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Cormac MacConnell - The West's Awake
Where Have All the Dogs Gone?
September 10, 2008
by Cormac MacConnell
DRAMATICALLY, because of social and economic factors in the New Ireland, the dog population of this island has been cut by what must be half in the last decade and that’s very sad.
Worse still by far is the reality that the decline has been sharpest among the four-footed and faithful ranks of the Common Irish or Garden Mongrel. He’s on his last legs altogether.
I traveled the length of Clare and Galway over the turning of the year, and though I saw maybe a hundred canines altogether I’d swear I spotted only three mongrels. That breaks my heart.
Once the countryside was thickly populated by Sheps and Sports that would not know what a pedigree was if it rose up and bit them. Now they are almost all gone, as obsolete in this era as the High Nellie bike or the storm lantern.
What has happened, you see, is that the EC has reduced the full time farming population of Ireland. Only about one in three is left.
Those who are gone were the kind of small farmers who invariably had one or two mongrel sheepdogs, all called Shep, part working dog and part family pet. They were black and white or brown and white. They had wild independent spirits which resulted in a genetic cargo which could include the DNA of Alsatians, Jack Russels, Red Setters, Retrievers, basically any other dog or bitch met on mountain roads.
They were as much a part of the farmhouses of yesterday as the tractor on the street, the flock of red hens in the back garden, the teapot atop the range, the rosaries dangling from the nail beneath the Sacred Heart lamp. And the most of them are gone now without trace, as scarce as the legendary Kerry Cow.
Concurrent with this has been the fact that houses are now so expensive and everybody so well educated that young couples are buying the kind of modern castles which require that both continue to work after marriage in order to meet the mortgage.
This effectively means that an infinitely smaller crop of babies are all creched during working hours, and the household provides itself with no dog at all, no cat, no budgie, usually not even a harmless goldfish.
You can drive through townlands nowadays, past scores of beautiful new bungalows (all with two bathrooms and conservatories and every mod con) and you know they are empty until teatime, and there is nary a dog to guard any of them or to be sitting faithfully at the gable waiting for the Master or the Mistress to return home. A blue box high up on the gable full of electronic gadgetry performs the guarding duties once belonging to Shep.
Many of the wee creched kids growing up will never ever roll in the garden with a pup, or ride around the parlor on the back of a wise old gentle old bitch with the patience of a saint.
And when they are older they will never go hunting rabbits with that bitch’s latest grandson — Shep of course — or enjoy the whole experience of learning about Life alongside their own dog.
They have gained so much in this New Ireland, all the creature comforts, all the best nutrition, housing, recreation and so forth. But the creature comfort they would have enjoyed most, the constant company of a Shep, is a grievous loss to them. That’s my view anyway.
When I was 10 I had no Shep but we had a big black lovely old fellow called Friday, and he was my very best friend. There are cells of me that miss him still, after all these years. And his noble mongrel name is still attached to our wee terrier bitch that came out of the Galway Dog Pound to the Dutch Nation and I a decade ago now and is a part of the family.
Tellingly, as the mongrels disappear, their day done, any dogs that you do see about the land are all purebred yokes of all shapes and sizes with pedigrees as long as your arm. They cost a fortune to purchase, have more papers to their name than you or I, all look (a) neurotic and highly-strung; (b) bored out of their skulls; (c) more than a little dangerous if large dogs are around; (d) as if they’d stepped out of a shower; and (e) as if they never worked a day in their lives, chased a cat, barked at the postman.
Some of them, for God’s sake, have been wearing their own fancy clothes in the recent weather, with color-harmonized leashes and collars, and they have a medical appointment every month, have their teeth flossed and hair cut and colored. And many would cost the world to feed for a week.
Some are as small as mice, some nearly as large as an elephant and none of them, really, look like any kind of dog at all. Know what I mean?
When I was an altar boy in another era there was a bachelor farmer called Owens buried in one quiet corner of the Arney chapel graveyard, last of his family, small funeral of neighbors, no headstone, just overhanging evergreens. But he had an old Shep like everybody else then.
And Shep, of course, came down and lay on the grave when everybody was gone, not whining or anything like that, just mourning. And was found dead there the following frosty Sunday.
And was buried, not on consecrated ground maybe, but in the field on the other side of the graveyard wall, as close to his master as was possible.
I remember that still. I always will.
For that was no mongrel act.
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