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A Cycle on the Celtic Fringe … Part 47

All along the road between Ballygawley and Carrick-on-Shannon I was kept alert by the local security agents. Most rural properties seemed to have a guard dog. At least half had the guard dog that takes its duties more seriously than any other: the border collie.

There is a strange mis-perception of this breed of dogs. They are seen as intelligent, obedient and friendly. If you are known to the collie and liked by the collie this is undoubtedly and abundantly true. If the dog doesn’t know you, it will treat you with suspicion. If you come inside the area it regards as its demesne, then it will attack you with a ferocity that few other dogs can muster.

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They take their work very seriously. They have a loyalty to their owner that is seldom matched elsewhere in nature. Other animals will show this sort of protection to their young or even to their mate, but the collie will protect with equal diligence anything and anyone that they regard as coming under their jurisdiction.

Out on a wild and windy country lane, not far from the Cliffs of Moher, we cycled past the most remote and tumbledown croft we’d yet seen. It was 1976. The cliffs were well known and well visited. Not yet the most visited tourist destination in Ireland that they have since become, but a place where buskers would expect to top up the weekly earnings, and tea and coffee vans would ply a decent trade. They are magnificent. They tower 700 feet above the Atlantic and are hit by waves that can make quite an impression on many of those feet.

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Away from the cliffs themselves the lanes ran free of tourists, cars or bicycles; with the exception of mine and Laurence’s. To our surprise the dwelling was inhabited, and out from the yard shot a border collie of extreme ferocity. It didn’t get many walkers to terrify nor many cars to bark at. Two cyclists were perfection. A cyclist can manage 30 miles per hour for short bursts if really pushed. So can a border collie. A cyclist has very little to defend him or herself with. A border collie is amply supplied with guile, teeth and supreme athleticism. An escaping cyclist is motivated by self-preservation. A border collie is motivated by doing their job well, keeping everyone and everything safe from intruders. You don’t mess with a border collie at work.

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This one had lost the use of its hind legs. It chased us anyway. Barking like the devil’s wish hounds and snarling like a leopard. The entire back end of the dog was being dragged yet it still kept pace with us for the  fifty yards it regarded as its own. Once it considered us out of its territory, it quietly went back to its life of dedicated indolence. It was a very impressive guard dog indeed.

The collies of Roscommon were out in force on this early August morning. They always caught me by surprise. There I’d be, gently pedalling along in the sunshine, thinking thoughts of universal significance or about whether I’d prefer a Magnum or a Mivi at the next shop I passed when, suddenly, and without warning, I’d have a set of ravaging snappers bearing down on my ankles and calves. I only got bitten once; a bite that drew blood and an enormous bruise. I wasn’t after getting bitten again.

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Over the course of the morning I developed a turn of speed that would have put Mark Cavendish and Djamolidine Abdoujaparov (Rather fast cyclists) in my wake. Some houses were protected by Alsatians, some by altogether more ferocious looking dogs. But, none was as well protected as the house with the black and white sheepdogs.

I like collies. I’ve kept collies since I got married. Our first took upon herself to be nursemaid, nanny and bodyguard to the three children. She was kindness and gentleness personified. She slept at the foot of the cot of the children when they were babies and at the foot of the bed when they were ill. She counted us all out of the house when we went shopping and counted us all back in on our return. She welcomed visitors she knew and enjoyed the company of the neighbour’s dogs. She also terrified two intruders, had some visiting friends hiding in the bathroom and ate our post on more than one occasion. You didn’t mess with our Sally.

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Our second collie was  counsellor,  doctor, advisor and  friend. She was more independent. She had a casual, relaxed manner with guests and visitors. Enjoyed a game of football and regularly scored with dramatic diving headers. Her presence on the pitch was usually welcomed for ten minutes or so as the players marvelled at her skills. She didn’t like giving up possession though, and didn’t much mind which direction she was playing in. After ten minutes we usually got a request to substitute her. In being brought off the pitch she resembled the disappointment famously shown by Paul Gascoigne in the 1990 Italian World Cup semi-final. There was also usually some player in the background with the Gary Linacre concerned expression.

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Bella didn’t bark very much, never sought fights and showed a tolerance to those who don’t understand dogs that exceeded anything ever demonstrated by Sally. If however, she was attacked by an aggressive dog she would respond. The fights never lasted more than a second or two. A single fierce nip to the back legs of her attacker invariably was enough. These dogs are bred to hold their own. They have to stand up and face down sheep, rams, tups that are five time their bulk. Bella never looked for a single fight and never lost one. There was something of Clint Eastwood’s man with no name about our middle dog.

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Jolly is our current collie. She came from a difficult background. She has known what it is like to be subjected to being treated badly. When she came to us she was an extremely troubled and nervous young dog. She bonded with the love and care she was experiencing for the first time in her life and has gradually settled down. She is mightily protective of us though. She hates children and alpha males. (She has been tormented by the former and abused by the latter). It would have been a simple thing to walk away from this dog and leave her troubles to someone else. We couldn’t. She is the most loving and caring of the three and the one most in need of love and care.

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It has been a long, slow process but she is settling down. She gets so excited when one of the children comes round that she almost tap dances with joy. She can be easily introduced to new people and, so long as she is able to invite them into the house, she makes them very welcome. She has a long way still to go. She still doesn’t really know how to relax. Her development has been seriously retarded by twelve months of abuse.

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But, she is a happy dog now  and the most enthusiastic animal of any sort I have ever met. She spends her days going on long walks, sitting quietly while we read or write, or herding our two cats. The task is one that Sysyphus would find trying. It is an endless pursuit of unreliable felines. Jolly has the patience of a saint when with the cats and will pursue this job until she has those cats trained to heel.

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There are some things that make life better and some things that make life much, much better. Border Collies are in the second category. As I pedal along, I practice my sprints and think well of the Collies of Roscommon who are simply doing their job.