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It is my very great pleasure and honour to address you here this morning and to welcome you to Ireland.  I note the presence of members from countries all over the world and if this is your first visit to Ireland, I hope that it will not be your last and that the impressions you gain during your sojourn will inspire you to come again.

I should say at the outset that I have an immediate empathy with the people of the equine world.  As a teenager growing up in the West of Ireland, I had the opportunity to own a pony.  I got to know the ways of horses - their intelligence, their mannerisms, their idiosyncrasies.  The close relationship between humankind and equines was brought home to me by witnessing in the surrounding townlands the day-to-day reliance of the farmers on their horses and donkeys.  Being an animal owner, I very quickly became conscious of the role of the local veterinary surgeon in the rural community.  I should also say that, even now, I am not far from the veterinary world.  Down the road from my official residence is the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory and so you are meeting some of my neighbours here today.

If I might digress into the realm of linguistics for a moment, our involvement with horses takes us back to time immemorial.  Some five thousand years ago, the philologists tell me, the Indo-European word for "horse" was "ekwos", which you will readily recognise as the source of words like "equine" and "equestrian".  I am fascinated to find that the Irish language is among the few that have retained that word.  Our living Irish speech retains to this day the word "ech" meaning "steed".  The word is also recorded in a document preserved in the Royal Irish Academy.  This is a fragment of a mediaeval treatise in the Irish language on equine veterinary medicine.  Among the gems of information available in this document is that the horse has nine "likenesses" - three from a bull, three from a fox and three from a woman. 

The horse is everywhere in Irish life - in our history, our placenames, our literature.  Excavations at a historic site in the Boyne Valley have revealed evidence of the important role played by horses in Ireland's earliest civilisation.  The Celts who came from continental Europe were skilled horsemen and they introduced horseracing to the island more than two thousand years ago.  The horse features in the heroic deeds of the Red Branch Knights. 

You will be interested to know that the first recorded steeplechase took place in Ireland:  it occurred in Buttevant in the year 1752 when a Mr. O'Callaghan raced a Mr. Edmund Blake over a four and a half-mile cross-country course.  It merits mention that "Byerley Turk", one of the three progenitors of the entire thoroughbred breed, was ridden as a charger at the Battle of the Boyne in the year 1690 before being retired to stud.  Speaking of chargers, I understand that Napoleon's favourite was Marengo - an Irish horse bred in County Wexford:  I like to think that your regard for the Irish equine industry will not be undermined by the fact that Marengo ran at Waterloo!

In touching upon our history in horses, I must not forget to mention an area where Ireland has made recent history.  In 1992 the University of Limerick launched the Bachelor of Science Degree in Equine Science to provide students who wish to follow a professional career in the horse industry with the opportunity to pursue a four-year programme incorporating the essential elements of equine science, equitation and business management and their application to equestrian-related activities.  This course of study was developed because of the strategic importance of the equine and allied industries in Ireland's economy and the consequential need to produce highly qualified personnel with the specialised knowledge to exploit the potential of these industries.  In addition to this degree, a Professor of Equine Science has also been appointed by the University of Limerick.

Only twice in its thirty-three year history has the Association gone outside its home country to hold the Annual Congress.  The first was in 1976 and the second now in Trinity College.  That the venue on both of these occasions is Dublin is a reflection of Ireland's place in the equine world.  With its natural advantages of soil, climate and "know-how", Ireland has always been pre-eminently suited to the breeding of top-quality horses.  Breeders are able to keep young animals out on grass most of the Winter.  The result of this is that the animals derive the full benefit of an outdoor life combined with feeding on the product of the limestone geology which is generally characteristic of our horse-industry areas.  It is a noteworthy statistic that approximately two-thirds of all the Aintree Grand National winners were Irish-bred.  This striking performance results from a combination of soil, climate and breeding.  You will readily appreciate the pride and honour we experience with the choice of Ireland to host the 1998 World Equestrian Games.  So far as "know-how" is concerned, I cannot resist bragging about one thing in particular:  Ireland produces, not only great horses, but also some of the greatest trainers in the world.

It is a matter of great pride to me that the first female veterinary surgeon in these islands had an Irish connection.  Aleen Isabel Cust was born in County Tipperary in 1868 and was accepted by Edinburgh veterinary school in 1895.  Her application to sit for the professional examination of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons was refused because it was "contrary to long usage and all precedent that women should be admitted to the veterinary profession".  She worked in County Roscommon as assistant to a veterinary surgeon - a Mr. William Byrne - who supported her campaign for professional recognition - a goal she finally achieved in December 1922 by becoming the first woman to qualify as a member of the Royal College.  There are now some 200 women vets in Ireland; I am sure they acknowledge the pioneering efforts of Aleen Isabel Cust.

Animal welfare, as you are acutely aware, is a topical subject in the European Union.  You are a beacon of compassion in a world becoming so inured to suffering; people will look to you for guidance in animal welfare; yours is the task of articulating the case of the animal.  I know that, in you - our veterinary surgeons - the animal has a powerful advocate.

A feature of modern economics is the freer movement of animals, especially since the opening of the Single Market.  This brings into sharper focus the sense of responsibility characteristic of your profession.  The integrity and professionalism which you bring to bear in the exercise of your veterinary duties will, I know, continue to be to the forefront in maintaining the health and welfare of our horses so as to ensure that their movement is as unproblematic as possible. 

I take the opportunity to say a special word about the British Equine Veterinary Association.  I know that BEVA was established in 1961 as a  response to a new awareness of the horse for recreational purposes in place of the agricultural role which horses lost owing to mechanisation.  The Association also set out to address the dearth of experienced equine practitioners which arose in the 1950's.  BEVA has now reached its thirty-third year - a whole generation in human terms.  In that time span it has been to the forefront in representing and advancing the interests of the horse.  This is borne out, for example, by the launching of the Equine Veterinary Journal - a publication which commands worldwide attention.  The diversity of BEVA activities - scientific enquiry, regulation, education, international relations - all point to the well deserved respect which the Association enjoys in its chosen field and set it well on course to meet its fiftieth anniversary. 

In conclusion, I must mention a film of the nineteen-fifties called "The March Hare".  It starred one of Ireland's finest actors, Cyril Cusack, and was shown on television last year.  You may ask what has all this got to do with horses!  Well, it tells about a young horse of uncertain racing promise which was brought from England to Ireland to be trained by Cyril.  Cyril has a secret word which, if whispered in a horse's ear, would make the animal win the race.  The point I wish to make is that this is perfectly true: the Irish have such a secret word.  I would earnestly ask you not to abuse our hospitality by trying to find out what that word is!  Otherwise I wish you well in your endeavours and I sincerely hope that you will have an informative and enjoyable stay in Ireland.