Bear with me: Alison Healy on Mullingar’s most famous pet

Thanks for the memories

At some stage, your brain gets so full of information that it refuses to accept any more data. The compartment for storing your childhood learnings is sealed and safe, so you will always be able to recite The Ballad of Father Gilligan, even though you learned it in Fifth Class. However, there is no room in your brain for remembering your online banking password.

Brain surgeons are suspiciously secretive about another, surprisingly roomy, compartment in the brain for storing ridiculous facts that will never come in useful. This is where you store the fact that John Wayne’s real name is Marion. It’s also how you know that an ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain.

But would you know how to fight an ostrich? Thanks to the internet, you never need to wonder again. I recently discovered WikiHow, a website that has an answer for everything. And I mean everything.

Perhaps you’ve been wondering how to solve a cubic equation? WikiHow has the answer. Or maybe you want to disown your family? Read on. Are you trying to regain control of a spooked camel? Look no further.

There is a concerning number of articles on removing bloodstains from surfaces such as carpets, concrete and wood. And if you always dreamed of generating electricity from cow dung, it offers a simple four- or five-step process, depending on your preferred method.

But back to the hypothetical ostrich attack, and Wikihow offers three methods to handle it. It includes diagrams depicting an ostrich wincing as it is struck on the neck by a stick.

The website also gives advice on fending off attacks from animals such as sharks, jaguars, wolves and bears. Visitors to Belvedere House, Mullingar, in the early 20th century could have benefited from that information in case they ever ran into a large bear in the estate.

In 1913, Belvedere owner Lieut-Col Charles Howard-Bury surprised the staff by bringing the bear back from his expedition to the Tien Shan mountains, in central Asia.

Much has been written about the soldier, explorer and MP, who led the 1921 expedition to Mount Everest, fought in the First World War and spoke 27 languages. Early on in his Tien Shan expedition, he bought the three-week-old bear from hunters, in Yining in China, near the Kazakhstan border. He named him Agu - the Kazak word for bear - as Marian Keaney explained in Mountains of Heaven, the book she edited from his diaries of that trip.

Her book reproduced his diary entry from June 24th, 1913, when he observed that Agu’s first action was to give him a bad bite “and he turns out to be a regular little savage. He ran off too with my lunch, which I had put down for one second and he was a perfect little demon when I tried to take it back”.

The explorer might not have been thinking ahead when he added the bear to his entourage, given that they still had almost six months of travelling on land and sea ahead. Agu sat securely on a pack pony and was fond of biting his mount every so often “which makes things lively”, Howard-Bury’s diary recalled ruefully.

As though he didn’t have enough to worry about, between the bear, and the perilous journey in blistering heat and icy conditions, he also found time to add a collection of singing larks to his travelling party, according to Marian Keaney.

But they all made it back to Belvedere House in one piece and Agu grew to seven foot. He was kept in the arboretum to avoid causing alarm to visitors and Howard-Bury liked to keep fit by engaging in friendly wrestling matches with him.

It must have been disconcerting to be plucked from central Asia and replanted in the Irish midlands, but by all accounts, Agu took to Mullingar quite well and enjoyed fishing in Lough Ennell when he emerged from the arboretum.

Unfortunately matters came to a head at the estate when he bit a gardener. Between that, and Howard-Bury’s frequent absences, it was decided he would be better off in Dublin Zoo. Today his head is mounted in the Greville Arms Hotel in Mullingar, which is home to an eclectic collection of items including limestone fossils, Niall Horan memorabilia and a letter by Winston Churchill.

Agu was not the only exotic animal at Belvedere House, according to Marian Keaney. She recalled that Howard-Bury’s companion, the former Shakespearean actor Rex Beaumont, had a pet snake called Mahmoud. “He used to travel with them to Tunis in the boot of the Merc,” she explained.

Now that sounds like a whole other story.