Set against Ireland’s green and rocky beauty and its harsh economic realities, The Dogs of Avalon is the story of a determined group of women who fight for the well being of ex-racing Greyhounds. Marion Fitzgibbon helped to found the County Galway sanctuary she named Avalon, is a model of compassion in action, and author Laura Schenone journeyed to Ireland to learn more about her work and what motivates her to do it.
The next day, Marion picked me up in the rain. On the way out of town, as we sat at a traffic light, I saw a monstrosity by the side of the road, an ugly conglomeration of cement and steel which was evidently a huge construction project abandoned before it was even halfway built. I asked Marion about it.
“Isn’t it terrible? It was going to be a shopping mall, but they ran out of money.”
It felt unnerving to look in and see the unfinished floors and concrete walls, steel beams reaching up to nowhere, as though the workers had dropped their tools and fled due to some catastrophe. In fact, this is exactly what happened, though instead of the volcanic ash of Pompeii or the huge waves of a typhoon, it was an economic disaster. This was just one of many incomplete real estate projects left behind from the boom years of the Celtic Tiger. With hundreds of years of poverty behind them, the Irish had been rich oh so briefly—and now they were poor again.
It receded behind us as Marion continued north. In Ireland, it never takes long to get from city to countryside, and soon we were surrounded by green, leafy trees on a road that ran alongside the Shannon, the longest river in Ireland.
After more than an hour, we turned west and crossed into County Galway. That’s when the terrain changed, as though we’d entered another dimension. The bright green landscape was gone, and suddenly the car was climbing a rugged small hill that led to an open plain of brown untilled fields on one side and a bog on the other. The sky hung low and grey, and the vista was gloomy yet beautiful, with brown moor grass and rushes dotted with yellow wildflowers and heather.
In the distance, the hills rose up into the Slieve Aughty Mountains. Patches of dark earth lay in small heaps of broken rectangles left behind by local turf cutters. I remarked on the untillable soil and Marion said, “To hell or Connacht,” with an ironic laugh. We were in the rocky, harsh part of Ireland’s west, the place to which Cromwell banished the Catholics after he stole the fertile land in the 1600s and gave it to English Protestants.
“I remember when Beverly and I first came here and found this land,” Marion said, changing the subject. “It really shook my foundations when she left. I thought we’d be saving dogs together until we dropped.”
We turned down a dirt road that led to a large wrought-iron gate flanked by a wall of round, smooth stones, beautifully placed by hand.
A sign hung in front, bearing the word “Avalon” inscribed in Celtic-style letters.
“Whenever I come here, I feel happy because I know Avalon will be here after I am gone. Kilfinane, I cannot be sure. Maybe they’ll turn it all into condos someday after I’m dead. Or maybe they will knock it down. I don’t know. But Avalon will always be here.”
Marion had been one of Avalon’s directors from the start. And though she felt responsible for helping bring Avalon into existence, it was very clear that Avalon was Johanna Wothke’s project. It was part of Pro Animale. Marion didn’t have to tell me what she was thinking: How could it be that she and Johanna had both been doing this for thirty years, and now Johanna had more than thirty sanctuaries while Marion couldn’t even complete one?
We drove up the road, passing through a stand of trees, and then beyond to open meadows and rolling fields for grazing and running. We had arrived at an animal heaven. The long necks of horses came into view, bent over to graze. Sheep stood in distant, misty fields. The most dominant presence was of Greyhounds, dozens of them, barking aggressively. In their paddocks, they came leaping toward us and jumped up, forepaws to the fences, pink bellies and fangs showing, ears up, barking so forcefully that I felt afraid and checked the height of the fence.