The curious history of Irish dogs by

17 April 2017

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There are nine breeds of dog that are native to Ireland: four terriers, three gun dogs, and two hounds. In The Curious History of Irish Dogs, David Blake Knox tells the remarkable stories of each of the nine breeds, and reveals how they have become inextricably linked with the people of Ireland. Irish Wolfhounds stalked through ancient Celtic mythology, while Kerry Beagles were among the victims of the Land War in the 1880s. Charles Stewart Parnell insisted that his Red Setter stay with him when he was on his death bed. During World War One, hundreds of Irish Terriers served on the front lines of the trenches. Michael Collins wanted to make the Kerry Blue the National dog of Ireland. The Glen of Imaal Terrier was deliberately bred to have a genetic defect, while the Irish Water Spaniel was reputed to be descended from the dobhar-chu – a Celtic spirit. Six of Ireland’s nine native breeds of dog are now considered vulnerable to extinction, but they are an integral part of the island’s cultural narrative and have added both to its social history and to the happiness of its people. (blurb from Goodreads)

The Curious History of Irish DogsThis is probably a book of limited appeal. A book about the history of Irish dog breeds isn’t exactly going to leap out at a huge amount of people. However it is, in many ways, a very easy read. The author devotes a chapter, or two, to the various breeds. Where they came from, the history of the people involved in the breed and often a digression into the history of Ireland as well as the dogs themselves. It covers myth and folklore, from the tale of Gelert the legendary Welsh hound, to Fionn Mac Cumhaill and Bran, and contrasts that with the reality of breeding dogs and the problems that some “purebred” breeds now face.

I’m very ambivalent about people who love a specific breed to dog to the exclusion of all others. It always struck me as a bit weird, after all a dog is a dog. And just because you get a specific breed of dog that doesn’t mean that you will get an exact type of dog, there are wide variations within breeds. But then again, if you want a dog to do a specific job then you won’t have much look in trying to train your Jack Russell terrier to round up sheep. So I can understand why breeds are important.

And then you see so many dogs without homes. So many puppy-mill abuses. So much wrong with the dog breeding world. And then on the other hand, puppies are soooo cuuute!

So yeah, I’m ambivalent about pedigree dogs and dog breeding. In some small number of cases the exact breed it very important for pet owners, but in most cases it is much better to know the size, energy and general temperament of a dog. Things that cannot be guaranteed by breed.

Still, this is a very entertaining read. In some ways it is more of a sociological and historical look at Ireland’s recent history. In talking about the different breeds and the people who came to champion specific breeds Knox has to discuss history and culture and beliefs. In many ways dogs are victims of people’s ideas and notions. Whether that is recreating the Irish Wolfhound of old, or believing that an all red Setter is better than a red and white Setter. But people place great store by such strange things, they turn a breed of dog into a political symbol, or an indication of social class. This book really demonstrates how everything is political, and how people read meaning where very little, if any, exists. Or maybe that is just my reading? Maybe this book is just a recounting of the history of dogs and dog breeding in Ireland.

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