Belfast Telegraph

UK Website Of The Year

Home Life Features

A pet project inspired by our adored late son who wanted void left in our lives filled with love of a furry friend

Published 28/06/2016

Una O’Hagan, Colm Keane and Frankie
Una O’Hagan, Colm Keane and Frankie
Margaret Wilson, from Belfast, talks about the conniving, selfish, unaffectionate dog she just loved to bits
Margaret Wilson
Hannibal Heyes with owner MC Hardcastle
Camilla McCarthy’s dog Toby

Author Colm Keane and his wife, RTE newsreader Una O'Hagan, have just written an enchanting new book, Animal Crackers, talking to people in Northern Ireland and the Republic about their pets. Here they reveal the heartbreaking tragedy that prompted the publication, as well as some of the delightfully quirky stories they have heard.

Our son Sean died from a rare form of bone cancer on Christmas Day 2007. He was 20 years of age. Although semi-conscious leading up to his death, he wrote a will. In it he allocated a small sum of money - €35 - for us to buy a dog.

Because of our irregular lifestyles we never bought that dog. We knew we couldn't give it the attention it required. Then, in the summer of 2014, we moved from Dublin to Ring, Co Waterford, and our problems were miraculously resolved.

On our second morning there a beautiful dog turned up at our gate looking to be our friend. His name is Frankie - a gold-coloured Labrador, aged 11, and with the nicest personality you can imagine.

Although Frankie belongs to our neighbours the Currans, he quickly adopted us as his second family. With us he walks, swims, chases rocks, plays football, meets other dogs and, when the weather is good, joins us outside our house for a snooze.

Inspired by Frankie, we decided to write a book about people in the Republic and Northern Ireland and their pets. We were soon encountering adorable dogs, spirited horses, mischievous donkeys, and cats who barely tolerate their owners, among a host of other furry friends. Sean's hope for us had come to fruition. Wherever he is, he sorted us out and found the dog he wished for us just a few days before he died.

Margaret Wilson, from Belfast, talks about the conniving, selfish, unaffectionate dog she just loved to bits

Finn came to us as a stray. She followed my daughter home one wet evening. I felt a bit sorry for her so I threw a piece of carpet into the garage and gave her the remains of our Sunday dinner. We left the garage side door open and expected she would be gone in the morning.

When we woke up she was still there. I had always shied away from having a dog because my husband and I worked full-time. But this dog was determined to have a home with us, so eventually we capitulated. From the beginning she wasn't an affectionate dog. She was conniving and selfish, and ran the house as if it was her own fiefdom. She moved into the kitchen, then progressed to the landing, and would have dearly liked to be sleeping on the bed but I drew a line with that.

She wasn't obedient. She would take up her position so close to the fire that she would singe.

She was distant and cool. I had a very bad fall one day while taking clothes in from the garden. I tripped down some steps and knew that I was going to pass out because I was in such pain. I just made it to the back door when I collapsed.

My last recollection was of Finn walking over my prone body on her way into the house. When I came to she was lying in front of a lovely fire in the living room, not one bit perturbed.

She terrified people coming to visit. She'd bare her teeth and growl, but she never bit anybody. She was too crafty for that. Yet she could be easily scared too. Further up the street there was an epileptic Chihuahua. This tiny little dog would bounce up and down - and Finn was terrified of it.

We also had a break-in once. I came home from work and the glass in the front door had been smashed. I didn't know if the people were still upstairs. Finn was in the kitchen and I pushed her towards the stairs. "Go on up!" I said, but she got in behind me and cried. The thieves were long gone, but Finn wasn't going up the stairs or defending me! We had her for 17 years but then she got cancer. My husband and I decided the best thing would be to have her put down. We held her and cried.

She had been fond of sleeping under a particular rose tree.

That's where we buried her ashes, along with her lead, bowl and toys.

Even though we don't live there any more, she is still with us in memory. She was determined to have a home with us, and she wasn't going anywhere else.

Like people, I suppose, she had her own personality. Some can be a bit cool, and Finn was definitely cool, there's no doubt about that!

Hannibal Heyes rules the roost... he even watches videos with me

MC Hardcastle says his drake, Hannibal Heyes, which he bought in Enniskillen, really believes he is human and not just a pet.

I got Hannibal Heyes at a mart near Enniskillen. I spotted this little drake in a cage. He was only a tiny baby and black, although he developed other colours later, including a darkish green. He looked so cute. I paid €4 for him.

I decided to name him Hannibal Heyes after a character in the Seventies TV series Alias Smith And Jones. He always responds to the name now. I'll stand at the garage door and shout: "Heyes, come on, it's raining!" And he'll come running.

I built him his own house with his name written over the door. He has everything in it but Sky television. It's a wooden structure, about eight feet by four feet. It wouldn't do if any of the cats went in - there would be a bit of a dust-up. He's very protective of his own department.

It wasn't long before Heyes didn't see himself as being a drake at all. You would notice him having a look at himself in a mirror I have in the garage. He'd visit us in the house, though sometimes he wouldn't fancy the people who might be visiting.

He would come running in, ducking under tables and chairs, looking about as if to say: "What are you doing here?" Then he'd walk out.

He'd also watch videos with me. I remember watching the police drama McCloud one night. Heyes was sitting alongside me, with my arm around him. McCloud was sent out to rescue an animal which was causing havoc in Manhattan. It turned out to be a duck. Heyes happened to see the duck and he leapt straight out of the chair, went across the floor and stared up at the television. He knew it was part of his family. It was so funny.

Another time I was watching The Boys Of Twilight, featuring two deputy sheriffs. The sheriffs were trying to find a bunch of ducks and drakes. They decided to use a duck to see if they could find where the rest of the ducks went to. The duck walked down the street, sheriffs and all, straight into this store where they thought the animals might be. And Heyes was watching that! Man, if you could have seen the eyes on him!

There's one particular man who comes to visit me and Heyes took a dislike to him. That man lost the leg of his trousers here. Heyes chased him and the man got frightened. He caught himself going across the gate.

When I got there the leg of the trousers was on the ground. When that man comes to visit now he rings me up to make sure Heyes is locked in before he comes.

Heyes rules the place. There was one incident where a kitten arrived after being slung out on the road outside. The bigger cats didn't take too kindly to its arrival. They got around it and started aggravating it. But Heyes got in between the cats and started pecking them. He got them out of the way so that the kitten could escape. Heyes then stood upright and started flapping his wings, which he does when he's very proud of himself. The kitten is here to this day.

He had an awful accident once when he was 12. He had followed me into the garage and didn't I close out the door and catch his foot! I brought him in to see the vet. Had the break been further up the vet could have fixed it using lollipop sticks. Instead, he had to anaesthetise Heyes, use a drill, bore a hole each side of the break, and put pins in. Had the bone shattered at any time during this Hannibal Heyes would be gone.

The operation worked. That vet is a genius.

Heyes is 14 and in top-class health. He has been a great friend.

The first thing I do every morning is go out to see how he is. If anything happened to him, I'd never get over it.

You could almost say he is nearly human. He has the mind of a human, even if he can't write or read. I can honestly say he's the next best thing to a human for a drake that I have ever seen.

Toby was bereft after Jim died

Camilla McCarthy, from Co Waterford, tells of a very strange event surrounding her husband's death and the family dog Toby.

Toby was a black Labrador with a wonderful personality. We got him in 1996 when he was a puppy. Jim was farming and I was out working, so he was with Jim all day. Jim had a workshop where he fixed all sorts of electronic things and Toby would sit in there with him. They would come in at ten o'clock for tea, he'd get a biscuit, and they'd go off out again. Everywhere Jim went Toby would be with him, except when he came walking with me.

In 1999 Jim got leukaemia and died. Toby was affected by the death. He would come down to the bedroom looking for Jim. He would wander around the house trying to find him. He started jumping up on Jim's chair.

After Jim's death I visited his grave every day, which was about two miles away, but I never brought Toby with me. Then, three months after Jim died, I went up to Galway for a family event. I was away for two days. When I came back down the dog didn't want to leave me out of his sight. Because of that the next time I visited Jim's grave I took Toby with me.

When we got to the graveyard I opened the car door. Toby jumped out, then ran straight to Jim's grave and sat at it. Jim's grave was a couple of hundred yards from the car. There was a path down the centre, with graves on either side, and the grave was around 14 headstones away. Yet Toby had headed straight for it.

I was amazed. I wondered: "Is it just a coincidence?" I then fixed the flowers and said a few prayers. After that I said: "Come on, Toby, we'll go home." He came with me and got into the car. I couldn't get my head around what Toby had done. Toby lived a long life and was 16 when he died. I buried him with my husband's cap. I had left my husband's cap hanging up out in the utility room and if it fell down when somebody was taking a coat down Toby would grab it. When I'd go back into the kitchen he'd be lying on it. He did that for years after Jim died. So, when Toby died, I buried him with the cap. I thought: "The two of you go together!" He was just a beautiful dog, he really was.

  • Animal Crackers: Irish Pet Stories, by Colm Keane and Una O'Hagan, is published by Capel Island Press, £12

Belfast Telegraph

Your Comments

COMMENT RULES: Comments that are judged to be defamatory, abusive or in bad taste are not acceptable and contributors who consistently fall below certain criteria will be permanently blacklisted. The moderator will not enter into debate with individual contributors and the moderator’s decision is final. It is Belfast Telegraph policy to close comments on court cases, tribunals and active legal investigations. We may also close comments on articles which are being targeted for abuse. Problems with commenting? customercare@belfasttelegraph.co.uk

Read More

From Belfast Telegraph