An Irishman's Diary
One of the things I love about radio is the way it creates pictures in your head, even – or sometimes especially – when the effect is unintended.
I was listening to a live commentary on Newstalk recently, for example. And I can’t remember now who was playing, or even what the sport was. But I do remember that the team already losing suffered a further setback. As a result of which, the commentator declared gravely that they were now “staring down the barrel of a very big mountain”.
Struggling to make sense of this image, I imagined an Alpine traveller, stricken by a fall as he tries to cross the Brenner Pass in winter. Snow and hypothermia gradually envelop him, and his prospects appear bleak. But wait! What is this large, furry apparition that comes padding through the snow? A St Bernard on a rescue mission! And what is that hanging from his neck? Why, it looks like a small container marked “brandy”. Disbelieving, the man pushes himself up onto his elbows and peers closer. Whereupon he finds himself – yes – staring down the barrel of a large mountain dog.
Well, that was the best I could manage – you have to work with what you’re given. And in this case the picture created in my head was an actual painting, half-remembered: Edwin Landseer’s Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler (1820).
Which, by the way, invented the whole idea of mountain rescue dogs carrying barrels of brandy to revive alpine accident victims. They did no such thing, ever. It would have been medically unsound, even in 1820. Landseer just thought it looked good. Then the notion caught on. And ever since, no mountain rescue dog is deemed to look complete without a barrel hanging from its neck, even though it’s about as culturally genuine as a Leprechaun’s hat.
Apart from evoking images of stricken mountaineers, the Newstalk commentary reminded me of a visit to one of Paris’s more unusual cemeteries. The city is famous for its great human necropolises, like Père Lachaise and Montparnasse. But the Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques is also worth seeing, albeit that it’s in the outer suburb of Asnières-sur-Seine.
As with the city’s human cemeteries, the Cimetière des Chiens houses some famous dead. None more famous than Rin Tin Tin: the Franco-German Shepherd who was rescued from a first World War battlefield to become a Hollywood star and was originally buried in Los Angeles before his remains were repatriated.
In other cases, it’s only the pet’s owner who was well known. An example is a dog called “Drac”, described on his headstone as “Loyal companion through tragic times, Precious friend in exile”. After which is recorded the name of his mistress: “Queen Elizabeth, Princess of Romania”. Which adds an intriguing – if not disturbing – note to the animal’s name.
While most of the pets buried at Asnières were four-legged, it is a multi-denominational cemetery. Thus the graves also include at least one member of the poultry community, who we are told lived from 1906 to 1922 and, although not given a name, is commemorated with one of the more touching inscriptions: À ma cocotte affectionée. Vécu 16 ans. Fidèle compagne inseparable. Regrettée de ta maitresse restée inconsolable. (To my affectionate hen. 16 years old. Faithful inseparable companion. Mourned by your mistress who remains inconsolable.) But dogs are the dominant persuasion. And getting back to where we started, pride of place in the cemetery goes to a St Bernard called Barry, a famous Swiss mountain rescuer from the early 1800s. He’s not buried there, in fact. Such was his renown that when he died, he was stuffed and mounted in Bern’s Natural History Museum.
The Paris cemetery commemorates him with a heroic sculpture and the troubling epitaph: “He saved the lives of 40. He was killed by the 41st”. Only half of which is true.
He did indeed save 40 lives, in a career that coincided with the Napoleonic wars. But the rest of the inscription was inspired by a happily-apocryphal story to the effect that his last beneficiary was a soldier who, licked back to consciousness, mistook his rescuer for a wolf and killed him with a bayonet. No such thing happened. The great St Bernard lived to retire from active service and expired peacefully in 1814. But not only was his demise dramatised for vulgar tastes. Despite the dog having lived and died before Landseer invented the myth, the sculptor still insisted on giving him a barrel.