Growing up in the countryside brought a mixture of positive and negative experiences for a child, but the arrival of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis or brucellosis into the herd on my father’s farm evokes painful memories.

Today we spend over €74m annually trying to eradicate TB on farms so, I have to be honest, when the Irish Farmers Journal reported that the recent number of outbreaks had hit a 10-year high, my mind brought me back to some difficult days in the late 1970s and the fear and loathing that came with the news that we had a ‘reactor’ in the herd. This was followed by weeks and weeks of uncertainty and more than a fair share of horrible times in the household.

'In the bucks'

That my father had a bad temper at the best of times was part of the problem. He hardly drank alcohol at all – consuming maybe a very odd bottle of beer or a whiskey a few times a year if he was out with a friend – but he smoked heavily from his teenage days and when he was without a cigarette or trying to quit them for Lent as he often did, that temper often resurrected itself.

“Your father is in the bucks,” was Mam’s unique way of letting us know to stay well clear of the boss as we came in from school. That initial public health warning was followed one very wet winter’s day with the news that, “we’ve had a herd test – and we have a reactor”. The fallout was not pretty.

Those of you from good farming stock will know the implications of that dreaded word – reactor. If an animal has been exposed to TB, the vet will spot the lumps at the injection site and a blood test will confirm. An animal that is a reactor, would then be tagged – a red card of the modern day!

The next step in the process was the devastating one. Cows found to be infected are killed as quickly as possible in an attempt to halt the spread of this infectious disease. That meant the instant departure for the factory of what was probably one of our best milkers and, even worse, the curtailment of the rest of the herd until the next round of testing could take place.


This news brought instant darkness not just to my father’s state of mind but the entire household – and for very good reason. The loss of the cow in the first instance was bad enough, but the ‘lockdown’ of the remaining herd meant that the cattle ID cards were effectively seized by the Department and would now require not one but two subsequent consecutive clear full-herd tests before the cards would come back.

This process could effectively mean nearly four months of this ‘darkness’ over the herd and the farm and, to make matters even worse, there was a sense of public humiliation to go with it as the neighbours would also have to be notified that you had a reactor – in case their cattle had also mixed at some stage with ours. Our shame was now complete.

The end result of the ordeal was a difficult time for my father who wasn’t a big farmer in the sense of acres of land and cows. It is true to say there was compensation, but anyone who knows anything about growing up on a farm will know the importance of being able to trade freely and here was the problem.

There were normally two pay days on a dairy farm – the monthly pay cheque for the milk which fortunately still arrived in that time, but the mart day sale of stock was now indefinitely off and the prospect of paying for a forthcoming wedding or an outlay on machinery suddenly became more than a passing challenge. Our mother was the one who usually kept it all together in these difficult times. She repeatedly counselled us all about the swift passing of time. The days and weeks were marked off on the big ‘meal calendar’ in the kitchen and eventually, the 120 days passed without further reactors – bringing to an end our period of discomfort.

But you never really forget those days, which is why my heart went out to others when I read that the number of herds experiencing new TB outbreaks increased by almost 5% in the last ten years. I met a Tipperary farmer recently going through the exact same ordeal as we did, and quite clearly the grief still goes on for them and their families.

Farewell Joe

I was very saddened to hear of the passing of Sligo chef Joe Shannon earlier this week. Joe was well known for his cookery slots on Virgin Media while he was also a leading chef at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Sligo. I met him at several charity events over the years. He was a great character and he was never found wanting when asked to support a good cause. RIP Joe.

Follow Ciaran on X Twitter at @ciaranmullooly

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