Slieve Gullion (from Irish: Sliabh gCuillinn, meaning "hill of the steep slope" or Sliabh Cuilinn, "Culann's mountain") is an extinct volcanic mountain in the south of County Armagh, Ireland. The mountain is the heart of the Ring of Gullion and is the highest point in the county, with an elevation of 573 metres (1,880 ft). At the summit is a small lake and two ancient burial cairns, one of which is the highest surviving passage grave in Ireland. Slieve Gullion appears in Irish mythology, where it is associated with the ‘Cailleach’ and the heroes ‘Fionn mac Cumhaill’ and ‘Cú Chulainn.’ It dominates the countryside around it, offering views as far away as Antrim, Dublin Bay, and Wicklow on a clear day. Slieve Gullion Forest Park is on its eastern slope.
Villages around Slieve Gullion include Meigh, Dromintee, Forkhill, Mullaghbawn and Lislea. The mountain gives its name to the surrounding countryside and has produced many poets, writers, and musicians. Throughout history, the area had and still has, a reputation as a refuge for anyone fleeing from political or religious persecution. Safe haven could be found in the area where tight-lipped, stalwart people would give food and shelter to anyone ‘on the run.’ The area has also produced a unique breed of men called ‘pavees.’ The word ‘pavee‘ is from the French language and was adapted and became an old Irish term that encompasses a wide variety of names assigned to illustrate the many skills the ‘pavee’ possessed and included ‘ragmen’, ‘pedlars’, ‘hawkers’ or ‘traveling salesmen.’ Those men could sell anything including, as one wag put it ‘ice to an Eskimo.’ In the early 1800’s many of those men added ‘goat herder’ to their considerable list of accomplishments when they became aware of a shortage of goats throughout the rest of the British Isles caused by the ‘Enclosure Act’ which was enacted at the beginning of the 1800s.
Before the ‘Enclosure Act’ in England, a portion of the land was categorized as ‘common’ or ‘waste.’ "Common" land was under the control of the lord of the manor, had value, and could be leased or rented. "Waste" was land without much value and was often very narrow, usually no more than a yard wide, was sited in awkward locations such as cliff edges and bare rock where only weeds and briars would grow. "Waste" was not officially used by anyone, and so was often farmed by landless peasants who allowed their goats, who would eat almost anything, to wander freely on this wasteland. Many tenants were displaced by the introduction of the ‘Enclosure Act’ and left the countryside to work in the towns. This contributed to the Industrial Revolution which had just begun, and which would require large numbers of workers. The former country tenants and their descendants became workers in industrial factories within towns and cities and the goat population throughout the British Isles dwindled dramatically.
A poem from the 18th century reads as a protest of the ‘Enclosure Acts’:
They hang the man and flog the woman, who steals the goose from off the common,
yet let the greater villain loose that steals the common from the goose.
The law demands that we atone when we take things we do not own,
but leaves the lords and ladies fine who take things that are yours and mine .
The poor and wretched don't escape If they conspire the law to break,
this must be so but they endure those who conspire to make law impure.
The law locks up the man or woman who steals the goose from off the common,
and the geese will still a common lack till they go and steal it back.
Sadly, within a short period of time since the start of the ‘Enclosure Act’ and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the English goat fell out of favor. What was once an integral part of rural society had now become a pariah and had virtually become public enemy number one! In Ireland, the goat was common, popular, absolutely necessary, and highly prized; whereas in England, it was now disliked, and thought of as mischievous, smelly, destructive, hard work to handle, and very unpleasant, with a product that was undrinkable to boot. And so here, against the backdrop of the rugged Slieve Gullion in South Armagh, we meet the ‘pavee,’ a man as rugged as the land and mountain herself, a man who immediately saw a need and set out to fill the void. It was around this time that the ‘pavee’ added the title ‘goat herder’ to his considerable repertoire. It was believed for some time that the ‘pavee’ was part of the Irish traveling community, perhaps an offshoot, but this belief has been discounted and now we know that the ‘pavee’ is a distinct breed of individual and had their own secret language. We have one man to thank for this invaluable information, a singular, forward-thinking man, a historian from Dromintee named Michael J. Murphy who recorded how the ‘pavee’ and the goat fitted into community life in the Slieve Gullion area, and, more importantly, told the story of the ‘goat men.’ In fact, his very first broadcast on the BBC, which took place in 1937, was entitled ‘The Goat Men of South Armagh.’ Without this man’s years of painstaking research, it’s doubtful that we would ever have learned about these remarkable men of South Armagh.
Michael J. Murphy’s parents were natives of Dromintee Parish, in South Armagh, his father being Michael ‘Buck’ Murphy, and his mother Mary, nee Campbell. Michael himself was born in Eden Street, Liverpool, in June 1913, his family returning to Dromintee in 1922 when Michael was eight years old. There, he attended Dromintee National School, leaving full-time education at the age of fourteen to become a farm worker on the local farms. He was a natural historian, developing an interest in storytelling, and focusing upon the imaginative language and folk beliefs of the community living around Slieve Gullion. From these beginnings, he began to write down the stories and sayings behind the traditions and everyday lives of his community. He also made a photographic record, and his recording of the history and everyday lives of the area around Slieve Gullion began to appear in both the local and provincial newspapers. Reading widely, his first book, entitled ‘At Slieve Gullion’s Foot’, was published in December 1941. Before this, however, and important to the story of the goat men of South Armagh, Michael J Murphy took up a career in broadcasting in 1938. Michael Murphy joined the Folklore commission, going on to form what is estimated to be the largest collection of oral traditions in the English-speaking world. In a full life, he was also a socialist republican, spoke out against the social, political, and environmental problems that faced Ireland, published ten books, and wrote six plays along with scores of short stories. He retired from the Department of Irish Folklore in 1983; died in County Louth in 1996; and is buried in Darver cemetery.
I have a personal theory that the ‘pavee’ was descended from the old ‘seannachie’ (storyteller) tradition which came to Ireland with the Tuatha de Dannan, a special race of people who inhabited Ireland in the ages past. Murphy would have absorbed the energies contained in the rocks and soil of the area around the foothills of Slieve Gullion which was and still is, rife with the memories and spirits of the poet, the writer, and the minstrel. All of this. I believe, would have made him a gifted salesman; in another life, he probably would have been one of the Gaelic poets, such as his famous namesake Seamus mor MacMurphy from Carnally.
To fully understand the story of these ‘pavees’ who became known as the ‘goat men of South Armagh’ we need to understand the importance of the goat in Irish society and the vital part that the goat men of South Armagh played in reinstating the role of the goat throughout the British Isles. It is believed that the goat arrived in Ireland more than 2500 years ago with the Celts and quickly became established as an invaluable asset that was virtually predator-proof. It could subsist on rough vegetation under harsh conditions, that did not suit either the cow or the sheep. It continued as an essential part of the Celtic farmstead, giving not only an extremely rich form of milk and lean meat but also hair for weaving, fat, horn for tools, and hoof for everyday essentials. When the Vikings arrived, they built townships, and the goat had to adapt to a cramped and unhealthy environment in which they were treated as a useful dairy animal. When the Normans arrived, the goat easily adapted to the new style of living and once again it thrived. A story was told which illustrates the esteem in which the goat was held in Irish society:
“The Irish landlord William Sydney Clements, 3rd Earl of Leitrim, was assassinated on April 3rd, 1878, and even the Royal Irish Constabulary had little sympathy with regard to his passing. His name had become a byword for severity and intransigence, and the reasons for his dramatic passing out of this world were that for years he had rent-racked his tenants, horsewhipped them as he rode by, forced himself upon their daughters, and shot their goats and pigs. He also forbid his tenants to keep goats and on one occasion forced one of them, who had kept a herd of goats without permission, to kill them all before his eyes.”
An entry in the Domesday Book (1086), attests to the importance of the goat In English society when it lists the animals on a farmstead in the village of Lamarsh, in the county of Essex:
‘2 ploughs; 8 smallholders; woodland for 70 pigs (54 pigs kept); 7 cobs and 5 foals; 10 cows and 8 calves; 20 sheep; 60 goats; 6 beehives.’ In 1881 a livestock census revealed that Ireland had 266,553 goats, of which 74,163 were kept in the province of Ulster alone.
As to the uses and value of the Old Irish goat, it was noted that:
* Many horse-dealers bought male goat as they were supposed to have kept horses healthy and in good condition by reason of their peculiar and distinctive smell.
* They ate a weed that was said to be one of the causes of murrain in cattle.
* Goats milk was thought of as being more nutritious and healthy than that of cows
* Goats milk is ‘stronger’ than that of cows.
* Goats are not subject to many cattle diseases
* People once churned on goat’s milk and sold the butter to druggists for use in compounding salves and ointments.
*Goats eat all sorts of herbs and sour shrubs disdained by cattle.
For years the ‘pavees’ would journey to Wales, England, and Scotland every summer traveling through the towns and villages along the numerous well-worn trails buying and selling anything that there was a profit in, their main items being woolen rags and scrap metal. Just after the introduction of the ‘Enclosure Act’ they began to notice there was a shortage of milk in rural areas and they realized that goats could be sold to the English people if the qualities of the goat’s milk were presented to them in the right way. The theory was successful, and for some years the ‘pavees’ made what could be regarded in those days as a handsome fortune. That first encounter between the goats from Gullion and the English peasantry was the start of a hugely successful and lucrative business. The ‘pavee’ began by traveling to fairs in Mayo and Galway to purchase herds of goats, then they would walk them leisurely north to the foothills of Slieve Gullion where they would join up with their other goats already corralled. They would graze them on the grass margins of the road, the term for this area being ‘the long acre.’ The leisurely pace of movement was to maintain the condition of the goats and make sure they didn’t lose weight.
When they deemed the numbers to be sufficient, a herd of 600 was not unusual, they then headed to the nearest port, sometimes Warrenpoint in County Down. Holyhead in Wales and Liverpool were the two main ports of entry used. After crossing the Irish Sea they fanned out all over Wales, England, Scotland, and even as far as the Orkney and Shetland Islands following the well-worn routes and selling both milk and goats along the way. Later, as goat numbers began to increase in England, the clever ‘pavees’ would offer their most handsome goats as a ‘stud’ for a healthy fee, of course. Usually, two ‘pavees’ and a young boy would make up a team of herders. They slept with their herds at night and sold the milk, cheese, and goats on the outskirts of the industrial cities and gradually overcame the prejudice of the English people against both the animals and their handlers
Finally, they would auction the remaining animals before returning home. It was not unusual for the ‘goat men’ to cover a couple of thousand miles from start to finish, and all on foot! Such was the effect that these drovers had on village and market town life, that it became a tradition in Northern England that the appearance of these traveling herds, with their drovers advertising their wares and shooting great jets of fresh goat milk into the air, became associated with the arrival of spring itself.
In summary, the vital role that the goat men of South Armagh played in the goat history of Nineteenth-Century England and beyond may be summarized as:
* Popularised the goat in remote country areas.
* Overcame the severe prejudice against goat milk.
* Became the harbingers of spring to remote communities
* Anticipated the Victorian Goat Revival.
* Achieved what the British Goat Society struggled to do in rural areas.
* Introduced the Irish goat to Middle-class goat keepers.
* Introduced the Irish goat to goat showing.
* Brought goats into London and industrial towns.
To have been instrumental in popularizing the Old Irish goat in England at a time when goats were generally disregarded, was an outstanding achievement, and which could never have happened without the ingenuity, determination, and business sense of the men from South Armagh.
© John A. Brennan 2020. All Rights Reserved.