The Dogs of Inisheer

When Irish dogs are smiling
By Maureen Donnellon, July 2011, Updated February 2015

If you’ve ever had the good fortune to visit Ireland, you undoubtedly found yourself standing at the edge of a cliff or the top of a grassy hill looking out on what seemed like a glimpse of heaven. During a recent trip to Ireland, I had an opportunity to spend some time on a tiny slice of bliss known as Inisheer, the smallest of the Aran Islands in County Galway.

Inisheer, or as the Irish refer to it, Inis Oírr, meaning “east island,” is a sparsely populated cluster of rock-walled farms whose inhabitants still speak the original Irish language. The landscape is rugged and breathtakingly beautiful. I had many “heaven-glimpsing” moments on that island — among them, of the dogs who call Inisheer home.

These weren’t strays; rather, they were loved and cared-for pets, complete with collars and tags. I’d often pass by them on my evening walks; they’d be lying curled up on rugs in the doorways of their homes. But during the day, they roamed the island, perhaps meeting a few friends down at the playground, thumbing their noses at the signs reading Cosc Ar Ghadhair, illustrated with a dog in a red circle crossed by a diagonal line. Though I guessed what it said, I couldn’t read it and, obviously, neither could the dogs. However, no one on the playground seemed to mind. The kids ran and tossed sticks for the gamboling canines, who playfully greeted each and every person. When the dogs tired of the entertainment, they went off in their own directions in search of new adventures.

My family and I ran into a couple of beautiful Border Collies romping in the surf. One had a cinnamon-red coat and a chest of wooly white. The other’s coat was a picture-perfect black and white, and her eyes were as blue as the Irish Sea. Both had sand clinging to their whiskers, and their sea-soaked coats were dusted with salt. As we approached, they ran up and greeted us. There was no body-slamming, jumping up or over-the-top excitement — just “Hey! You’re here! Mind tossing us something wet and slimy?” One of the dogs ran down to the rocks and grabbed a long piece of thick seaweed and politely dropped it at my feet, then dipped into a play bow and looked up at me expectantly. I bent down and tossed the soggy weed into the air, and she dashed off. In no time, she was back, and dropped the limp weed on top of my shoes. I decided that the dogs probably hung around the beach all day, waiting for saps like me to entertain them. Sure enough, a few hours later, a little boy was tossing that same piece of seaweed for the same two dogs.


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In the afternoon, we fed bits of cheese to a well-groomed and obviously well-fed Terrier mix, who followed us around until another dog came along with a more attractive offer. Together, they ran off to the playground.

On Inisheer, I saw a lot of contented, happy dogs. What I didn’t see were dogs on leashes barking and lunging, or dogs at the picture window of a home destroying the mini-blinds, trying to get at my family as we walked by. Believe it or not, I didn’t see a single pile of dog doo; I guess if people saw it, they picked it up. There was no aggression, no fighting. The dogs on this island were balanced, socialized and, from the looks of it, extremely happy — they were allowed to be dogs.

Unfortunately, our dogs don’t have that luxury. We don’t live on a small island with more tractors than cars. We need to keep our dogs safe behind fences or controlled on a leash. For the most part, aside from the occasional romp in an open field, our dogs live in our world. They are coddled, secure, warm and fed. Their paws are wiped and their coats are scrubbed clean. No salt. No sand. But when our dogs are curled up on their fluffy monogrammed pet beds at night, I bet they’re dreaming of the dogs of Inisheer.

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 65: Jun/Aug 2011