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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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How Ireland’s first female vet ‘paved the way for those who would follow her’

RTÉ’s Nationwide will put pioneering Irish woman, Aleen Cust, under the spotlight in tonight’s (Friday, November 5th, 2021) episode.

Cust was the first woman to study veterinary in Ireland or the UK at the Veterinary College in Edinburgh.

Born in 1868, the Tipperary native began training to become a nurse at London Hospital.

However, following her father’s passion, she opted to pursue a career in veterinary instead when she was twenty-six.

According to reports, she changed her name to Custance to “avoid embarrassment to her family” after realising her true vocation was to become a vet.

During her studies, she earned a gold medal in zoology and finished higher than her male counterparts.

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Aleen Cust

She completed her studies in 1897, but was not allowed to sit her final exam, as, according to reports, the RCVS did not see her as a student.

She brought the case before the courts to overturn the RCVS’s examination committee’s decision. The court declined to rule on the basis that the RCVS was “not domiciled in Scotland”.

Cust refrained from further legal action in London, but this did not stop her from forging a career in the veterinary field.

She worked with William Augustine Byrne as an assistant in Athleague, Co Roscommon.

She also became a veterinary inspector with Galway County Council under the Diseases of Animals Act during her career. In June 1906, the department sanctioned her appointment after it contested it on the basis that “a woman could not be an RCVS member”.

She previously applied for this role, but the RCVS denied her “due to the lack of professional recognition”.

However, the post was re-advertised, and when she was selected, an agreement was reached whereby she would conduct duties under an amended title.

Practice, France and final exam 

In 1910, she took over Byrne’s practice and, years later, took a leave of absence from her Galway County Council role. She drove to France to volunteer as a vet to tens of thousands of horses on the Western Front.

She was eventually allowed to sit her RCVS exam following the Sex Disqualification Removal Act of 1919.

In 1922, she graduated, receiving her diploma, and making history. It was only in that year that the RCVS recognised her right to practice in her own right.

Cust retired in 1924 due to ill-health and moved to the UK, where she died in 1937.

RTÉ Nationwide will speak to a committee in the West of Ireland on RTÉ 1 at 7 pm tonight, who are “commemorating her and honouring her trailblazing path”.

They say Cust, who is “relatively unknown outside veterinary circles, paved the way for those who would follow her”.

Read our veterinary series.

Image source: Wikipedia, which states: “This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired and its author is anonymous.”

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