of pints before it completes the business.’

‘Now the competition is in paying your five-euro for one of the marked out squares and when they are all sold if the cow drops its pat on your square then you take all the money. There was some money to be won even if you marked the field out with a hundred squares. Of course there were also various side bets to be had on the squares and the timing of her dropped pat. There were a lot of notes that would be passed around before she was done. There was even two men who liked to bet on how many pints they would drink before the game was finished.’

‘Now this year a cow called Foxtrot was chosen for the job. She belonged to Curly Fitzpatrick. As the owner of the cow he was excluded from the game in case he should tamper with her or have a better hold of her habits.’

‘So Foxtrot was led down and once the bets had concluded she was given a prod on her arse and into the field she went and then the men settled down with their pints. All was quiet for a while, Foxtrot sniffed the air, and the only sound was the pints going down and the soft grumble from the men as they settled their feet on the ground. Having sniffed the air the cow put her head and pulled at a few tufts of grass and she chewed on those for a while.’

‘There was a release of air from some of the men. Those who had bet on a longer time were still in the money and she was not going to drop an early pat and spoil the chance for a second pint.’

‘Foxtrot made her way round the field, sniffing the air and chewing at the grass and as she did so there were murmurs of encouragement from the spectators for her to move towards their particular part of the field.’

‘Into the third pint Foxtrot paused for a while and a sense of disquiet settled over the spectators. If she was to sit down and start chewing her cud then it could be a long evening. There was talk of more pints.’

‘But there would be no need for floodlights, Foxtrot lifted her tail and dropped her pat. She was in the middle of the field and people were craning their necks to see if it was a clean hit and which square it was. The previous year her pat had been on the corner of four squares and after some discussion the winnings had to be quartered.’

‘Curly Fitzpatrick walked into the field to claim back his cow and declare the winner. He had with him a list of the squares with the names against them and it was then that the trouble started.’

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‘Michael O’Hanratty drove an old green Mini Metro. When in drink he claimed it was the last Mini Metro still on the road in County Cork “and if it wasn’t then it was the last feckin’ green one!”’

‘The green was indistinct and murky and had about it a shade of goose shit but the colour was difficult to find under the rust stains, mud and silver gaffer tape he used to hold odd parts of the bodywork together. He kept a pile of old newspapers and magazines on the back seats for when it stopped and it needed a time of rest before starting again.’

‘He liked to take his lunch over pints in the pub which meant spending time waiting for it to open. He spent that time with the car parked and stopped on the concrete skirt at the top of the pier looking out over the boats and the water. He preferred it when it was quiet and there no people and he could wait watching and counting the seagulls move from the lampposts.’

‘He lost the car one year somewhere in the hills behind Durrus. Because of its colour it took him 6 weeks to find so well disguised it was against the rocks and the heather and the course grass.’

‘“Started first feckin’ time,’’ he said. “And if I lose it again I will have a radio fitted and keep it playing so I can find it again.”’

‘Before he bought the car he was a stockman and he had worked with cows for most of his life. He had even spent time working with Curly Fitzpatrick and he knew his cows and the fields that they lived in. He had never worked with Foxtrot but it was no secret that she was the cow chosen for that year’s competition and so Michael O’Hanratty had time to study the form. He took time to observe her in a field and watched as she went about her business.’

‘He took careful notes and with all that preparation he thought he had a pretty good idea where Foxtrot would pause to lay her first pat.’

‘He had been putting the work in because he needed new tyres for his car. With its scarcity value he saw the car as an investment and if it needed new tyres he would have to invest further and the Cow Pat Competition seemed the perfect vehicle for him to do so. Provided he studied the form and made good and proper use of the knowledge he had built up over the years as to where Curly Fitzpatrick’s cows laid their pats.’

‘So with the help of Dennis O’Driscoll and Tom Hayes, who fronted some of the buying for him, he bought up a total of fifteen squares, as no man was allowed to buy more than five, all picked on the basis of his carful observation.’

‘So having invested  his forty-five euro plus the pints that he had promised to Dennis O’Driscoll and Tom Hayes he settled himself with a pint at the start of the competition confident that when Foxtrot came to lay her pat it would be on one of his squares and the winnings would be his. His nerves were rattled a few times as the cow passed over one of his squares but he remained sure that she would stop for her business on one of his.’

‘He was cheered as he took his second pint and passed out two more to Dennis O’Driscoll and Tom Hayes. Time, he thought, was on his side and the more that Foxtrot delayed the more confident he became that one of his squares would be the winner.’

‘When at last she deposited her pat he was not able to place, from where he was standing, the exact spot that it had landed. He studied the scribbled notes he had in his hand and for moment was sure that the pat had landed right. But doubt started to creep in as Curly Fitzpatrick walked out to the spot and a cold fury rose in his chest when the name of the winner was announced, “Brendan Daly has it this year.”’

———————————

‘Brendan Daly was a mild man. If there was time to drink two pints he would be able to fill it just drinking the one. So far as anyone knew he had never spent time with cows and he worked behind the till in one of the shops in Bantry. But he had form in the Competition and was one of the four who had shared out the winnings the previous year. There was also talk that he’d done well on a side bet on the timing and had made more on that than he had on the main Competition.’

‘He walked to the centre of the field to take the envelope with his winnings from Curly, shaking his hand, as Foxtrot was encouraged to lay down another deposit for the benefit of a photographer from the Southern Star.’

‘Michael O’Hanratty was on his fifth pint now and the cold fury that had shaken him at first had now been replaced with a conviction that Brendan Daly had cheated and had been able to get at Foxtrot so as to be able to buy an ironed on certainty as to where she would lay her pat.’

‘That night as he lay in his bed and the pints lay heavy on his stomach he determined to prove that Brendan Daly had managed to get at the cow and so force a rerun of the competition.’

‘The next day he set his mind on a course of inquiry and he started the process by settling himself down on a seat in the pub and listening to the talk so as to pick up on the consensus. ‘

‘The consensus was that there was more than luck involved in Brendan Daly achieving an outright win in the competition that year. He wasn’t a cow man and had no means of studying the form but then if a cow is going to deposit a pat there is no telling of where and when it is going to do it. So the initial talk subsided. Any further suspicions in the pub were erased when Brendan Daly bought a bottle of Power’s and the men were invited to have themselves a small glass. ‘

‘But the suspicion continued to gnaw at Michael O’Hanratty and two days later he called on Curly Fitzpatrick and asked to be able to check on Foxtrot “for after the exertions with the pats I’d like see she’s right.” She was still being kept in a stall and Curly walked him there and left him alone with the cow.’

‘Michael O’Hanratty ran his hands all over the animal and whispered in her ear for some clue. But she kept her peace, chewing quietly on her cud. He cast his eyes over the stall looking for anything out of place. He was about to give up when saw something red and blue stuck behind a bale in the corner. It was an empty packet of Tayto’s Cheese and Onions Crips. As he held the packet the cow paused in her chewing, stamped her back foot and as if on cue laid a pat.’

‘Michael O’Hanratty felt exultant. He had his first clue. Curly Fitzpatrick was a Salt and Vinegar man. There could be no other explanation. Brendan Daly had nobbled the cow with the crisps.’

He put the empty packet in his pocket and left the cow and went to say good bye to Curly determined to pursue his line of inquiry.’

‘His next stop was the pub. There he had a pint to give time for his thoughts to settle. To help with the process he had two packets of the crisps and he pondered on the taste of them for some way how the wretched Daly had been able to execute his scheme.’

‘Daly had only bought three squares. That was too few. He had to have bought himself some further certainty. He had cheated the feck! And he had to prove it! He had the piece of evidence with the empty packet of crisps and in his mind that gave him the certainty he needed. But the certainty he now knew in his heart fought against his inability to find the final piece of the jigsaw that would enable him to show how the man Daly had got the cow to position its backside and deliver its pat on square B4 so he could collect all the winnings.’

‘As he finished the pint and chewed the last crisp it came to him and he rushed out of the pub without nodding a good bye to any of the men that sat there.’

‘He made his way to the field where the competition had been held. It was raining and the field was flat with wet but the white lines of the of the squares were still clear and the winning pat still stood proud in square B4. Ignoring the wet he got down on his knees and starting to inch his way round pushing away at the grass with his fingers and then at last he found it. A small pile of crushed soggy crisps. He put his nose to them and caught the unmistakable taint of cheese and onion.’

‘He was triumphant and there in the wet field let out a quiet shout of victory. Here was the final piece of proof that he needed. The coincidence was too much. Daly had somehow got access to the cow and had been feeding it the crisps until it had developed a good taste for them. Then he must have slipped into the field on the night before the competition and after the squares were marked out and set up a small pile of the crisps.’

‘He’d then be secure in the knowledge that once Foxtrot was in the field she would make her way round it until such time as she picked up the whiff of the crisps.  She would then have been bound to show her appreciation by lifting her tail and depositing her pat. O’Hanratty had his man!’

————————————

‘By now it was the Wednesday evening after the festival and the conversation in the pub had moved on from the weekend. The Cow Pat competition had been put to one side for a few weeks and the men in the pub were now troubled by hens.’

‘There had been a batch come into Bantry Market that were being sold by a boy who set the cages up on one of the islands around the roundabout just down from the pedestrian crossing. They had been beautiful birds with a bright blue feather but the eggs laid wrong. A week or so before the men had been congratulating themselves on the birds they had bought. But Tom Cronin had mentioned that his yolks had been pale and watery and they all agreed that there was a problem with the hens as they all had it.’

‘Having alerted them men to the problem Tom Cronin settled that it would be him that would put the boy on the traffic island under some questions that coming Friday to get to the source of the hens and the problems with their yolks.’

‘That issue settled a quiet descended over the men as they waited for some other spark to give them another issue to chew over. They only had to wait the length of time it took Michael O’Hanratty to walk from the field of the Competition to the pub.’

‘Michael O’Hanratty pushed open the door of the pub and walked in. Behind him a weather raged. The rain was coming down in great welts of wet and a wind was whipping at the water in the bay. The quiet in the pub continued as Michael O’Hanratty asked for his pint water dripping off him at the bar. He was going to wait for his moment now.’

‘There were five men sat with Tom Cronin and they included Brendan Daly. Curly Fitzpatrick was stood at the bar and Dennis O’Driscoll and Tom Hayes were sat in the corner still drinking the pints that Michael O’Hanratty had put behind the bar for them.’

‘Once Michael O’Hanratty had his pint in front of him he allowed a pause before he took his first sip. The silence was now starting to play on the men but they chose to ignore it, waiting for Michael O’Hanratty to speak.’

‘Michael O’Hanratty drank at his pint and then he turned to face the room.’

‘“I have it now you bastards,” he said and as he spoke it was clear that his ire was not so much with Brendan Daly and his winnings but the men who sat in front of him and his failing to win.

‘He then spilled the story out producing as he went along the empty crisp packet in one hand. He was triumphant as in his other hand he produced the scraps of damp fried potato he had been able to pick away from the grass and announced that these same soggy feckin’ remains had been found in square B4 the very square that the cow had taken its shit in late on Saturday afternoon. ‘

‘Tom Cronin, having taken the initiative with the hens spoke now.

‘“Yer a feckin fool”, he told Michael O’Hanratty. “You’ve spent your time thinking on how to get a cow to a square and to put down its head to eat but there is a good six feet between a cows head and its arse and that’s enough to take its feckin’ backside out of any square that it may chose to chew in.”’

‘“Do the maths now. There’s the one square you say the crips were positioned. That is the square where the cow’s head will be but there’s another eight squares around that one square where its arse could be. The odds are too great. It could not be done.”’

‘Michael O’Hanratty mind fumbled for an answer. The evidence had been conclusive, the empty packet and the pile of crisps it had to point to a nobble. His mouth worked to get out an answer but no sound came out. It was then that Curly Fitzpatrick turned from the bar and in his left hand he was holding a half eaten packet of Cheese and Onion Tayto’s Crisps. Michael O’Hanratty mouth stopped working. He had been undone.’

‘He turned then back to the bar and finished his pint and he left the bar without another word being said. But there was plenty of talk after he had gone and there was a consensus, helped along by the second bottle of Powers’ produed by Brendan Daly that the Cow Pat Competition should be put to one side for a few years.’

‘Michael O’Hanratty went back to his brooding in his car. He knew that he had picked out two thirds of the conspiracy which now included all the men in the pub that night but no matter how many pints he drank he could not get his mind round how a man, even Brendan Daly, could get a cow to orientate itself to lay a pat in a square by way of reference to where its mouth should be.’

The man finished talking. There was still a third of a pint and he drank it down. The sun was still out and it had stopped raining. The air was clear across the bay.

‘O’Hanratty was a fool. If he’d spent less time thinking over pints and spent more time looking the direction of the wind he’d have got it. There are two things to have in mind when a cow deposits it pat; the direction of the wind and if the cow is on a slope. Get those two things right and you’ll have it. A cow likes to have its face to the wind and looking up hill. The competition was late in the afternoon and with the sun shining as it was the wind would be blowing in from the sea. Now knowing that and getting the cow to put its head to eat from a square you’ve shortened the odds as to where its pat should land.’

The man smiled and looked down at his glass. I offered him another and he accepted. As I walked back to the pub a dirty green Mini Metro pulled up and a man got out.

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