Celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Connemara Pony Breeders’ Society could bring about a renewed interest in the Cladóir sheep, which once roamed the seashores of the far west of Galway city. Tom MacLochlainn, a former president of the society, is proposing that the Cladóir sheep should be reintroduced into the annual Connemara Pony Show in Clifden, Co. Galway.
The Cladóir sheep had three classes dedicated to them during the early years of the Connemara Pony Show, which was first organised in 1923, the same year the Connemara Pony Breeders’ Society was formed. However, the Cladóir sheep were dropped from the Pony Show programme in 1947 when the annual show was moved from Carna, in the south Connemara Gaeltacht to Clifden, the Connemara capital.
This year’s show, taking place from August 16-19, will be held in the town showgrounds, where it has found its permanent home. Tom MacLochlainn said, “How good it would be to see the Cladóir breed exhibited at our centenary show, in view of the significant part played by the Connemara Pony Breeders’ Society in highlighting the heritage of this breed of sheep, all those years ago”.
The Cladóir breed was very common in south Connemara in the 19th century. They were light white-faced sheep that could live on pickings of seaweed. Indeed, where small numbers of them still exist in places in Connemara, you can see them going back to the seashore of their own accord. They were valued for their wool but not for their carcass. However, in those times, people needed the wool for their own clothing; a local tailor would shape the fine wool from the Cladóir into whatever garment was needed such as a báinín – a very traditional type of white waistcoat/jacket.
Tom McLoughlin said that a changing world after the Famine of the 1840s proved a turning point for the Cladóir. Landlords brought in different types of sheep, and soon it was evident that those new sheep could be more valuable in various ways than the traditional seashore sheep. Therefore, the Cladóir became ‘marginalised’. The Cheviot breed replaced the classes that were once assigned to the Cladóir at the Pony Show.
Michael O’Toole, an agriculture scientist and farmer from Clare Island and Leenane on the Galway/Mayo border, took a particular interest in the Cladóir in later years and developed a flock at a research station in the Maam Valley in Connemara. Michael has since passed away, but the flock has found its way back into the care of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS).
The flock was DNA-sampled, and over 50 of them were found to have significant amounts of unique DNA. This confirmed their independent status as Cladóir sheep – a rare native breed. There is now a Cladóir Sheep Preservation Society in existence under the umbrella of the NPWS. Tom McLochlainn continues his quest to have the Cladóir brought back to the Connemara Show during this special year for the native pony.
The Connemara pony, which is now a prized animal across the world, was in danger of dying out as a distinct breed 100 years ago when the Connemara Pony Breeders’ Society was formed. Through their efforts and skills, the members of the society laid down rules for the Connemara breed and established the guidelines for the registration of the pony. The mountain animal from the west has become a national treasure. Indeed, a group of them graze in the gardens of Áras an Uachtaráin for part of the year.
The Cladóir sheep that grazed the rocky seashores far from the greenery of Phoenix Park may be a near-forgotten breed nowadays. However, they once provided the wool that clothed people during hard times in Connemara. This year’s Connemara Pony Show may be a good time to remember all of that.