Bertha We Hardly Knew Ye

By Jim Hagarty
1994

It is generally known that journalists have a high burnout rate. Granted, the average Canadian reporter’s job isn’t usually as tough as that of a firefighter, police officer or doctor. Nevertheless, keeping track of the daily ups and downs of the world, especially the downs, can, with time, produce an underlying sense of gloom in even the most optimistic newspaperperson. Editors, especially, are known to be crusty, even cantankerous sorts, at times peevishly barking out answers to even the most benign of questions.

The foregoing preamble is just my way of explaining to you why I’ve been in a bit of a funk these past few days. Here’s the rest of the story.

Editors usually find out the news before the rest of the world and it’s our job to figure out the best way to break it to you. As rural editor of my newspaper, I had that unpleasant task earlier this week when the story flashed across the news service here in the office that the world’s oldest cow had died. That’s right. Big Bertha, born March 17, 1944, fell sick a few weeks ago at her owner’s farm near Kenmare in southwest Ireland and died a short time later.

I sat here in the sorry glow from my computer screen, blinked back a tear and wondered how to convey this disturbing report to our readers.

When Bertha was born (she wasn’t Big at the time), the world was still at war. And as the last half of the 20th century unfolded, there she was in her fields and her barn, munching hay, getting pregnant (she delivered 39 calves over the years) and producing milk by the truckload. When Joseph McCarthy was interrogating “communists” in the U.S. in the late ’50s, she was in her early teens, out scratching her itchy hide against trees in the orchard. While John Kennedy made his triumphant return to his roots in Ireland, she was in another part of the country, head buried in a water trough. As war raged in Vietnam in the ’70s, she was chewing her cud and making eyes at the thick-necked male of her species, out pawing his hooves on the ground in the pasture field across the fence.

For almost 50 years, Big Bertha was there for it all. The Berlin wall coming down. Licking a salt block. The war in Iraq. Asleep under a shade tree. All that time, minding her own business, supplying the Irish with milk, butter and ice cream and turning out baby Berthas and Berts with the regularity of the earth’s yearly rotation around the sun.

And now she’s gone. What hurt as much as her passing were the cryptic comments of callous reporters and photographers around the newsroom who are known not to possess the heart of an editor. Questions like, “What kind of cow was she? An Oldstein?” And, “Wha’d she do? Kick the bucket?” Plus, at the news that Big Bertha had become an Irish celebrity and helped raise $99,000 for cancer research, the comment: “Boy, she sure milked her age for all it was worth.”

But at least now, at last, we have a clue to the origins of Mad Cow Disease among the bovines of Great Britain. It’s simple. They were all jealous of Bertha’s star status. So, maybe one good thing will emerge from the death of this gentle giant. Perhaps now, British cows will change from being Mad to being Slightly P.O.’d and in time, Just Plain Cranky.

Like your average burdened-down editor.

Author: Jim Hagarty

I am a 65-year-old retired journalist, busy recovering from a lifelong career as an unretired journalist. This year marks a half century of my scratching out little fables about life. My interests include genealogy, humour and music. I live in a little blue shack in Canada and spend most of my time trying to stay out of trouble. I am not that good at it. I also spent years teaching journalism. Poor state of journalism today: My fault. I have a family I don't deserve, a dog that adores me, and two cars the junk yard refuses to accept. My prized possessions include my old guitar and a razor my Dad gave me when I was 14 and which I still use when I bother to shave. Oh, and my great-great-grandfather's blackthorn stick he brought from Ireland in the 1850s. I have only one opinion but it is a good one: People take too many showers.

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