An excerpt from a book being written by Caitlin Hartford, an American lass who stayed here for a couple of weeks
to help out.
I am standing five feet high on a heap of straw and manure, pitchfork in hand, wearing borrowed tights under my jeans, blue wellies, a T-shirt under my wool sweater, fleece jacket and gloves. It is July in the Northwest of Ireland.
After nine days of drifting, I have come to rest at the Sathya Sai Sanctuary for Donkeys in Co. Sligo. While still at the riding stable in Rosslare Harbour, I had a surprise visitor come looking for me, It was Joost, the Dutch man I had met on my initial ferry trip to Cherbourg, and with whom I drove half-way across Northern France. Before parting, we had exchanged addresses, and I gave him the name of the riding stable, thinking I would be there most of the summer. He stopped by to see how I was getting on, and to iterate that if all wasn't going well, I was welcome at his house in Sligo. He and his partner Sue live in the village of Castlebaldwin, with the 22 donkeys, four ponies, one horse, two mules, two cats and two dogs that comprise the sanctuary. Sue has entirely resurrected a dilapidated cottage and outbuildings and is the absolute heart of the donkey's rest home. With my animal experience, Joost knew I could be a capable caretaker while they traveled to Holland for ten days of family visits. So, admittedly, his visit had an ulterior motive. As it were, things were not dandy at the riding stable, and so his offer came like a lifeboat in a storm.
I have arrived one week prior to Sue's departure to work beside her, much of it in good relationship with this muckheap, and learn the donkey's daily routine so I'll feel confident taking the (proverbial) reins while they're away.
Although colder and wetter than Co. Wexford, the kind and positive attitude here in Sligo creates a far greater warmth and comfort than I felt at my previous installation. They have provided me with good company, meals, use of Joost's car and a cozy loft bedroom complete with spiral staircase, skylights and private bathroom. There is even hot water with pressure and a bathmat! I feel like a pig in slop (in more ways than one!).
The sanctuary, and their home, is situated atop a bluff-shaped mountain (think Montana, but very green and crossed with stone walls), surrounded by a stand of mixed evergreens. Their 360-degree view encompasses Co. Sligo, and the blunt silhouette of Ben Bulben ("Yeats Country"); north to Co. Leitrim and further north to Co. Donegal. As the gravel drive winds to the west and south, visible are Co. Mayo and occasionally the perfectly triangular mountain pilgrimage site Croagh Patrick. On beautiful days, the scene is a patchwork quilt of yellow and green. Small hillocks rise like puffs of quilt stuffing, with clusters of trees punctuating the valleys between, looking like the yarn tassels that hold together the quilt’s batting. Flocks of sheep sleep on the sunnier yellow hillsides, beneath the brief partings in the overcast, while others stand grazing in the shaded dark greens.
Sue has built (over twelve years) the sanctuary as a home for neglected, abused and simply unwanted donkeys. Although popular in many images and postcards of Ireland, donkeys are not native here. During the Anglo-Irish wars, when England was occupying Ireland, there came a great need for horses to work for the English cavalry, and to pull the cannons. "Anything called a horse", as Sue puts it, was sold to the Army, and the farmers replaced their workhorses with the cheaper donkeys the English had brought over. Later, the farmers found they preferred them to the horses because they ate less, were less damaging to the land, and still worked extremely hard. Unfortunately, donkeys are native to dry, desert regions elsewhere, and their hooves and coats are not meant for the notorious long periods of wet in Ireland. It is sadly common for their hooves to go untrimmed either naturally by hard, dry ground or by regular farrier visits, occasionally rendering the animals barely able to walk. They are then often left neglected in pasture to suffer. Sue's aim is to provide care, love and a comfortable home (with gorgeous view!) for these kind souls to live out their days. She has been blessed this year by the donation of a barn extension from a Dublin contractor, and the cement is drying on the new floor as I write this. Tossed up between using it for hay and straw storage, or as donkey living space; Sue finally decides that it will be the spacious communal bedroom for the "oldies". A few of them are old and/or crippled enough so that she keeps their stalls bedded a foot deep in straw. Here they can spend their days sacked out like teenagers at a slumber party. The younger, sturdier lot lives on an expansive hillside, with free access to barns for weather protection.
Our first duty, even before our own breakfasts, is to feed, water and assist the geriatric members to their hooves. Each donkey is named, and Sue recites their particular markings, colors and personality traits as if describing her own family.
"You'll hardly see Luke without Morestina, and Bonnie and Solly will sing for treats."
I test myself, trying to differentiate Neddy from Nelly, or Hezikiah from Paeder. My personal favorite, if I were allowed one, would be Flynn. Crippled due to years of neglect, his front legs now turn outwards at the knee to form a diamond-shaped plié, and he totters on the outside edges of his front hooves. Every few hours we ask him if he needs to be helped to standing, or if he'd like the water or grain bucket brought over, or perhaps his favorite treat, a ginger biscuit. His answers are obvious, with little head shakes, nickers and quick tail wags. Despite his handicap, Flynn is still quite a happy little charmer, especially as he peeks around the stall doorway, fuzzy ears preceding him.
The potential drudgery of the daily chores is lightened greatly by getting to know the donkey’s individual personalities, and knowing that our hard work makes a great difference in their lives. While I have come here to help the donkeys and the people who care for them, in the end it is they who have offered me the true sanctuary instead.