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Michael Harding: We called her Alice the Goat. Nobody knew why. I could tell you a story about her

Maybe an old homeless woman minding a cow is not the most obvious example of an angel, but our Cavan community revered her

Long ago there was a man who lived in the hills of west Cavan called Tom. He had a herd of goats, which he regularly moved up and down the slopes of the mountain.

Goats have looked after themselves for centuries, so I don’t know why he spent so much time wandering with them. Perhaps it was for the milk that was valued so much by country folk. Even when I was a child people drank it to clear the chest, banish skin diseases and open the arteries. It was a libation that cured almost all ailments of body and soul.

Or he may have been lonely. His cottage may have been damp and dark. He may have felt caged indoors. Loneliness and an empty fire grate might have driven him out to seek the company of goats; a fellowship of sentient beings.

Since the wandering goat is the scourge of vegetation, Tom may have felt that constant vigilance was in order, to ensure his flock didn’t stray into farmland where they might be impounded or slaughtered.


But what makes him worth remembering is that he could call each goat by name. A different name for every single animal. And when he called them they came to him, individually.

That piece of information suggests to me that he companioned his goats simply because he loved them.

He would often pass the schoolyard with his tribe, and one particular boy would watch with awe as the goats were called.

That boy is now in his 80s, but he never forgot Tom’s whispering power over goats, and the reason he acquired his nickname: Tomas the Goat.

This is important to me because I knew Tom’s sister. We called her Alice the Goat, but nobody knew why.

She was a fragile little woman with white hair and lived on the fringes of society, mostly homeless and passing the summer days resting on a ditch, with a long rope to tether her beloved cow, whom she also loved and called by name.

I often sat on the ditch with her as she talked of the rich grasses in far-off places as if she were speaking of some radiant Buddhist pure land.

The cow survived her by some years and the neighbours continued to give the cow shelter until it too died

She would scoff at my new car, my hairy face and my need for so much food and physical comfort. But if I ever did meet an angel it was surely there and then on that ditch in Glangevlin, idling the summer evenings, in conversation with Alice the Goat about the hardships of her life, the dreams in which her parents still came to speak with her, and the love she had for her brother, who had long since died.

The entire community revered her. They offered fields for her cow and sheds for shelter, dinner and tea, and a bed if she ever wanted one. Finally the council was persuaded to erect a one-room prefab for her.

She was special in some kind of way which we did not understand; maybe an old homeless woman with white hair minding a cow is not the most obvious example of an angel, but who could fail to learn from such detachment?

The cow survived her by some years and the neighbours continued to give the cow shelter until it too died.

It was only last week that I learned why Alice was called the Goat and how the title passed from her brother and indeed how it reflected on his dignity and vocation. I had written about Alice in my latest book and somewhere in west Cavan an old man read it and felt obliged to fill me in on the back story. So he sent his son to recount the tale.

We sat down with mugs of tea and Hobnob biscuits to remember Alice the Goat, and Tomas the Goat, and the curious connection they had with animals. And as the evening darkened, I felt her presence in the room, as if she were listening in some deeper dimension and delighting in the fact that we had not forgotten her.

Such is the task of the storyteller; to remember the love that was once poured out between various sentient beings in other times and other places; like those country kitchens of west Cavan where only the screeching wind makes any kind of music now.

But I suppose as long as someone remembers the stories, then such people will not be forgotten. And that’s important, because eventually the Sitka trees around us will remember nothing.