Em­blems of fi­delity and af­fec­tion

The Ir­ish have a long and proud as­so­ci­a­tion with dogs. Michael Collins be­longed to Dublin Blue Ter­rier Club, and Par­nell kept his beloved red set­ter by his bed­side as he lay dy­ing The Cu­ri­ous His­tory of Ir­ish Dogs

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Pa­tri­cia Craig

By David Blake Knox New Is­land, ¤20

‘On a card­board lid I saw when I was four/ Was the trade­mark of a hound and a round tower,/ And that was Ir­ish glam­our,” Louis MacNe­ice wrote in his poem Vale­dic­tion. The hound is of course the Ir­ish wolfhound, a per­sis­tent sym­bol of an­cient Celtic no­bil­ity and in­tegrity. It is also largely a Vic­to­rian con­struct. By the mid­dle of the 19th cen­tury the orig­i­nal Ir­ish wolfhound had all but disappeared, along with its foe the Ir­ish wolf, and no one re­ally had a clear idea of what it had looked like in its hey­day.

Around this time, how­ever, it be­came the ben­e­fi­ciary of an ob­ses­sion on the part of an English­man named Capt Ge­orge Au­gus­tus Gra­ham. Hav­ing taken it into his head to res­ur­rect the breed, Gra­ham de­voted his life and his con­sid­er­able re­sources to the project, and can claim, as David Blake Knox has it, to be the founder of the mod­ern Ir­ish wolfhound.

The wolfhound is one of the nine pedi­gree breeds pe­cu­liar to Ireland, and in The Cu­ri­ous His­tory of Ir­ish Dogs Blake Knox takes a close look at the ori­gins, vi­cis­si­tudes, char­ac­ter­is­tics and the cur­rent po­si­tion of each. Some are on shakier ground than oth­ers. The so-called bog dog – or wa­ter spaniel – is in dan­ger of sink­ing with­out trace; oth­ers, in­clud­ing the Kerry blue and the Glen of Imaal ter­rier, face pos­si­ble ex­tinc­tion, although Blake Knox hopes that each of his dis­tinc­tive breeds will con­tinue to be ap­pre­ci­ated and prop­a­gated.

They are, as one afi­cionado has claimed, part of Ireland’s cul­tural her­itage – never mind if one breed prob­a­bly came over with Cromwell’s New Model Army or another en­joyed the pa­tron­age of King Ed­ward VII. Some, in­deed, have strong his­tor­i­cal or lit­er­ary as­so­ci­a­tions. You might think of the Cit­i­zen’s “malev­o­lent dog Gar­ry­owen” in Ulysses, or of Maria the wa­ter spaniel in the Ir­ish RM stories.

As well as be­ing well nigh on com­pre­hen­sive and dis­pas­sion­ate in its ap­proach to Ir­ish ca­nine his­tory, Blake Knox’s book is full of sur­pris­ing snip­pets of in­for­ma­tion: did you know, for ex­am­ple, that Michael Collins was an ar­dent mem­ber of the Dublin Blue Ter­rier Club, or that Charles Ste­wart Par­nell owned a beloved red set­ter and kept

A dog is a dog is a dog – and ev­ery facet of ca­nine ap­pre­ci­a­tion in Ireland is ef­fi­ciently tack­led in David Blake Knox’s lively ac­count

it by his bed­side as he lay dy­ing?

Among the lesser- known facts about dogs is the role al­lo­cated to them dur­ing the first World War, when they acted as scouts or mes­sen­gers wear­ing small khaki coats. More than 20,000 dogs, we learn, served with the Al­lied forces and helped to boost morale, as well as deal­ing sum­mar­ily with rat in­fes­ta­tions.

Get­ting rid of rats in the trenches is one thing, dec­i­mat­ing bird and an­i­mal pop­u­la­tions in Ireland’s killing fields another. There’s a case to be made against blood sports, and all of David Blake Knox’s in­dige­nous dogs – hounds, ter­ri­ers and gun dogs – are bred to kill, flush out or re­trieve shot game.

It’s hard, in this day, to re­gard these ac­tiv­i­ties as sport, as Somerville and Ross ex­u­ber­antly did, or to praise hunt­ing dogs for pro­vid­ing nec­es­sary food­stuffs for their small-farmer own­ers. (It might have been dif­fer­ent dur­ing the Famine.) There are hu­mane ways, such as the “drag hunt”, with no dead and mu­ti­lated an­i­mal at its con­clu­sion, of en­abling the dogs to fol­low their in­erad­i­ca­ble in­stincts.

Cir­cum­stances change, and so do fash­ions in dog own­er­ship. One minute the Labrador re­triever is in the as­cen­dant; the next it’s the pocket pooch. The dog show, of course, has a tremen­dous im­pact on wax­ing or wan­ing lev­els of ca­nine pop­u­lar­ity, and Blake Knox ex­pertly traces the his­tory of this in­sti­tu­tion, from the very first dog show, which was held at New­cas­tle-upon-Tyne in 1859. (Other events, not un­re­lated to dogs and agrar­ian malfea­sance, were oc­cur­ring in Ireland around this time.)

It was some years be­fore the name of Charles Cruft be­came defini­tively and last­ingly at­tached to the busi­ness; and “most of the pedi­gree Ir­ish dogs that ex­ist to­day”, Blake Knox writes, “owe some de­gree of debt to Cruft’s work”. (With his eye for an irony, the au­thor re­minds us that Cruft al­ways claimed to pre­fer cats.)

If the dog show re­lates to the keep­ing up of stan­dards and tra­di­tions, it has also, in some in­stances, en­gen­dered a kind of de­mented per­fec­tion­ism. Blake Knox notes the dread­ful prac­tice of culling healthy pups whose coats are too woolly ( or not woolly enough). He men­tions the “black tip” con­tro­versy of 1866 and its im­pli­ca­tions for set­ters’ ears. The dog- show devo­tee was, and is, a stick­ler for grooming and es­o­teric at­tributes; no walk­ing piles of hay ad­mit­ted. A per­sis­tent burn­ing ques­tion con­cerns the like­li­hood or oth­er­wise of a mod­icum of cross-breed­ing hav­ing taken place. And, with hunt­ing dogs, due at­ten­tion needs to be paid to the im­por­tance of noses.

Blake Knox is not op­posed to ken­nel clubs’ ex­act­ing re­quire­ments, or to any­thing else that might help to pre­serve and per­pet­u­ate Ir­ish dogs in all their pure­bred glory. But it’s not as sim­ple as that. The wolfhound, he concedes, lack­ing a ver­i­fi­able blood­line, may al­most be classed as a mon­grel – and all the bet­ter for it. He him­self has kept, at var­i­ous times, pedi­gree, cross­bred and mon­grel dogs, all of which, in their in­di­vid­ual ways, have con­trib­uted to the health and hap­pi­ness of him­self and his fam­ily.

A dog is a dog is a dog – and ev­ery facet of ca­nine ap­pre­ci­a­tion in Ireland is ef­fi­ciently tack­led in this lively ac­count. More­over, the area in which ca­nine and so­cial his­tory in­ter­sect makes for an orig­i­nal ap­praisal.

The book ends, though, on a clas­si­cal note. Odysseus, long ab­sent, re­turns to Ithaca to find his old dog Ar­gos pa­tiently wait­ing for him. Here are Michael Longley’s lines on the sub­ject: “. . . the dog who waited 20 years for Odysseus, / . . . Who even now is wag­ging his tail and droop­ing his ears,/ And strug­gling to get near to the voice he recog­nises,/ And dy­ing in the at­tempt. . .”

It’s an em­blem of fi­delity and en­dur­ing af­fec­tion.

Pa­tri­cia Craig is an au­thor and critic. Her most re­cent book is Book­worm: A Mem­oir of Child­hood Read­ing ( 2015)

Sym­bol of Ireland: Aella Grace, an Ir­ish wolfhound, with its owner, Re­becca Smyth from Ballymena, at New­grange last De­cem­ber. PHO­TO­GRAPH: ALAN BETSON

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