Border Collies in Action and the dog trials at Inch House|
Ireland has a lot of dogs and we saw quite a few during our trips there. The Irish Terrier, Kerry Blue Terrier, the Irish Setter, the Irish Wolf Hound, the Border Terrier, the Jack Russell and the Border Collie are familiar dogs in Ireland. There were plenty of the other breeds as well but these we noticed. I remember having coffee somewhere and a door opened across the street. A short-legged Jack Russell came scooting out. Down the street it walked with a purpose. Four doors down it scratched at the door which opened and the dog went in. A few minutes later the door opened and back it went to the original door which after a bit of scratching opened and in it went. What was that about? I wanted to go knock on the door and ask but of course I didn't.
We stayed at a cottage where the owner had a Kerry Blue Terrier and the dog was like his shadow in perfect unison with his every movement. He said it was just a farm dog but met every requirement he had in a dog. I thought that might be the dog for me. We met another man who had a Kerry Blue and it was on a short leash. We talked about dogs for a while and he said he loved his Kerry Blue but it had recently cost him a pretty penny. When I asked he said he took the dog to a dog show as a companion and all was fine until this show dog walked by and his dog jumped from the stands and killed it. He said the dog came back and sat down as if nothing had happened but he had to pay the man for his losses. He said it was his fault for not keeping the dog on a tight leash. The Kerry Blue is a nice looking dog but I was thinking perhaps I didn't want one after all. In my neighborhood that would be a lot of money particularly if it was unprovoked.
We became personal friends with a large Irish Wolf Hound. I thought he would write us but he didn't. What a dog, but definitely not your average apartment companion. The one we petted and carried on a conversation with was over seven feet tall when he rested his paws on my shoulders. You know - if I had the space I would consider going into debt to feed one and hiring a gardener to clean up after it. They are almost human in their attitudes.
We started noticing this large Black and White dog out in the countryside. First we saw them laying on the stone walls as we went by. It seemed that everyone in the country had one or two. Occasionally we would see the red on white border collie but most were black and white. Next we noticed them peeking out from behind the pillars that mark the driveway or walkway to some of the rural houses. Finally we had to slowdown so as to not run them over. As we went by they would come out and chase the car. We didn't want to run over the dog. Soon it was a common occurrence and we were stymied trying to figure it out - why were all these Black and White dogs chasing our car.
We were shopping in Ballyvourney for the perfect Aran Hand Knit Sweater and the sales lady started to tell us about the Sheila-na-gigs. The area was a Gaeltacht area where they only speak Gaelic so we did not understand her too well. She was saying the Sheila-na-gigs were something so despicable that we had to see them. She made lots of hand gestures that were lost on me at the time. I later figured out what she meant and understood why she was having a difficult time expressing herself in English. I would have had trouble too.
We were told we ought to visit Brigit’s Well and look up on the right hand corner of the church. We were told to go back down the road and turn left and we couldn't miss it. Intrigued we couldn't resist but we started with an understanding that directions in Ireland can and will cause marital disputes plus you might wind up lost only to repeat the error in asking for directions. Wasn't the case this time as within minutes we were following signs in blue that said St. Bridget's Holy Well? We had never been to a holy well before so the idea of visiting one excited us. Suddenly there was a large contingent of black and white cows turning down the little lane in the same direction as the sign pointed. In Ireland the cows go first so we waited our turn. The procession of those huge animals slowly drifted by the front of our car a white Opel. Suddenly out of nowhere a black and white dog was barking at our car with enough gusto to get our attention. The old man with the walking stick approached with a smile on his face. He scooped down and picked up the dog in one swoop and the large dog was now tucked under his arm as though it was a puppy. He closed the few remaining feet to the car and knocked with a knuckle on the passenger side window. Patricia slowly rolled down the window and the man leaned over to talk. I noticed he was missing most of his teeth but his smile was genuine. He was laughing as he said "My dog 'tinks' your car is a cow. It is white with black wheels. If you just follow my cows down the road a bit he will be happy." He put the dog down and saluted us from his cap brim and we turned in behind the cows. Satisfied the dog ran on ahead to check on another problem at the front of the herd. Smart dog!
We parked at the small church and immediately looked for the Sheila-na-gigs. What we saw was a depiction of a sexual act that I won't bother to go into detail but now all the hand gestures for the sales lady made sense. She had mentioned a cannon ball sticking out of the wall which was plain to see. It was rusted and was significant since the logic was that the walls of the church had stopped the ball head on which gave the people at the time to cheer. I don't know the details but they were carved to ward off evil spirits. An education can be had by looking the word up on the internet such as: "Apostrophic magic is a ritual observance that is intended to turn away evil. It can be as elaborate as the use of magical ceremonies or spells, or as simple as the vaguely superstitious carrying or wearing of a "good luck" token or "charm" (perhaps on a charm bracelet), crossing one's fingers or knocking on wood. "Apostrophic" is an adjective that means "intended to ward off evil" or "averting or deflecting evil" and commonly refers to objects such as amulets or other symbols. The word is of Greek origin: apostrope literally means "turning away" or averting (as in "averting the evil eye"). The Greeks propitiated the chthonic "Gods of Aversion"—the apostropaioi."
Actually we were more interested in Bridget's Holy Well. It was a spring with all kinds of trinkets hanging from the rocks that were built up to trickle the water down to a small pool of water. Crosses, money of all nations, ribbons, rosaries and other bits and pieces were strewn about in the hope that St. Bridget would respond to the prayers. There was a ritual prescribed on a plaque as well. "Seven times around saying so many Hail Mary's, etc. I don't remember exactly but I did see the number seven come up often at this type of site. I said a few prayers for those friends I knew were in need and a few for my family. For you that are interested - Sheila-na-gig is a collective name for the many female figurines found as artifacts mainly in the region that today forms Ireland, yet in some cases also in England, Scotland, and Germany, the general area that has long been under Celtic influence. These Sheila’s are mostly cut from stone and show a squatting or standing female figure, legs spread, exhibiting her yoni. In most cases these women or deities are, by most standards, quite unpleasant to look at, resembling as they do underfed, half-dead skeletal creatures or half-smiling demons from someone's nightmare. What makes these figures especially interesting is the fact that most of them were found embedded (and some still are) in the walls of early monasteries and village churches, and we can imagine that they have given more than one abbot or priest his share of devilish headache. Nevertheless, most of these Sheila’s have meanwhile been dismantled - many first disfigured and damaged by soldiers and other good Christians --are hidden away in a cellar of the Dublin Museum. Little is known of the background and ritual purpose of these sculptures, and we therefore have to approach this question with my ethnographical imagination and with the intuitive mind of a criminologist. As a possible object for meditation on the endless cycle of birth and death, they show an interesting relation to the woman in a Tantric stri "puja". If we consider them mainly as exhibitionist, they may have a connection to figures such as the Greek Baubo or the Japanese Ama-no-Uzume. Their name, Sheila-na-gig, has always been a considerable puzzle to etymologists, since it fits in to none of the languages ever spoken in the British isles. In Mesopotamia, however, at the temple of Erech, one did use the term nu-gug ("the poor and immaculate ones") to designate the women who held the office of sacred harlot. It is therefore my suggestion that they are a pre-Celtic version of the Oriental sacred prostitutes, and that they have been "imported" from the Mesopotamian region. This, of course, does not exclude the possibility and probability that they were objects for meditation as well as figures demonstrating simple yoni magic -- that is, keeping negative energies away.
Of course we were interested because it shows that Ireland has many layers reaching back into the pagan and pre-historic times. We have no knowledge of these times only theories which are fun to postulate but still are uncorroborated with anything beyond best guesses of academics.
We continued on to other parts of Ireland but the Black and White dog was ever present and consistently peering out from behind and looking to chase our car. We were in Donegal and headed for the beach along a deserted road when we suddenly come across a flock of sheep with a shepherd and two Border Collies. We stop to wait and they come – the man in charge smiles and we turn off the car to wait. To our right is an old house that looks to be deserted and a sheep turns in between the pillars. The shepherd gave the command and one of the dogs literally flew over the stone wall and the errant sheep is quickly rejoining the flock through the gate that it entered previously. It was interesting to watch someone in complete control of a dog – encouraging when I think of the little control we have of our Border Terrier.
Have you ever come across a lonely road that heads off the main road and you have no idea where it goes? You know it goes somewhere. My theory is that roads are built to go somewhere for a purpose. We often turnoff to see where the road goes and most often it winds up at something of interest, especially in Ireland. Of course we have taken a road that goes to a far field and there is nothing of interest there. Along the northern coast there are a number of roads the lead off to the north with no sign. On one of theses roads we found a small harbor with a house, a shed, a concrete pier, about four fishing boats and a small sign that said fresh fish. It was early in the day and nothing was moving except on a far off mountain. There, a good sized flock of sheep was grazing on the mountain side perhaps a mile away. You could see them clearly as white dots. Two Border Collies were gaining on them with tremendous speed. We could not see anyone but someone was controlling the dogs as they looked back for instructions several times. In no time at all they surrounded the sheep and were bringing them back down the mountain. You could see them work from side to side, pushing and pushing with an occasional burst of speed to either side to keep the flock tightly packed. It was a thing of beauty to watch. Gradually they worked them down off the mountain slope and into an undulation in the terrain which took them out of sight. They say the Border Collie is the smartest dog and I believe it after watching these dogs work.
We were headed across the midlands near Thurles on the way to Muine Bheag in Carlow but we were running late - too many lonely roads. [Muine Bheag (meaning "small thicket"), also known as Bagenalstown. The name comes from the Irish for a small thicket of thorns. The English name came from Lord Bagenal. Bagenal based the town on Versailles in France, and the town's Courthouse resembles that of Versailles. Bagenal built the town on the River Barrow to allow for trade and access to the town. Bagenal originally wanted the town to be called "New Versailles". It was built in the 18th century. The town is situated in the River Barrow. It is centered on the junction of the R705 and R724 regional roads and lies on the eastern side of the N9 National primary route. It was getting dark and we needed to find a place to spend the night.]
There wasn't much in the way of B&Bs so far and we were beginning to worry. Suddenly a small sign that said simply "Accommodations". That didn't seem to encouraging but it was a possibility. We pulled into the driveway while we pondered the question of just exactly what did accommodations mean. While we were sitting there a man came walking by with a brace of Greyhounds, perhaps five in total. I said excuse me but do you know if they take overnight guests. He looked at me like I was a bit daft and said well let me ask my wife if she can put you up for the night - she is right behind you in her SUV. Sure enough there was an SUV right behind us that we didn't hear or know was there. A few minutes later he came back and said his wife said she could take you for the night. What luck! The road was at least a half mile from the house which looked to be a Victorian. Not your normal Irish cottage for sure. What a nice place. After we put our bags in the room above the entry we returned for some tea with the family. Mr. and Mrs. Egan introduced us to the two little girls who proceeded to sing for us. I tried to sing something in response but truly I am not a singer. We chatted for awhile and Mr. Egan said if we wanted we could drive our car over the fields to the right of the house and watch the Border Collie trials if we were interested. He said the winners are auctioned off in the barn to the left of the house if we were interested in a good dog. That sounded like a winning idea. Mr. Egan asked us if we were interested in sports and of course we were. His particular passion was Hurling and the GAA was holding the annual "All Ireland" tournament in Dublin's Phoenix Park on Sunday. John and Nora Egan were the epitome of great hosts. It just so happened that the previous night we had called our son from Cork. Using the phones then in Ireland is the subject of another story but after about a half an hour he answered the phone - it was so good to hear his voice. He asked us where he could send us tickets to the "All Ireland" Hurling championship in Phoenix Park the coming weekend. Unfortunately I didn't have an address and so the ticket went unused. He said he was offered the tickets as a GAA "Irish Football" participant in Kezar Stadium in San Francisco and he was thinking he might be able to get them to us. It was so disappointing because it really was a big deal there in Ireland. I read later that the tickets could not be sold per the rules of the GAA and if they found out about tickets being sold there were repercussions. Unfortunately with the meter running on the phone and us trying to figure out a way to get the tickets to us we could not do it. Bottom line - no tickets.
When I told John this story he said he was doing everything he could to get a pair of tickets and would pay up to 600 euro each but had been unable to locate any. He was visibly upset and left the room. Nora tried to smooth over the moment but she obviously sided with her husband. We decided to attend the sheep dog trials and took our rental up and over the small rise to the west of the house. We could not believe the sight. At least a hundred cars each with a small trailer some still holding a Border Collie attached to the car. There was a chip wagon with fish and chips, coffee, tea and all kinds of refreshments. On the outside was a scoreboard. We watched the sores being posted but had no idea what they meant. They had a small Jack Russell who would push the sheep out onto the grassy area. Each contestant and his dog would go out onto the field. The dog would go out and put the sheep in a pen. The scores were written on the board and the Jack Russell would go get the remaining sheep and bring them back to the pen. We watched with interest as a continual stream of contestants, man and dog worked the field to pen the sheep. Suddenly there was loud groan from the onlookers and the man was returning from his position with the look of rejection. The dog was slinking back as well. I watched as a zero was written on the board. What happened I asked no one in particular? The response was: Ah Jeez, the dog’s a waste! I had not detected anything unusual and it was over in about 30 seconds. What ever the dog did to get disqualified it was quick and final. The little Jack Russell now went out and expertly brought all the sheep back. The Border Collies were much more adept at crouching and changing positions to move the sheep in the desired direction. They could move fast when it was required, such as when a sheep decided to amble off in the wrong direction for a tasty morsel. By the comparison the Jack Russell was direct and all business. There was no crouching and fainting left or right. He made it pretty clear that if the sheep didn’t go where he wanted he was going to bite them and maybe twice. There was nothing dainty or delicate about it. Little dog with teeth and six or eight much bigger sheep doing their best to get out of the way. It was such a downer to watch the dejected dog owner that we thought we’d had enough of disappointment for the day and headed back to the house. It is amazing to me how someone else’s feeling can lodge in my own being uninvited as they were. It was getting dark and we were tired. The lights were on and we got ready for bed. No sooner tucked in for the night and we loud shouts coming from the front of the house. From our second storey window we could see two cars moving slowly across the front field with the headlights on. In front of the cars were maybe a hundred sheep. It bothered me that after what we’d seen today with the Border Collies that they would be herding sheep with cars. I asked about it at breakfast and was told there was no moon and it was quicker with the automobiles. The dogs were there on the flanks you just didn’t see them.
Having witnessed the Border Collies in action I am impressed with the breed. When I see one here in the neighborhood I am saddened by the fact the owner has failed to secure a sheep as a companion. They most definitely belong together as a set.
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