Recently, I overheard a conversation about donkeys at a bar in Connemara. Being a committed suburbanite, the price of donkeys is not something I’d know much about, but this conversation was different. It was as enlightening a discussion as I’ve heard in years and it contained a profound economic message. Let me introduce the “donkey indicator of consumption” or “DIC” for short.
What can the donkey tell us about the economy? Traditionally, the humble donkey was a sign of poverty. In the old grainy photos, taken by cranium-measuring English anthropologists, the Irish peasants stared vacuously into the lens flanked by their trusted, yet melancholic donkey.
Right up to the early 1980s, the donkey featured prominently in the John Hinde postcard view of Ireland. Everyone must remember the iconic postcard of the two flaming redheaded children, squinting — as redsers do in the sun — against the background of the 12 Bens, with the turf-laden donkey. The donkey and backward Ireland were synonymous. Back then, the donkey was known as the “poor man’s tractor”.
In the past 20 years, the poor donkey was ignored on Irish farms; as the farmers got richer, the stigma attached to the donkey was heightened and no self-respecting, ambitious farmer would be seen dead with a donkey when he could get a Massey Ferguson on hire purchase. So unloved was the poor auld asal, that Ireland became a net exporter of donkeys.
Until recently, the Irish donkey was being shipped out to Spain, where his determined and uncomplaining work ethic was still valued. In Ireland, the working donkey faced extinction. The price of donkeys languished. Three years ago, you could pick up a healthy three-year-old mare for around â‚¬500 — about the same price as a Labrador pup.
But the fortune of the donkey has experienced a rapid turnaround in the past three years. This reversal of fortune was evident in the West last week during the final week for taking home the turf.
Traditionally in the country, turf is cut in March or April and left in big “clamps” to dry out over the summer. Counter-intuitively, the drying season this year was only marginally affected by the torrential rain, because turf doesn’t absorb water once it is dry. So all over the West, men took home turf last week. If you witnessed this, you might also have noticed the return of the donkey. Farmers there have reacted to the ludicrous cost of fuel by going back to the donkey. As the price of oil soared, so did the price of the donkey.
Since 2005, the price of the donkey has tripled. Healthy mares are now selling for between â‚¬1,200 and â‚¬1,800 and there’s no sign of demand flagging. The sight of a little neidin laden down with two full “grills” (baskets) of turf is once again commonplace in Connemara. Likewise, the price of turf has increased. It is now trading at around â‚¬450 for a “tractor-trailer load” — this is up almost 70pc in three years.
As the lads at the bar in Connemara were suggesting, the donkey is back and the working donkey is something of value again, thanks to the raging price of fuel. In economics, this development is called the “law of unintended consequences”. This occurs when a development (such as the rise of China, which pushes up the world price of oil) ushers in an unexpected new golden age (like that of the donkey in Achill Island). Not even the donkey is immune to global trends.
However, the donkey is not just benefiting from the cost of keeping a tractor on the road, because it is not just the “working donkey” that has seen an increase in his lot over the past two years. The DIC index captures another, related yet separate social trend.
Anyone who was at the marvellous Electric Picnic noticed the environmental theme which ran through the three-day festival. Concern for the environment is now an essential part of the intellectual armoury of the discerning class. It goes together with a knowledge of world music, appreciation of diverse cultures and an understanding of the culinary potential of fennel.
People who are concerned about the environment define themselves by simplicity as opposed to complexity, frugality as opposed to flash. They promote the authentic over the fabricated, the natural over the man-made and the rural over the urban.
What could be more natural, simple and rural, than the humble donkey? As a result, the donkey is coveted by the discriminating class. The donkey is a fashion statement for environmentally concerned second-home owners in the country. In fact, nothing so underlines your hipness and right-on-ness as the sight of your own donkey grazing in the field out the back of the holiday home in Ballyconnely.
For our new environmentally aware middle class, owning, appreciating and telling your friends about your own donkey is a sign of social sophistication.
While your mates’ children are stuck inside, glued to “club penguin”, your own children are braving the elements, cavorting healthily with their very own donkey. They are at one with nature and the donkey is the poster-boy of the sophisticated elite. Responsible, far-thinking parents buy donkeys. In contrast, lazy, ill-informed parents buy PlayStations.
Thus it came to pass. The humble donkey is back. He is a cost saver against the rapid increase in the price of fuel. He is an environmental bulwark against the destruction of the countryside and he is a highly sought-after appendage for the educated elite.
The donkey is back.
This year saw the first Irish donkey festival which was organised by Dominic Gerraghty, known affectionately as ‘Mr Donkey’ (email@example.com). It’s a long way from ‘M’Asal Beag Dubh’, but the “donkey renaissance” is one of the many contradictions of the globalised world.
Next time you want to gauge the impact of higher oil prices, just look over a ditch and see who is looking back out at you.