The Ancient Irish Bond Between Dog and Man

The Ancient Irish Bond Between Dog and Man

The Prehistoric monument of Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland was built during the Neolithic period, around 3000BC. That makes Newgrange older than the Egyptian Pyramids and as a World Heritage Site, it is one of the most important complex Methalothic sites in Europe.

Excavations at the site recently discovered the skeletal remains of a 4,800 year old dog. The Newgrange dog bones have been described as having the best preserved ancient DNA ever encountered. The study of these remains, have led scientists at Trinity College, Dublin and Oxford University to conclude that dogs were first domesticated from geographical separated wolf populations on opposite sides of the Eurasian continent.

The proximity of the skeletal remains at one of Irelands most ceremonial and religious sites whose design aligns in a way that allows the light from the rising sun shine into its inner chamber on the winter solstice, confirms the high status of dogs in ancient Irish society.

Further confirmation of this status is recorded in the Ancient Irish Breton Laws that existed before the arrival of Christianity, the Vikings, the Normans or the English invaders. The Brehon Laws were developed and used to promote fairness, justice and widespread peace. The key to the BrehonLaws was the legislation and regulation of everyday life, evolving from actual events and occurrences and carried down from generation to generation as a true expression of natural justice. Cruelty, savage reprisals and revenge formed no part of Irelands early laws. The laws were first collected into one body about 1000years BC. Overtime the codex of laws inevitably expanded thus becoming the province of the wisest, the elite, the learned class formerly known as Druids.

In the Brehon Laws every dog was recognised and had its own value whether guarding the house and flocks and herds from outside dangersor carrying out other designated duties The watch dogs ,also threatingly known as the “slaughter hound” and was particularly regarded and to injure or kill one was a serious matter involving not only a high payment (up to 10 cows) but also the replacement of one of similar strength and status.

The legend of Cuchulainn, shows an excellent example of the Brehon Laws in action. As a young man Cuchulainn, then named Setanta, was invited to a feast in the house of Chullainn. He was delayed in his travels by a game at hurling and when he arrived late, he was attacked by Chullainns ferocious guard dog. Defending himself, he drove his hurling ball down the throat of the dog, killing him outright. Respecting the ancient Brehon Laws, he offered to become Chullainns hound and protector until another suitable hound could be found and so became known as as the hound of Chullainn — CuChullainn.

The watch dog was known as “The Dog of Four Doors”, protecting the dwelling house, the cow byrer, the sheep fold and the ox shed.

The hunting dogs, hunted the forests in search of deer, boar and other wild game. Herd dogs were used to move the farm animals from one place to another.

Small pet dogs had also an important place in ancient Ireland. There is reference in the Brehon Laws to the importance of the small dogs presence while a woman was in labour. Some claim that the lap dog was charged with keeping evil spirits at bay during this dangerous time while others point simply to the comfort and reassurance given by a familiar and loving pet.

If any of these important dog companions were to be injured, stolen or killed, then quiet apart from the fine payable and the restitution due, other methods of protection and comfort were also expected to be provided.

Today nine Irish dog breeds can claim linage from these ancient dog breeds that once inhabited the island five thousand years ago. They include, the Irish Wolfhound, the Kerry Blue, the Irish Water Spaniel, the Old Irish Setter, the Red Setter, the Kerry Beagle, the Irish Terrier, the Wheaten Terrier and the Glen of Imaal Terrier. Some of these breeds are suffering very low numbers and their very survival as a breed is in question.

But that is a story for another day.

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