My pet and me: ‘They just make everything better’

Familiar faces on their ‘calming’ alpacas, Basset Hound bosses and magnificent horses

Derval O’Rourke and Berlino

I started going out with my husband in 2008, and I told him I really wanted a dog. A few months later I was running a race and he said, “If you make it to the top eight and break the Irish record at the World Outdoor Championships, we’ll get a dog.” At the time, I was ranked 50-something in the world. I ran really well and came fourth, which is usually one of the worst places to end in a race, but I was ecstatic because I was getting a dog. The name of the mascot at the competition was Berlino, which is where our dog got her name.

We’ve had her since she was two months old. She’s now in her older years. She’s hilarious – she looks at me with total disdain, which I sort of admire in her. She cannot be bothered with our kids [Daphne, five, and Archie, 20 months], but they are obsessed with her. It’s really funny.

Daphne is conscious that Berlino is an “older lady dog”, and it’s been really good for my daughter to appreciate how careful she needs to be around Berlino. She’s learning empathy and responsibility.

Berlino has brought so much joy into our lives. If I’d had a bad race, I’d lie on the floor and she’d end up lying on top of me. If there’s anything wrong with me she’s very intuitive about it. She’s an amazing companion. We know she won’t live forever, but the amount of joy she has brought us, we know that when the time comes, it will basically be a celebration of her doggie life.”


Tom Clonan with Duke and Leahy

Duke retired [as a service dog] in March. He had been working with our son, Eoghan. As soon as [his replacement] Leahy arrived, Duke knew he was off duty. The dogs are bred in the Dóchas Women’s Unit in Mountjoy, and are fostered with families so that they get to play and be normal dogs. It takes a year’s training to be an assistance dog.

Duke helps Eoghan get dressed, climb from his wheelchair; he can open doors, pick things up. In summer, he swims with Eoghan, and he opens conversations as people will come and talk, because of the dog. He's opened up a whole world of emotional assistance, confidence and self-esteem. We never had a dog before, but soon he had a relationship with us all. He's lovely, bulletproof and so gentle. Now he's older, he's like George Clooney, and he'll put on his Hollywood Dog Act when he sees people looking. Dogs are intuitive and emotionally hugely intelligent.

Duke always slept in Eoghan’s room, but when Leahy came and Duke saw he was going to lie down with Eoghan, Duke went in, picked up his sheepskin mat and carried it out. It was an emotional thing. Having an animal in your life is mindfulness. If you go for a run, you experience their joy and innocence. It’s such a privilege to share that. They just make everything better.

Tom Clonan is a retired Irish Army captain, author and security analyst

Amy Huberman and Phoebe

We got Phoebe last February from a little rescue place in Greystones called Milo’s Rescue Mission run by a brilliant woman called Lynn. We’d been to see a few dogs that were older but we felt with young kids a puppy would be better. Sometimes I regret that, but not too often. The puppy training is still ongoing you see.

We are crate training her at the moment and we’ll see how we go. It’s been fine but one time when I went to see my cousin in Meath – those heady days when you could go to a different county – Phoebe couldn’t stop staring at the cows and in fact the cows made her so nervous that she s**t her crate. She’s obviously a Dublin dog, she couldn’t handle the excitement of cows. She is a very spirited animal. Her full name is Phoebe Mary Huberman O’Driscoll. We did have goldfish before, Tadhg and Gloria, but they didn’t last very long.

This is our first family pet, and I love it because we had dogs growing up. My favourite part about having Phoebe is the evenings when she is calm and she lies on my lap and watches TV. I do love her company so once we get her trained we’ll be all good.

Amy Huberman is an actor and writer

Aengus MacGrianna and his alpacas

Alpacas are smaller and gentler than llamas. They’re bred for their wool, which is so delicate it’s used for baby clothes and haute couture. Terry [Gill], my husband, does the main farming. Alpacas are beautiful and gorgeous; they’re somewhere between farm animals and domestic animals.

We have between 25 and 30. It started in the recession. We had just moved, and renovated, and then the crash happened. We had both taken pay cuts and, one day, Terry said “what about alpacas?”, and I said “what the (ahem) are alpacas?”. By the time the recession was over, he had built up the herd, he has a brilliant eye, and it has worked out very well.

I wouldn’t say you exactly cuddle an alpaca. They come up and let you stroke them, and sometimes they’ll rub noses with you. We also have a dog, Oscar. He’s an elderly golden retriever, so he’s almost white. He’s like a little polar bear, moving through the black herd out the back, wearing an expression that says: I never signed up for this . . .

Since I left broadcasting, I’ve been doing a Master’s in International Peace Studies. It’s fascinating. I work from the diningroom, and I miss the camaraderie of the newsroom. It was stressful, but you always had the sense at the end of the day that the news was done, until tomorrow . . .

Alpacas are very calming to be around. They’re also very curious, they look at you, and the more you watch them, the more you understand them.

Anna Carey and Beebles

When you live with a cat like mine, every bedtime involves a battle of wits. Every night, Beebles, the extremely fluffy, chunky tortoiseshell my husband and I acquired from the DSPCA six years ago, attempts to get into our room and sleep on our bed. We do not want her to do this, mostly because she sheds fluff all over the duvet (we go through a lot of lint rollers in this house) and also, on the rare occasions when she wears us down and is allowed to stay, one of us is likely to be woken in the wee hours with Beebles sitting on their chest, patting their face with a paw in a very sinister fashion.

This all means going into the bedroom at night means dodging around the lurking Beebles and then closing the door very quickly. If one of us needs to go to the loo in the night, Beebles will be waiting outside the bedroom, ready to scuttle in. It’s pretty stressful, to be honest, and probably cancels out all the alleged stress-reducing benefits of owning a cat.

I am deeply creeped out by the whole “fur baby” concept, or the use of “mum” or “dad” to describe humans’ relationships with pets. But Beebles does have several things in common with a human baby. Like human babies, she shouts loudly when she’s hungry and, with less justification than human babies, is extremely emotionally needy. Perhaps the biggest similarity between Beebles and a baby is the fact that, like many babies I have known, she loves being picked up and carried around, but protests loudly when you stop moving and sit down. And yet, despite the fact that she’s a massive pain in the arse, despite the fact that she seems to exude fluff with every movement, the house would feel very empty without her.

Anna Carey is a writer. Her latest book, The Boldness of Betty: A 1913 Dublin Lockout Novel, is out now

Felicia Olusanya and Ori

Ori is a play on words. He’s black and white, so people thing it’s short for Oreo [the biscuit], but his full name is Oriade. In Yoruba, that means the head that wears the crown. As a Nigerian person, names are really important. We believe your name calls your destiny – and he has a regal disposition. But he does like to play tug of war with his rope. I’ll do a thing where I pretend he’s won, he’ll run off triumphant – and then come back for more.

He’s really well behaved. I wanted a dog that wouldn’t stress me out, so we uber-trained him. We wanted him not to be an idiot, and not be a burden to himself, or anyone else. I’m working on some scripts for a play and a film, so we have a system: before I’m going to do any significant kind of work, we’ll do a big walk. Then, as soon as I sit in front of the computer and say “Ori, I’m working”, he’ll lie down and mind his business. If I’ve been working too long – he’ll put his face between my thighs, as if to say: Well, dude . . .

Felicia Olusanya is Felispeaks, a poet, performer and playwright

Paul Howard and Humphrey

I’d never owned a dog until we invited Humphrey – a one-blue-eyed, one-brown-eyed runt of the litter – into our home. And I had absolutely no idea how to relate to a puppy, except to indulge its every whim, which established early on the essential dynamic we share to this day, with him as the boss and me as his idiot sidekick.

I received a sharp reminder of this recently while imploring him to get into the car – “Humphrey, hop in! Please! I’m begging you!” – and I noticed a shocked dog-owner, with his obedient-to-a-fault Labrador, wondering what way was that to talk to an animal. But that’s how we roll.

Humphrey is a Basset Hound – a very gentle, very affectionate, but very stubborn breed of dog, the perfect choice for a man with lessons to learn about patience and the importance of living in the moment. For 10 years now he has performed his teaching duties to the best of his abilities.

His health problems – including a bout of parvovirus that nearly did for him early on – have tightened the bond between us. We are, for the most part, inseparable. While I work, he sleeps with his head next to the casters of my office chair, fearing that he might doze through one of my occasional visits to the fridge. And when I return home after leaving him alone for a few hours, he bounces off the walls – but, to be honest, so do I. And for all the moments of love and laughter and devotion that he has brought into our home, I’m happy for him to go on being the boss.

Author Paul Howard’s latest Ross O’Carroll-Kelly book, Braywatch, is out now.

Sandra Oman with Opal

Opal came from the DSPCA. The minute we saw her, we knew she was the one. She was so tiny, like a little dot. We got her when my father was coming out of chemotherapy, and was just coming back to himself. But then he passed away, and somehow the death of my father is caught up in how attached I am to this dog. She’s meant to be my daughter’s dog, but we’re all devoted to her, and she loves everything and everyone indiscriminately.

Last year, I was due to sing in the Blackwater Valley Opera Festival. I was feeling fluey, and my mum was with me. Mum was sewing, and I saw something glistening in Opal’s mouth. It was a needle, and she swallowed it. We rushed her to the veterinary hospital at UCD, and I tripped running in. Because she was in my arms, I had nothing to save me.

The vets X-rayed her, but they said “we’re actually more concerned about you”. It turned out I had broken my hip. I needed to be in a wheelchair for 14 weeks. I did the opera from a wheelchair. They rewrote a part for me. Opal doesn’t sing along when I practise, but she does love it. I was singing some Kurt Weill songs, real heartbreak songs. Opal got upset and came to see if I was okay – it was hilarious. She’s my truth barometer.

Soprano Sandra Oman is touring with Mobile Music Machine’s Covid Care Concerts

Gemma Tipton and Bosco

Bosco was meant to be a racehorse, but he doesn’t like to be alone. So he stops and waits for his mates to catch up. This isn’t ideal on the track, and he was destined for dog meat. When I got him, he wasn’t sure what trotting was for; it was pretty much 0-60, but he has such a lovely temperament you can forgive him for things like that, and for his irrational fear of plastic bags.

We used to play polocrosse, a mixture of polo and lacrosse. These days we hack about and sometimes go for a paddle in the sea. As a thoroughbred, he can be delicate. “All beauty and affliction,” my friend Patrick says. Or “an expensive ornament”, as my mum puts it when he’s gone lame again. But when things are stressful or hard, to go and stroke him, just breathe him in: it makes me realise that there is good in the world. And that more often than not, everything will be all right.

When we first met, he was head shy. He must have been bashed a bit, as life isn’t always kind to racehorses who don’t like to win. But after a while he began to let me scratch his forehead, and rub the velvet bit by his nose. That was 15 years ago. He’s nearly 20 now and he still thinks he’s magnificent. So do I.

Gemma Tipton writes with The Irish Times. She also set up Festival in a Van, a mobile arts venue, bringing Covid-safe performances around Ireland

Colm O’Gorman with Oscar and Jake

We got our first lad Oscar as a puppy, from friends who had greyhounds as pets. At that point we also had Ellie, a Westie – an absolute dote. She died at the end of the June of congestive heart failure and it was awful to lose her, but we were glad she went on her own terms.

After a couple of months I contacted Hug (Homes for Unwanted Greyhounds) and Jake, who was bred for coursing, came to us earlier this year. There was no tension with Oscar, but there was definitely a moment where he realised, “oh hang on, he’s not a visitor, what’s going on?” They found their level over the next while.

Greyhounds have the most fabulous character – they are easy, loving, sociable, wonderful pets. Really, these two own the place. I’ll be on a conference call for work, and Oscar will just burst into the room.

People think greyhounds are difficult dogs, but they’re really the easiest dogs. People think they need lots of exercise, but they need less than collies or certain spaniels. Greyhounds need short bursts of exercise. They’re sprinters, not marathon runners. I worry about what I hear from shelters and anecdotally, about what’s happening with dogs and the pandemic. I’ve heard that certain dogs are selling for €3,000-€4,000, whereas they’d have sold for a few hundred before the pandemic. That’s a bit of a worry. I’d really encourage people to adopt – there is no need to buy a dog. Too many dogs need a home already.

Colm O’Gorman is executive director of Amnesty International Ireland

Tara Flynn and Jack and Buffy

We got Jack from a family in Kilkenny, and we initially fostered Buffy from Cats Aid. It was like we were hypnotised by her: one afternoon Carl walked in and I was wearing Buffy around my shoulders and he said, “she’s staying with us, isn’t she?”

We always had pets growing up in Cork – we had a goat, a donkey, a horse, and three cows. Moving to the city there was a bit of a gap where I didn’t have pets and it felt like a big loss for me. As soon as I had my own place, I got my dog, Oscar.

My dad died in 2015, and three months after that we had to have Oscar put down. I’d had Oscar for 10 years and he predated Carl in my life, so I was grieving Dad and Oscar at the same time.

They say that getting a new puppy is ill advised during a time of grief but it sort of saved me. It was having a new burst of life in the house at that moment that really helped. It felt necessary to care for something that took me out of me. At a dark time, Jack was a bit of a life-saver.

Having a cat and dog together works – partly. Buffy was here first, and I was told that the cat always sets the agenda, but they really annoy each other equally. They absolutely tolerate each other, and sometimes Buffy swipes at Jack with a soft claw as if to say “do you want to chase me?” It can get a bit Tom & Jerry.

Comedian Tara Flynn lives in Dublin

Roz Purcell and Wilko

“About four years ago, my sister Rachel had been diagnosed with cancer. We grew up on a farm and always had dogs and cats, and we were saying to each other around that time how much we’d love a dog. Luckily, our landlord was really nice about it. We went to an event in Merrion Square, ‘“Pawsitivity’”, and met a woman from the ISPCA, who invited us down there. When we got there, there was an abandoned litter of Jack Russell puppies, and Wilko really stood out.

“I know every owner says this about their dog, but Wilko has a lot of personality. He’s particular about who he likes. I know he’s very needy -– as soon as I go into another room, he’ll trot right behind me. It could be the rescue element, but he just doesn’t like being alone.

“I moved out to Sandycove, so Rachel and I now co-parent Wilko. I have him midweek usually. Rachel has another rescue dog, but in our house, he pretty much rules the roost, sleeping in the bed.

“With Covid-19, I realised how important he was in my life. Even with my boyfriend working from home, I felt quite isolated. But if you have a dog, you’re never really alone.

“When it comes to considering adopting a dog, the biggest thing I tell people is to make sure you’re ready. Explain your lifestyle to the adoption people so that the experts can find a dog that will suit how you live your life. Plus, it’s a lot of work. A dog like Wilko is pretty easy and breezy most of the time, but still; prepare to have all your shoes chewed to bits for the first couple of years.”

Madeleine Lyons and Lexi

People often ask where we found Lexi, and while she’s a rescue dog and we “rescued” her in Wicklow SPCA four years ago, part of me believes she rescued us. With her docked tail and the unlikely name of Merry (it was December) she cut a pretty pathetic figure at the shelter. She cowered more than walked, and was so submissive that she spent most of her time on her back trembling with her paws in the air, peeing involuntarily.

Since then our gorgeous little lady springer spaniel has brought nothing but happiness to our family – apart obviously from some early teething problems with the couch, the blinds, and a Playstation controller. From being painfully timid, she has blossomed in confidence and her lovely noble personality wins over everyone she meets. She will retrieve balls all day, scale extraordinary heights in the pursuit of anything that moves and dive happily into water – anywhere, any time. Equally she will sit quietly by a fire or in her bed for long hours, wanting nothing more than the odd tummy scratch. She also seems innately attuned to the moods of her human family and will amble up unexpectedly for a consoling nuzzle when it’s most needed. She’s in constant demand with neighbourhood children and a sideline fixture at underage GAA games.

She rarely barks, and makes no demands, ever. But what I think confirms her eligibility for WGD (World’s Greatest Dog) status is that each member of our family is utterly convinced that he/she is Lexi’s favourite. Lexi brings out the best in all of us. A dog for all seasons.

Madeleine Lyons is Property Editor of The Irish Times

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton contributes to The Irish Times on art, architecture and other aspects of culture