The skill of the Irish in breeding, training and riding horses is unbounded. These arts are swathed in folklore and storytelling as much as in reality. Take Shergar – record-breaking racehorse whose 1981 win was the longest margin in the Epsom Derby’s history: after an illustrious career the horse was kidnapped from Ballymany Stud, near The Curragh in County Kildare by masked gunmen – and never seen again. The incident has been the inspiration for conspiracy theories, books, documentaries, and a film.
You’ve all heard of the Horse Whisperer, a novel by Nicholas Evans which, in 1998, became a blockbuster film starring Robert Redford? Well, the term ‘Whisperer’ was around long before that, used to describe people who communicate with and train working horses. As far back as 1648 it was recorded that a Sussex horseman, John Young, had the art of controlling horses ‘…by means of the whisper…’ – but the most famous of the historical ‘Whisperers’ is a man from County Cork, James Sullivan. He was born in Mallow towards the end of the eighteenth century, ‘…an ignorant, awkward rustic of the lowest class…’ according to Mile’s Modern Practical Farrier, 1843. Sullivan ‘…gained the singular epithet of Whisperer by an extraordinary art of controlling in a secret manner and taming into the most submissive and tractable disposition, any horse or mare that was notoriously vicious and obstinate… He seemed to possess an instinctive power of inspiring awe, the result perhaps of a natural intrepidity, in which I believe the greater part of the art consisted… A faculty like this would have, in other hands, made a fortune; but Sullivan preferred to remain in Ireland…’
It’s worth quoting a little further from the story of this man from Cork, here from one of my much-thumbed books which I have carried with me for countless years – The Horse in the Furrow, by folklorist George Ewart Evans:
‘…Sullivan’s best known exploit was his taming of King Pippin, a notoriously vicious horse, at the Curragh in 1804. A man who had offered to put on his bridle had been seized by the horse and shaken like a terrier shaking a rat. He was saved only by the amount of clothes he had on his back. It appears that this was the custom of the Irish countryman to show off his wardrobe on occasions such as this, and if he had three coats he put them all on. After this incident they sent for Sullivan to subdue the horse. He shut himself up with him all night, and in the morning the horse was following him about the course like a well trained dog: he won a race at the same meeting…’
Another of my favourite writers whose many books pad out the folklore section of our library here at Nead an Iolair is Kevin Danaher. I can’t resist quoting from The Horseman’s Word in Irish Country People, Mercier Press, 1966:
‘…At the horse fair the buyer would look out for the characteristics of a good horse as laid down in the old saying: “…Three traits of a bull, a bold walk, a strong neck and a hard forehead; three traits of a fox, a light step, a look to the front and a glance to each side of the road; three traits of a woman, a broad bosom, a slender waist and a short back; three traits of a hare, a lively ear, a bright eye and a quick run against a hill…”
A first hand account of Whispering from Danaher’s childhood:
‘…It was at a fair in Rathkeale that I saw for the first and only time the strange power of the “horseman’s word”. A young colt, either through fear or perverseness, was prancing and kicking wildly when a boy of about seventeen walked in and fondled the horse’s nose, talking quietly. Immediately the colt became calm and the boy took the headstall and led him up and down as meek as a lamb. We were told that this boy, the son of an itinerant horse dealer, had the power to calm any horse. Some people said it was a hereditary secret in his family, others that he had learned it from an old Palatine farmer in the district who also had this strange gift. It was said, too, that as well as being able to quieten horses and break untrained animals in a matter of minutes, this boy could get a horse to stand still and not move for any force or persuasion until he or somebody else who had the power released it. There is no doubt at all that certain persons have this gift, not only in Ireland but all over the world, but no satisfactory explanation is forthcoming. In Ireland it is known as ‘cogar i gcluais an chapaill’ or simply ‘the whisper’ and its potency is held to lie in the words which are spoken in the horse’s ear…’
Danaher mentions an ‘itinerant horse dealer’. Today we might call them Gypsies or Travellers. In Ireland they are well-known for their skills in horsemanship, and for breeding a very particular type of draft horse, suitable for pulling the vardo and also for riding and sulkie racing. The horses are often piebald or skewbald. You may be sure that the Travelling fraternity are natural Whisperers!
Both Evans and Danaher mention the Toadmen in their discussions. These characters would use divination to gain their power over horses. One such ritual was called the ‘Water of the Moon’, and was commonly practised in the East Anglian and Cambridgeshire regions of England. It required that the horseman kill a frog or toad and hang the body on a thorn tree until only the skeleton remained. At full moon the man then had to take the skeleton to a running stream and throw it into the water. One small forked bone would detach itself from rest and float upstream, and it was this bone from which the horseman would then derive power over horses.
Have a look at this clip from Canada – it’s not Ireland, but it’s about a modern day Horse Whisperer, and makes good watching…
In England today – the first Sunday after Epiphany – they ‘bless the plough’. I can’t find any mention of a similar tradition in Ireland, but please let me know if you are aware of one. It’s because the day marks the end of the agricultural holiday which follows Christmas: tomorrow is Plough Monday – the first day of the farmers’ working year – which has its own traditions. Ploughs were traditionally taken around with collecting boxes by mummers and molly dancers in parts of Eastern England, and in some places were used as a threat: if householders refused to donate to the participants their front paths would be ploughed up! Of course the ploughs used in these customs were all drawn by horses at one time – something that hasn’t died out yet: our friends Tim and Sandra keep their own working horses here in West Cork, and I’m quite sure they have mastered the art of Whispering for themselves.