For the last 12 months he was failing and stayed largely around the yard or up to the ‘new house’ at the top of the boreen where the three girls were mad about him.
Then, one morning about a month ago, in a kind of a last hurrah, didn’t he go up with us early for the cows to the field below the Chapel Field. The cows were as surprised as we were to see him.
It was an effort for him to bark but ‘twas as if he was thinking to himself ‘there’s life in the old dog yet’. There was, but not much.
About six years ago, I wrote about Murph:
The dog we have at present ‘Murph’ is about seven or eight years old. Mainly white in colour we call him a sheepdog, though the only sheep we’ve had on this farm in this century are a few lambs in the deep freeze!
He’s the nicest, friendliest dog one could have. But, like most human beings, he can be very moody or temperamental. Generally speaking he won’t work for me when it comes to bringing in the cows morning or evening. No matter how I praise and cajole and plamás him he’d prefer to chase a rabbit or a crow around the field. Scolding him or threatening simply results in him slinking off to cry in the hayshed.
Sometimes, men refer to their spouse as ‘she who must be obeyed’. Maybe Murph understands the truth behind this little saying because when it comes to the distaff side of the house, he works like a trooper. He simply loves praise and patting on the head and his happy, nearly laughing smile is a marvel to behold, especially if he has brought in the cows from a far-flung field such as the Well Field or Paircaliosa.
His barking voice has a great range, which varies from ‘there’s a family car coming down the boreen’; ‘there’s a calf after breaking out of the shed’ to a more serious/sinister ‘there’s a stranger outside in the yard’. He never went to school yet he’s very educated and smart in his own way.
We reckon he knows when it’s Sunday. We usually go to half-nine Mass but about three years ago on a Sunday morning come half past eight he’d disappear from the yard and there Murph would be above at the Chapel gate when we would arrive! No bell would ring out across the countryside until nine so we never knew how he knew. Then again, dogs have a mind of their own and their ability to do so many varied tasks is amazing and makes them unique in the animal world.
To get him out of the ‘going to Mass’ habit every Sunday, we ‘confined him to barracks’ a few Sabbath days and he got the message. What was even stranger than his fondness of the Sunday celebration was the fact that on a Church Holiday like December 8, Patrick’s Day or August 15, Murph would ‘know’ it was a special, different day and off up the road with him!
I am livid when I hear people talk of ‘dumb animals’ or mistreat them. Dogs like Murph have an innate intelligence which can sometimes be beyond our human comprehension.
For over a third of the years I have been farming here, Murph was with us. From the day he came from Castlelyons as a young pup he’s been special. He could sense my mood every morning.
You know the way you might be in bad form — maybe very tired or with a bit of a cold or just worried about something — well, Murph knew how to respond. In winter time he’d see the light going on in the kitchen and he’d be waiting at the door. Similarly, in summer time he’d be listening for the key to turn and the door to open.
His beaming smile said it all: ‘Hey, John, isn’t it great to be alive, out here in the country in God’s fresh air’?
When we got Murph, our previous dog, Tiger, had died so he had no ‘old head’ to train him in, but he learned himself. He treated the cows and other stock on our farm with respect and I think they liked him for that. He learned that we were his family, his friends, and once someone of us were in the house or haggard, Murph was a docile animal. Any neighbour, friend or relation or salesman could drive in to the yard, get out of their car and walk in the door — not a bother on him.
If we were away and the door was locked, well, in, that scenario Murph treated callers as unwelcome. Many people told us over the years ‘That’s a great watchdog ye have’. When asked what did they mean, they explained that maybe some day last week or last month they had called in to Garryantaggart. They saw no-one around save a slightly wary dog who barked in a loud manner as much as to say ‘Be off about your business’. In all his years here, he never bit anyone but had a menacing demeanour when he was in charge of the place.
We had him for close on 15 years and during that time he’d witnessed family members getting married and the arrival of grandchildren and he took all these changes in his stride.
With a new house built at the top of the boreen a few years back, he divided his semi-retirement time between his two ‘homes’. He loved affection and attention and liked nothing better than to stand by my side and have his head stroked.
If one was near him with hands down by one’s side, Murph would just nuzzle in under the palm as much as to say ‘Them hands are idle — they could be rubbing my head’.
The one thing he absolutely hated with a passion was any kind of grooming. His hairstyle was ‘au naturel’ and any attempt to trim his matted dreadlocks was met with bared teeth! We use an old sheep shears to clip the cow’s tails, but if Murph saw you approaching with such an instrument he’d be outside in the Boiler house Field before you could say ‘Woof’.
He absolutely adored exercise and whenever I’d spend a few days spreading fertiliser or topping thistles or high grass in fields, he’d never leave the field. Over and hether, up and down, running alongside the tractor with tongue hanging out! He could easily run 20 miles in a day, no bother on him.
Though we live with a rookery literally yards from the gable end of the house, Murph had no great love for crows. On the trees he tolerated them — well, he couldn’t do much about them ‘upstairs’ anyway. The haggard was his domain though and any crow, magpie ar jackdaw with the temerity to land on Murph’s territory was immediately chased away. Soon the birds got the message and once they saw Murph on the beat they kept flying!
Hundreds of times I saw Murph chase a rabbit in the fields — but I don’t think he ever caught or killed one. He loved the thrill of the chase but he’d slow down if he looked like caching up with the bunny. Then, when the rabbit would reach the safety of the burrow in a ditch, Murph would run up and down as if still hoping to capture the prey, but he never really wanted to hurt or kill anything. No, that was not in his gentle nature.
With the last number of years I travelled Lourdes on Pilgrimage, usually I’d be away for five days. Well, on my return Murph would be delirious, jumping up on me, wanting to lick my face — his way of saying ‘Welcome Home’ in his own peculiar way.
They say a good dog never dies, that he always stays and walks besides you on crisp autumn days when there’s frost on the fields and the winter is drawing nigh, his head within our hand in his old way, the way Murph used to do.
Murph died on Tuesday after we milked the cows. I buried him that afternoon between two apple trees above in the garden.