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Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane hails from a sixth-generation drystock and specialised pedigree suckler enterprise in Co. Mayo. She currently holds the positions of editor and general manager at That's Farming, having joined the firm during its start-up phase in 2015.
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‘You do not need to be the smartest person in the world to be a vet’

That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with Muireann O’Connell (22) from Thomastown in Co Kilkenny in this week’s Student Focus series, a veterinary medicine student at UCD.

“Until the age of twelve, I lived in estates and small villages. Upon relocation to the countryside, my dad began to put sheep and chickens on the land, which ultimately became quite an interest for me.

Since then, we have established a local small but busy organic, free-range eggs business, while also keeping ewes and lambs during most of the year.

Our farm is in Baunskeha, Thomastown, Co.Kilkenny and my father, Cormac O’Connell, oversees the running of it.

Over the years, I have enjoyed speaking to my grandfather about his time as a small dairy farmer in rural Ireland.

We are in our second year of organic conversion in our sheep flock. Currently, we are building on our breeding stock using pedigree registered Zwartbles rams with a mixture of horned and mule-cross ewes.

The plan here is to outwinter with late lambing. Ultimately, the best of the ewe lambs will later run with a terminal sire of Beltex or Chartex.

Our small egg production business is run from home using both an on-site ‘honesty box’ and a weekly supply to the local country market. We have a flock of approximately 45 Lohman Brown layers.

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Veterinary medicine student 

I hate to be the stereotypical vet student, but I have always loved animals. From a young age, my siblings would get lego sets, and I would get large books full of animal facts.

I spent evenings watching Blue Planet and petting farms. I was about four when I started talking about becoming a vet. Then, I fully decided by the end of primary school that I could not imagine being in any other profession.

I was so lucky to have a supportive family around me alongside teachers, both primary and secondary.

Furthermore, I remember one particular primary teacher would always bring us on nature walks and truly reinforced that grá for nature that I already had.

I am studying MVB – Veterinary Medicine at UCD since 2018 and will graduate in 2023.

It is the only course available for veterinary medicine in Ireland. I had not considered going abroad at any stage during my Leaving Cert year, so it was a no-brainer.

I was very happy when the CAO offers came out, as you can imagine. Everything worked out for me, and I was lucky enough to receive an offer from UCD in August after my Leaving Certificate (2018).


I carried out pre-clinical placement (first and second year) on local farms (around the Kilkenny region and clinical EMS (3rd to 5th year), which included the following:

  • Small animal placement – DSPCA Rathfarnham and Village Vets Kilkenny;
  • Large animal – Highfield Large Animal Practice in Naas;
  • Equine – UCD Equine Hospital.

An undergraduate degree is five years long. The first two years are very biology and anatomy-focused and emphasis is placed on learning what is ‘normal’.

Some modules focus on farming systems which I found helpful as I did not have the solid farming foundation that a lot of students did have coming in

Third and fourth year are a lot more clinical, and teaching is divided into body systems and how pathogens impact these systems.

There are higher expectations placed on your knowledge and your ability to work through clinical cases.

The final year is rotations based, meaning you are in the UCD Veterinary Hospital for the year. You move through various departments throughout the year and carry out presentations, all the while dealing with real-time clinical cases.

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Class rep and white coat ceremony

I have been a class rep for the last three years and have been a member of many committees (Summer school 2022, Curriculum Review Committee, EAEVE accreditation student contributor, VetPal committee).

We had our white coat ceremony last March, which for me, was one of the nicest days in the degree so far.

My friends will know what I am talking about when I say I was a bit emotional. For anyone not aware, the white coat ceremony is a transitional event which marks the progression into your final clinical year of study (fifth year). Seeing all my friends and their families celebrating this achievement was a true highlight.

It is so easy to forget that on top of the workload of veterinary medicine, personal issues can impact students immensely, and it was just really nice to see us all reach that significant milestone in the degree.

I love the course. Obviously, every course has its challenges, but I have had the best time over the last four years. The course is quite small in comparison to many of the other degrees and, therefore, you become familiar with both staff and students quite early on.

I was the oldest child in the family and was nervous about starting college and moving out of my family home. However, having that close-knit community in veterinary medicine made that transition so much easier.

From my experience, the further you progress in the degree, the better it is. It is so exciting for me to see my friends becoming competent professionals and building on all of the knowledge we have been taught over the last four years.

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My main tip for anyone currently progressing through placement in their veterinary degree is to choose your practice and stick with them if possible.

I have been incredibly lucky with the support I have received from all of my placements, and I have returned to them on multiple occasions.

It takes more than a week for a practice to get to know its students. Returning will improve your experience there, and, in turn, practitioners will be more inclined to teach you if they get to know your professional ability.

You do not need to be the smartest person in the world to be a vet – I am not. Try and see some practice during your Transition Year work experience.

You will not get to do a huge amount, but even putting yourself in that environment may deter or confirm your interest in veterinary medicine. Choose your Leaving Cert subjects wisely (and make sure you have chemistry).

Also, get support and feedback from your teachers on areas that you can improve on.

If your heart truly is in it, do what you can to get in, whether going abroad or repeating.

In my year, so many people repeated their Leaving Cert to get into veterinary. You are not at a disadvantage. If anything, you have taken that extra year to mature and realise that this is what your heart is set on.

Entering my final year just reinforced my desire to be in this profession. Your experience – highs, lows, advantages, disadvantages and admittedly, veterinary medicine is hard.

There will be long hours put down, both in the lecture hall and the library. You will question yourself so often. You will fail exams, and realising that that is not the end of the world is vital.

However, it is beyond worth it. I cannot be more grateful for the group of like-minded, supportive people I have the privilege of calling friends and future colleagues.

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I will stay in Ireland upon graduating. I think having the support of your family and friends is massive as a new grad. Leaving this country would be too big of a change for me this early in my career.

The initial plan post-graduation is to start in a mixed practice in Ireland, which has an even mix of large and small animal work.

While I am a veterinarian for animals, I enjoy working with people, and every animal has a person attached to it. I love the rough and ready aspect of large animal veterinary medicine (although the novelty of the 3 am section will wear off eventually, I assume).

I love learning and am so grateful to be entering a profession that is constantly updating and promotes continued development.

Where there are animals, there will be a vet. Concerning farming, sustainability is the way forward, and I do not think you can achieve that without the help of vets.

We have also seen, throughout the pandemic, the addition that vets provide to human medicine.

Mapping the spread of coronavirus and comparing it to epidemics in veterinary medicine was vital in combating the COVID pandemic.

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Women in veterinary

I think the feminisation of the profession is a fantastic thing. We see it all across the working environment in every profession; women’s careers will usually take the backseat to sustain a family life, and I believe that there can be a balance there, that women can do both.

As a teenager looking to do veterinary, I was repeatedly warned that ‘It’s a tough life for a woman’ and ‘What if I wanted to have kids? How would it work then?’. I was seventeen. The biggest concern for me was the debs, not children!

Ultimately, I want to be able to improve the lives of animals. Be that the family pet or the dairy cow. They both fulfil their individual needs and matter equally to society.

If you could turn back the clock, would you do anything differently? Have more confidence in my abilities. Just because you do not come from a massive, years-old farm does not mean you cannot be a great large animal vet.

My life as a vet student is chaotic in the absolute best way possible, expensive (love you, Dublin), and rewarding,” the veterinary medicine student concluded.

Read more Student Focus profiles. To share your story like this veterinary medicine student, email – [email protected]

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