A young Border Collie, Crannagh Maud, herding cows near Oughteraid in County Galway, Ireland. This is a typical small holding of the area. Suckler cows and their calves need much space as grazing is sparse. At one time a different type of dog would be herding these cows, but now Border Collies predominate in Ireland as elsewhere. (Photo by Mrs. K. Moloney.)

From The Shepherd's Dogge archives, Spring 1995
Herding Dogs in Britian & Ireland: Part VI

The Old Herding Dogs of Ireland
by Marjorie Quarton

[Marjorie Quarton lives in County Tipperary on the West Coast of Ireland, where she runs a sheep farm and breeds Crannagh Border Collies. She has written numerous books, many about the Border Collie, including the very humorous "Shep" books (One Dog and His Man and One Dog and His Trials, now combined into one volume by Farming Press called One Dog, His Man and His Trials) and All About the Working Border Collie (published in 1986 by Pelham Books, Ltd.), and, with Carole L. Presberg, The Working Border Collie (published 1998 by T.F.H. Publications, Inc., Neptune City, N.J.).--ed.]

In preparation for this article, I studied the few records I could find about herding dogs in Ireland. I ended up so bewildered by conflicting reports and theories that I decided to rely on memory. I live in County Tipperary in the mid-West and here, at any rate, my late husband was the first to keep pedigreed Border Collies. That was not until 1967. Today, Irish sheep and cattle dogs are either Border Collies or Borders crossed with some other type of collie. The old type of working dog has almost disappeared.

Perhaps I should say "types", as there were many. Border Collies came into Ireland first from Scotland into Ulster, then from Wales into Leinster. Many English landlords with estates here employed Scottish or Welsh shepherds who brought their own dogs with them. The dogs proved themselves to be faster and more biddable than the native dogs; interbreeding began and a profitable trade sprang up.

I grew up in the area where I still live, where cattle and cows have always been the chief source of income to farmers. Even today, sheep are the poor relations and I am unusual in being entirely reliant on them for farm income. This is why sheep dogs were seldom seen in the Irish midlands, but cattle dogs were everywhere. Every farm had one or two; some had half a dozen. They came in many colours-brown, sable, red, blue, yellow and combinations of these colours were usual. Black or black and tan was fairly common, but usually with little or no white on the neck or face. The more colourful dogs tended to have the familiar collie markings.

These dogs were large, heavily built and heavily coated. Their noses had a pronounced "bridge", their paws were large and often rather splayed, their ears set fairly high and turned over. Many had a wall or "chaney" eye-- "chaney" being the Irish way of saying china. They were generally good tempered and lazy; they worked both at the head and the heel, biting seldom, but barking incessantly. They also snarled and growled, which seemed to work when barking failed to move the animals. For sheep, they were too slow, had no "eye" and worked too close. They could, however, be heard barking and snarling behind flocks of sheep on the road to market, where they had their uses.

I believe the strain has gone forever--just one strain in spite of the many colours. I don't know when I last saw a yellow dog at work, or one with a fleece like a mountain ewe and weighing perhaps eighty pounds! They have been replaced mainly by Border Collies and their crosses. As the average farmer is unwilling to pay for a Border Collie capable of working a herd of bullocks or suckler cows, they are worse off than they were with their "old Sheps".

As you travelled north and west, into Galway, you entered sheep country, and the type of dog met with gradually became lighter limbed and smoother in coat. Black and white and well marked tricolours were common. These were still not "eye dogs", but they rounded up sheep in a rough and ready fashion. Further west again, into the mountains of Connemara, and the dog type changed again. Dogs not unlike the extinct Welsh Hillman and collie/greyhound crosses dealt with the big flocks on the hills.

Moving east into Roscommon and east Galway, you reached country where herds of cattle and flocks of sheep were kept in equal numbers. Galway and Roscommon, after being depopulated by the Great Famine in 1847, were filled with sheep from England. The Galway sheep, evolved from the British "Leicester", is a very large animal, slow and heavy. So, without any pedigree breeding, and with very little value being attached to the dogs, they developed a dual purpose strain of herding dog. I have seen good Border Collies completely flummoxed by a packet of Galway ewes; not threatening nor scattering, but standing, mildly staring. Today, the Galway sheep is an endangered species, and fast classy dogs round up the smaller breeds which have replaced them.

The various Irish types of herding dogs were doomed, as surely as the plough horse when tractors appeared.

Irish working collies: a Border Collie (right) and an old style yellow cattle dog. Note broad chest on the cattle dog--not designed for speed.