Of Goats and Mills

I have two distinct childhood memories of The Tullyarvan Mill, both involving goats.

Since I have known that place it has been many things but never a functioning mill. That was long ago. Tucked away in the back hills of Buncrana, County Donegal, it was always an atmospheric haven for us city slickers down from Belfast on the weekends and during summer holidays.

In more recent years, it operated as a swanky hostel. The Mill would be open over winter for the very rare tourist. Not a massively profitable venture but great for sneaking in with booze as a teenager when your friends work there. Long nights were spent drinking wine and watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Our own personal voyages into the pretentious teenage cliché were played out in The Mill too, evidently!

It is not the building itself that I most fondly remember, but the grounds surrounding it. Labyrinthine and endlessly changing, each visit as a child brought new fascinating corners of greenery to be discovered. My brother and I would bring nets and try to catch butterflies. Looking back at that, I am relieved we never succeeded in getting any.

Once, when I was still too small to see over the old dry-stone walls out the front, my dad had some of his paintings and sculptures exhibited at The Mill. On the day of the exhibition opening, my brother and I met a fearsome foe. There were many fairy-tale villains to avoid at that place.

My father would transform himself into a troll on many an occasion to re-enact the classic ‘Three Billy Goats Gruff’ at The Mill. In full character, Caliban himself would hide soggily under one of the old bridges by the Crana River, laying in wait. River water there was often an alarmingly reddish-brown colour. I have been told by some it was dye running down from the old Fruit Of The Loom factories, others insisted it was simply peat on the river bed. I never really knew who to believe.  All that was clear was that the mucky waters seemed to add to the drama of such games. On those invariably grey, drizzling summer afternoons Dad would ruin another pair of shoes by standing down in one of the Crana’s streams, crouching amidst mossy stones to entertain us kids.

Kids indeed we were, growing little beards and bleating at the top of our lungs as we crossed that bridge in turn. A very real sense of fear was present with all the method acting and pathetic fallacy surrounding us. I remember my younger brother being reduced to tears one time acting Little Billy Goat as the crescendo of the game panned out in fantastically clumsy fashion. As the old Norwegian story goes, Little Billy Goat cleverly gets across the dangerous bridge by telling the troll there is a much larger meal up ahead, in the form of his bigger brother. I, starring as Medium Billy Goat, would then tentatively trot across and use the same ploy. It all ends with Big Billy Goat boldly crossing and managing to horn the troll into the river. (Cue my mother taking great delight in triumphing over the troll… Let’s not get the marriage councillors to analyse that one!)

On this occasion though, Big Billy Goat herself tripped over a loose plank on the rickety old bridge and plummeted towards the troll head first! Straying from character, that goat’s language probably belonged down in the guttery streams anyway! With three out of four of us utterly drenched in Crana water and tears respectively, we trip-trapped our way back to the car. Feeling smugly dry, I recall the day being saved with a ubiquitous curry chip at Tommy’s down the road and a ‘medicinal whiskey’ for the troll and big goat afterwards.

All that drama was nothing however, compared to the fearsome foe my brother and I encountered on the day of the sculpture exhibition. With Dad now safely playing his part as artist in residence, we sneaked out to the front gardens in search of adventure. There we saw, tied to a dishevelled wooden fence, a large buck goat. With my brother no more than four years old and I at around seven, this hairy creature seemed huge! We were close enough to smell something distinctly goaty and inspect the impressive curl of his horns when the sentiments of the moment fell away. It quickly went from awe-struck children admiring nature, to terrified kids running from buck! The thing charged full throttle at us and as it did so, the flimsy rope around the fence snapped in two! I, screaming with unholy volume levels, attempted to shepherd my brother out of the way. We ran to a large rock and somehow scrambled up top as the cloven-hoofed cretin followed close at heel!

I think my brother might have lost a welly boot, but aside from that we remained unscathed. As our little knees knocked together atop the rock, we heard a gentle voice from behind the fence. A neighbour come to the rescue from his cottage, crooked his neck round and said, ‘What’s going on here then, wains?’

In terrified unison, my brother and I chorused ‘This goat wants to eat us for breakfast, lunch and tea!’ Luckily, the man just chuckled to himself as he grabbed the rope and tied the goat more securely to another part of the fence. I am assuming we somehow climbed down off that Irish Ayers Rock ourselves too, but my memory becomes a little hazy in the aftermath of such a caprine trauma!

Surviving to tell the tales, my experiences at The Tullyarvan Mill have left me with a valuable life lesson: it is in fact goats and not trolls under bridges you need to be wary of!

Elspeth Vischer