In the lap of the Lahinch Goats

The Lahinch goats are synonymous with the links, being part of the life, lore and tradition of the undulating terrain that make up the golfing experience that will be exposed to the world this Irish Open week — no doubt they’ll be in demand for selfies writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh as he tracks their storied association with the golf course.

Sam Torrance gets to know the Lahinch goats.

The championship commences this morning and the stage is set for a most interesting event, especially if the weather is kind. However, down here this is in the lap of the goats, rather than the Gods.”  The Irish Independent, 1968

A US Open champion in Ken Venturi wanted to be photographed with them; so too did Ryder Cup hero Sam Torrance. No doubt both great golfers had stories to tell with regard to the weather Gods as they posed for the camera, only in this case it was the weather Goats.

They’re the infamous and much loved goats of Lahinch Golf Club that are perhaps the best known honorary and lifetime members of the St Andrew’s of Ireland, because of the job they do – day in and day out, year in and year out – for their fellow members.

And they do it for nothing, save the grazing rights they have over the length and breadth of the links and wherever it might take them.

You see, the goats and many generations of them have been the weather forecasters in Lahinch for nearly as long as golf has been played here — their playing rights coming into vogue not long after Alexander William Shaw struck a ‘memorandum of agreement’ with local farmer Daniel Thynne about the playing rights of golfers on his lands.

It cost Shaw £5 a year; with the golfers’ annual subscriptions paying for and the upkeep of the course, while the goats paid their way by their own job of journeywork around the course as weather forecasters extraordinaire.

They assumed legendary and mythical status along the way — the tradition being cast once Tommy Walsh, a local Lahinch caddie who lived close to the old 3rd tee, set a family of them loose on the links.

We kid you not, but for decades Tommy Walsh’s troupe — the original of the species and their descendants — were the unofficial weather forecasters before they were promoted on whim of inspiration by secretary manager Austin ‘Brud’ Slattery.

“They were always around Lahinch when I was growing up and all golfers grew up with them,” Slattery told Clare FM in Lahinch’s centenary year in 1992, “and were recognised as being a guide to the weather, so when the barometer in the clubhouse broke and I couldn’t fix it, I wrote on it  ‘See Goats’.”

This was in the 1960s and at once the official recognition conferred upon the goats by Slattery cemented their legend, one that had already been given a formal recognition the previous decade when they were incorporated into the new club crest. 

Another famous Lahinch member in the future President of Ireland, Dr Paddy Hillery, was the brainchild behind the 1956 move for the new club emblem to incorporate the thistle, the shamrock and the goat.

Against that backdrop of the goats’ importance to Lahinch, it was probably no surprise that Ken Venturi, who was the most celebrated overseas life member of them all in the club, should seek them out.

All because the weather had a huge part to play in his finest hour on a golf course, when in 100 degrees head he was brought to point of collapse when winning the 1964 US Open at Congressional.

Ditto Sam Torrance, being a Scot who was reared on links golf he could appreciate of  the golfing weather more than most and the part the goats of Lahinch play in that process, their life and lore.

Not that they always get it right, of course.

But they’ll always be loved and have a home at Lahinch, with their story as important as Old Tom Morris, Alister MacKensie and many more.

All because of Brud Slattery’s ‘See Goats’.

Hundreds of thousands have come — millions maybe. All because their fame precedes tham and always has.

IN 1972 celebrated broadcaster Cathal O’Shannon got the gig to interview Muhammad Ali on RTÉ and through him the ‘Greatest’ got to wow the nation ahead of his bout with Al ‘Blue’ Lewis in Croke Park — fitting then that Lahinch’s ‘greatest’ members should also get the Cathal O’Shannon treatment and the chance to wow a television audience.

It happened in 1971, when the goats of Lahinch were on primetime television as O’Shannon’s ‘Newsbeat’ programme decamped to North Clare to hear their story. “There have always been goats on this golf course and not just to keep the grass in trim, though they do this too,” noted O’Shannon. 

“No,” he continued, “members need the goats here to tell them when it’s going to rain. Years ago the barometer in the club got broken, but they’ve never bothered to get it repaired. ‘Just watch the old nannies,’ they were told, ‘they’ll know a thing or two about the weather’.”

“The tradition, I don’t know how far back it goes, but certainly for 60 years or more the goats are part and parcel of Lahinch,” revealed Ryan. “The goats start moving way out the links, maybe as far as the tenth, eleventh, it was always an indication there wasn’t going to be rain, but once the weather conditions started to dis-improve they gradually worked their way back and always took shelter around the clubhouse,” he added.

“I believe in them,” said McCavery. “Get dressed for the weather if they’re near the clubhouse, but if they’re out the country it will be a fine day.”

“It’s fact,” said Ryan. “It’s a recognised thing here; we look on them the very same as the fishermen; they have some second sense,” he added.

That sense had been missed for a few months in 1971, as with the passing of Tommy Walsh, who was more famous as the owner of the goats than having the distinction of caddying for British Open champion John Ball when he played in the South of Ireland, the goats disappeared from Lahinch.

It was national news: “Three of the most popular members of the club were seen to be missed by regular visitors.” reported Aidan McCarthy in The Irish Press. “The trio in question are the famous goats, the animals have been removed and are presently stationed at Liscannor, seven miles up the road.

The late Ken Venturi, who was life member of Lahinch pictured with the goats;

“Thus, members and visitors to Lahinch have been deprived of three of the most respected members. They now have to risk the very changeable weather whenever they decide to play a round of golf.

“Club secretary, Brud Slattery, assures me that they will be back as soon as the milking season is over, but members of the club seem to be resigned to the fact that their ageless mascots have finally gone,” he added.

But Brud was right, the goats soon returned, and have been in Lahinch ever since, save a brief period in 2001 when the outbreak of foot and mouth disease saw them temporarily removed from the course before they returned a few months later.

Not that they’re always infallible as one South of Ireland renewal, that became more famous for the weather and the goats than the golfers, testified to.  “Howling 30 mph winds, accompanied off the Atlantic by a drenching mist made for the vilest conditions as the South of Ireland was pruned to 16,” reported The Irish Press in 1974.

“There is a tradition in Lahinch that the goats that roam the course signify the weather forecast by their whereabouts, but these reliable ‘weather men’ were not to be seen when Lahinch was hit by the storms. Strangely, they have gone missing.”

Sean Diffley of The Irish Independent waded in. “The brown goats spancelled in pairs have been familiar figures over the rolling dunes for decades and whenever the weather was about to show its teeth the goats were invariably to be seen around the clubhouse,” he wrote.

“On the other hand when the sea at Lahinch as a bout to ‘shine like a jewel’ the goats, as intrepid as a gang of Marco Polos, would venture forth into the wild, jungle country beyond the ‘Dell’ and the ‘Klonddyke’.

“That is, they did all those things up to last week when the South of Ireland was played in the sort of weather that might be acceptable around the Bering Straits, but was highly unwelcome due east of Liscannor Bay.

“The goats, had they been doing their proper duty, should have been hovering around the first tee. Instead they were nowhere to be seen and gave not the slightest indication that an extra pair of pull-ups would have been advisable. Word filtered around that Brud Slattery had sent out search parties speaking fluent goat-language, but to no avail. Francis Garrihy thought the goats were ‘probably down the village in Kennys’.”

“The upshot of it all is that the Lahinch Golf Club may, in future, have to rely on a more hit-or-miss method of forecasting the weather such as phoning up the met-men at Shannon Airport. Meanwhile, the goats are thoroughly discredited.”

They never did go to Shannon Airport, neither did they fix the barometer.

They stayed loyal to the goats.

All because, as Joe Ryan told Cathal O’Shannon in 1971, “when you come in here and you are ready to hit off from the first tee, it’s not the barometer you’re looking at, it’s the goats”.

Same as it ever was.

Even for the pros in Irish Open week.

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