Michael McDonagh on how one Irish breed changed his own family’s life
“A dog is for life, not Christmas” is the warning we are given to prevent the problem of abandoned dogs, if the sentimental gift of a puppy as a Christmas gift is made without thinking about the consequences for all.
Getting a dog for the first time is a truly life changing experience not to be underestimated.
My son shares his birthday with Daniel O’Donnell, just before Christmas on 12 December. Back in 1989 when my son was coming up to 11 he very much wanted a pet dog, so for his birthday I tracked down and found a litter of very special puppies and our family lives changed completely and for the better.
The first time that I ever saw what was once described as “a bundle of rags in a cyclone” was in Ireland in 1982. I was working on location for the filming of a an 18 episode period drama for PBS TV in America and Channel 4 here, based on the classic Irish RM stories by Edith Somerville and Violet Martin.
I had never actually read the books and so did not know then that apart from the featured actors like Beryl Reid and Peter Bowles, playing the lead characters, there was also one more unusual character in the humorous scripts. This was Maria, ‘Major Yeates’s dog’, resembling “a bundle of rags in a cyclone”, an Irish Water Spaniel getting up to mischief as the stories unfolded. As this comical looking animal bounded past me in the big green field near Rathcoole I was fascinated as I had never seen a more funny, unusual looking fun loving dog.
“As I spoke something darted past Mrs Knox, something that looked like a bundle of rags in a cyclone, but was, as a matter of fact, my faithful water spaniel, Maria”
I was fascinated watching ‘Maria’ play her part in the drama and then later when filming songwriter Phil Coulter for an album project at Slane Castle I met another huge one, who was once a champion at Crufts.
I thought the breed was perfect for us and that was how we got our first Irish Water Spaniel. These rare dogs are such characters with such a great sense of humour and mischief that we all fell in love with the adorable puppy when she arrived that Christmas.
I discovered that Irish Water Spaniels are a very old breed with a Water Dog being mentioned in a Persian manuscript from 4,000 BC and they are even mentioned in Shakespeare’s Two Gentleman of Verona “She hath more qualities than a water-spaniel; which is much in a bare Christian…”
Now unfortunately they are on the endangered breed list with not that many of them about compared to other breeds. Irish Water Spaniels look so funny as they all come with tight brown curls, which if grown a bit longer make them look like Bob Marley and they have this curious ‘rat’s tail’ that has no hair on it.
They also have a curious diamond shaped bare patch on their chests with webbed feet like a duck. As a bonus they do not shed their double-layered coats so you don’t get hair all over the place.
The funny tail is used as their ‘rudder’ when swimming as they were designed for hunting in bogs and rivers in Ireland so are great swimmers.
Molly was our first of these special loyal friends. For 13 years she would come with me to my office laying patiently at my feet under my desk as a winter foot warmer, a gentle soul but turning into a ferocious bare toothed scary ‘Rottweiler’ to defend the secretaries or my children from the alien Black Leather clad motor bike couriers knocking at the glass door.
We never had a break in. Our home would be soulless and empty without an Irish Water Spaniel occupying the sofa so when we lost Molly we soon found Malachy. Each is unique and irreplaceable but as a male he had a similar but different character. Malachy was full of boisterous boundless energy but was a bit accident-prone.
For our second Christmas together with him we had rented a cottage in Devon to spend Christmas with my brother from America. Malachy had other ideas managing to fall off a cliff on Christmas Eve and was then in plaster for five months. He fully recovered and gave us endless pleasure on trips to Ireland or in the parks, woods, and beaches here until, sadly, he died age 8, taken by cancer. His pedigree Kennel name was ‘Mweenish Best Mate” which is exactly what he was.
Having a friend like him with me all the time got me out in all weathers for walks and he became a legend in Winchmore Hill loved by shop keepers and at the station coffee stall where he was given a daily treat and a cappuccino cup to lick every day. He died a few days before St. Patrick’s Day and we were all devastated but there was hope.
Serendipitously, a dog that had been rescued from a farm in Wales turned out, from a reading of his microchip, to be Malachy’s brother and fortuitously he was still ‘intact’.
So he was able to do the business on St. Patrick’s Day with the result a few months later that we got Seanacahi (storyteller in Irish), the nephew of Malachy, with the same child-friendly personality. He is an amazing example of this very special breed, full of life with a healthy coat, which he loves to roll in leaves and mud.
We have taken him back to Ireland several times to stay in Castletownshend, the village where Edith Somerville lived and he has visited her house Drishane to pose for pictures in the place where the fictional ‘Maria’ was created, based on Edith’s own Irish Water Spaniel. Life following art.
Both Malachy and Seanachai have each year done their duty on the Irish Water Spaniel stand at Discover Dogs, patiently allowing hundreds of children to come up to stroke them and meet one at close range. Seanachai loves roaming through the huge woods by the castle in Castletownshend or swimming in the sea on the beautiful West Cork coast.
Our loveable ‘bogdog’ feeling completely at home there, back in the Irish landscape and programmed by his DNA to be fetching fearlessly from the deepest water. But with all the joy comes the sorrow, not to mention the cost, of expensive veterinary bills. Things you may not think of when buying a puppy for Christmas.
Now as I write our Seanachai is asleep on the floor exhausted from wearing a huge lampshade protection collar with his lovely curls all shaved off down the one side, that is all stitched up. Two weeks ago he had a cancer tumour removed, which I had found days before when running my fingers through his cuddly coat, whilst watching television.
Having been in the buster collar for 10 days when his stitches were removed we took him to the park for a run and whilst charging about having fun he managed to mangle a claw. That meant that he was back in the collar again, this time an even bigger one, in an attempt to stop him licking the wound. Unfortunately he is like Houdini and it did get infected and he was then kept in the Vet’s for 4 days having had his toe amputated.
Hopefully he will have the stitches out and be recovered from this set back by Christmas.
Sadly the tumour was high grade and so we anxiously await the results of ultra sound scans and other tests before deciding if we can give him, with chemo, a little more time as a viable dog or if we should just let nature take its course, inevitably taking him from us at just five years of age. Unbearably the probability is that we are to lose this loyal and loveable friend.
Even after I added up that for the last two dogs we have so far spent an eye watering £23,000 on vet’s bills, some of which was insured, the pleasure and joy these dogs have given us over the years is priceless and we have never had any regrets whatsoever in owning an Irish Water Spaniel.
Getting a dog at Christmas did change our lives.
Sooner or later I know, however, that we are to face a lonely empty house without our precious ‘bundle of rags in a cyclone’ curled up on the sofa.