The rise and fall of the canine war on cars

An Irishman’s Diary: ‘I like to think there may be the odd old mutt holding out somewhere, like the Japanese soldier in the jungle’

‘Every time we drove past, the collie would emerge from cover to launch an ambush at the tyres, trying to bite them as they sped by.’ File photograph: Getty  Images

‘Every time we drove past, the collie would emerge from cover to launch an ambush at the tyres, trying to bite them as they sped by.’ File photograph: Getty Images

 

Driving up around my home country the other day, on a side-road to nowhere in particular, I passed a farmhouse that, back in the 1970s, used to be guarded by a car-hating dog.

There were many such dogs in Ireland then, but this one (a border collie in more ways than one) was especially vigilant. Every time we drove past, the collie would emerge from cover to launch an ambush at the tyres, trying to bite them as they sped by.

He never succeeded in getting his teeth in, luckily for him. But even so, from his point of view, the operation in general was always a success. The four-wheeled invader would invariably be repelled. Having seen it off the property, the dog could slouch back into the farmyard, job done for now, and await the next attack.

No longer do they run alongside the car, dangerously close to the bumper, a new dog from property to property, from wall to wall, each one picking up the barking of the previous one like relay runners

That particular collie is long departed to the great dog-house in the sky. His owners must be gone too – the house looked abandoned. But I wondered in passing if, anywhere in Ireland, there are still dogs who think it their duty to chase cars. Or did the last ones die from stress and overwork?

It was a dangerous business, even in the 1970s. Although I never saw any of these roadside vigilantes injured in action (as children, we would anxiously peer out the back window for a black- and-white blob on the road), cars were getting faster all the time, and more numerous.

Even so, I like to think there may be the odd old mutt holding out somewhere, like the Japanese soldier in the jungle, still carrying on the war until his commanding officer turns up to tell him it’s over.

If the German writer Heinrich Böll was correct, even the car-fighting dogs of my childhood were an anachronism. In a post-script to the first English edition of his Irish Journal, added in 1967, he used the “Dogs of Dunkinella” as a metaphor for the transformation of the country since he had first visited in the 1950s, two Lemass-Whitaker economic plans and a different age earlier.

Dunkinella was in Achill, and its anti-car dogs had been sufficiently active to feature four times in his notebooks, he said, the last mention being in 1964.

They obviously operated as a cell, rather than individually, because noting their absence from 1965 onwards, he wrote: “no longer do they run alongside the car, dangerously close to the bumper, a new dog from property to property, from wall to wall, each one picking up the barking of the previous one like relay runners”.

Maybe an elder collie took the young dogs of our area aside at some point and explained that their war against the Ford Escort Mark I was futile

Even that united front had been no match for the advance of motorisation, suggested Böll in ‘67: “I suppose they are used to [cars] by now, and perhaps this tells the whole story.”

But that was Achill, which thanks to four-wheeled tourism may have been ahead of the curve, or at least ahead of where I grew up. We didn’t get many tourists, unless they were lost trying to reach somewhere else. So at least a decade later than Böll’s experience, the local canine campaign against cars continued.

I’m reminded of a scene in the film Dances with Wolves, where the beleaguered native Americans ask Kevin Costner’s character how many more Europeans are coming their way, and Costner estimates the number to be “like the stars.”

Maybe an elder collie took the young dogs of our area aside at some point and explained that their war against the Ford Escort Mark I was futile, because a Mark II was coming, not to mention many other cars, some of them called “Hunters” and “Avengers”, and worse. Then they gave themselves up and headed for the reservation.

On which note, actually, it’s rare to see dogs at large anywhere in rural Ireland now. Between the dangers to them of cars, and their risk to livestock, plus the fact that any passing human ankles are more likely to be litigious these days, country dogs are confined to quarters a lot more than they used to be. That would also explain why they seem to be underrepresented in road-kill, compared with badgers, foxes, and cats.

Then again, another thing you don’t see on country roads any more are people. People walking, I mean. If you do see walkers in the countryside now, it’s for recreational activity, if not extreme sport. They tend increasingly to have hi-vis jackets, even in daytime. Having first seen off the warrior dogs, and then the toothless pedestrians, cars now have country roads entirely to themselves.

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