The curious history of the dog in Ireland
Did you know there are nine Irish pedigree breeds? Or that Michael Collins was a blue terrier fan?
Symbol of Ireland: Aella Grace, an Irish wolfhound, with its owner, Rebecca Smyth from Ballymena, at Newgrange. Photograph: Alan Betson
The Curious History of Irish Dogs
David Blake Knox
New Island Books
‘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 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.
Pocket pooch ascendant
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)