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Our first female vet was a woman of courage

Wednesday, 7th February, 2018 3:31pm
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Our first female vet was a woman of courage

Aleen Cust

Our first female vet was a woman of courage

Aleen Cust

By Mary Burke

JUST before the Gort to Tuam motorway opened in September to the delight of daily commuters like myself, a large brown sign appeared on the Milltown road. A distinctive Heritage sign informing travellers of the historical delights of Tuam, it features the Mill Wheel, Tuam RC Cathedral and St Mary’s Cathedral. Now that Tuam is bypassed, the sign was erected to inform travellers of the historical attractions to be explored in the town.

The sign irked me slightly for two reasons: it did not feature our very illustrious High Cross and it is also grammatically incorrect by omitting the apostrophe from St Mary’s Cathedral. I pass it every morning on my way to work and I wonder is it because punctuation would interfere with the aesthetics of the lettering.
Heritage signposts are important. They are distinctive by virtue of their brown colour and they are a guide to both the tourist and the everyday traveller of the historical and archaeological sites that lie within the local area. These signposts can often lead you to somewhat unexpected delights.
I happened upon such a treasure recently while venturing down a track thanks to one of those brown signposts. Coming home from Cavan as I passed through the village of Fuerty in Co Roscommon I stopped to take a photo of Fuerty Church which dates back to 17th century and to read the information board.
It was believed St Patrick visited Fuerty and appointed a Deacon there called Justus to establish a monastic settlement and according to oral tradition he baptised Saint Ciarán, a local man, around 500 BC. This was the same Ciarán who went on to found Clonmacnoise on the banks of the River Shannon.
Fuerty Abbey was also the scene of a terrible massacre. Around 100 friars were killed there on the orders of a local Cromwellian landlord, Colonel Robert Ormbsy. The Abbey was destroyed and it was much later that the present, now ruined, church was built.
As I exited the ruins I spotted a small brown Heritage signpost almost hidden by the leafy trees. Castlestrange Stone, it proclaimed. Having some knowledge of this national treasure, I had no hesitation in making a detour down a very narrow and winding road to arrive at some large gateposts leading to the very picturesque ruins of Castlestrange House. A short walk up the driveway leads you to this very unique decorated stone.
It is one of only three such stones in Ireland and carved with flowing geometrical motifs in the La Tène art style. This is a curvilinear style of decoration brought to Ireland from Central Europe by the Celts. When Christianity took hold in Ireland, the La Tène style merged with Christian symbols. The stones were carved some time in the Celtic Iron Age, approximately 100 to 300 years BC.
The Turoe Stone in Galway and the Kiltycluggin Stone in Cavan are the only other surviving examples of this particular stone art form in Ireland. The use of these stones is not known but they probably served some ritual religious purpose. I think that sometimes we do not appreciate the fact that we have such a visible rich historical heritage dotted throughout the countryside that is also very accessible. There has been debate on the merit of leaving such stones in the open exposed not just to weathering but also to the risk of theft.
 As I returned to the car a pink plaque attached to the entrance pillar of Castlestrange House caught my eye. It was dedicated to a lady called Aleen Cust 1868-1937, Ireland’s first woman veterinary surgeon. It declared that she practised in Roscommon in the years 1900–1924. I was intrigued and wanted to find out more about her. Veterinary people are no doubt familiar with her but I had never heard of her.
I managed to get my hands on an out of print biography of Aleen Cust written by Connie Ford, an English vet who was fascinated by this rather eccentric trail blazing feminist who upset and defied the totally male-dominated veterinarian class of the early 20th century.
Aleen Cust was born in Tipperary 150 years ago today, on February 7, 1868. Her father, Leopold Cust, was a rather hated land agent for Lord Barrymore who owned much land in Co. Tipperary. They also had rather aristocratic connections through Aleen’s mother, a grand-daughter of the Earl of Bradford.
Aleen enjoyed a happy privileged upbringing in Tipperary until her father’s death when she was only ten. She exhibited a love of animals from an early age and was especially fond of horses. Her father’s death saw the family relocate to England where she was educated privately with her brothers. She was passionate about animal welfare and was frequently found in the stables watching vets do their work.

Read the full feature in this week's edition of The Tuam Herald

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