The month of November 1996 is embedded in the memories of Mary and John Breen, who milk 60 cows and raise their calves and some bought young stock to sell them as stores in Cullen, Co Tipperary.

At that time, Mary spotted a cow that seemed nervous and kept getting sick. “We used to call her the mad cow,” she remembers – without for a moment suspecting BSE.

One Friday, the animal looked so ill that Mary decided to stop milking her and called the vet. The cow began to stagger and fall. The vet called two colleagues to look at her. That Sunday night, he told the Breens that he suspected BSE and they should advise the Department of Agriculture.

From then on, two words keep coming back as they recall the story. “Secrecy” for Mary, and “hassle” for John.

A wall of silence fell around the farm as the cow was put down. Her body was buried in a field “as deep as the digger would go, with the pellets and buckets and everything that had been around her”, and her head sent to the lab for tests.

“We were sworn to secrecy by the men from the Department who parked at the church and changed into white suits before coming here for several days,” says Mary. “There was word that we were being raided for drugs,” adds John.

Admitting to a case of BSE would be “bad for the farming community,” they were advised – and it would affect their valuation.

The valuers didn’t have a clue

This was the next step after BSE tests came back positive: how much would they get for the purchase and destruction of their entire herd? Two valuers came to the farm on behalf of the Department. “One was from the cereals section in Dublin, the other used to value pedigree Hereford cattle. They didn’t have a clue,” says John.

He does not show any anger towards the people involved in the process at the time. Department officials; the IFA representatives who helped them in their negotiations; the Breens themselves: “We were learning as we went along. There was no set way of dealing with this.” He just remembers the constant “hassle”.

Mary and John managed to negotiate a better compensation deal and keep their beef cattle until their next 10- and 22-month premiums were due: “It was a lot of money.” In the process, they contacted the Irish Farmers Journal and got other depopulated farmers to share their stories. They found out that valuations varied widely from one farm to the next. The “secrecy” began to lift.

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The discussion turned into a support group, which kept going for several years. The Breens also accepted to be filmed for the BSE documentary Dead Silence, which

There is a new shed (photo above) at the back of the pen where the “mad cow” was put down 20 years ago, and a fresh concrete slab is drying in the sun next to the parlour. “We’re putting up a new feed bin,” says Mary, adding that this will help their son take over. “He’s also a plumber, and we want to make things fast and easy for him.”

Outside, the Breens’ grandson and a neighbour are playing in the sun with their nine dogs. “We have moved on since the BSE,” says John.

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Special feature: BSE 20 years on