Con McGarry answered the phone on about the fourth ring.
“Howiya Con, I think I’m lost,” I said.
The patient sheepdog handler redirected me back onto the right road and hung up. His directions in the first place had been completely accurate, in all honesty. The fact that I ended up two houses away provides evidence, if any were needed, that I wouldn’t make it as a Con McGarry sheepdog.
I eventually found the entrance to the McGarry homestead, which featured two ornamental sheepdogs on either pillar.
Con was quick to explain how he became involved in the world of sheepdog trials.
“I’ve been doing it since 1998. I went to an agricultural show in Elphin and there was a sheepdog trial there. I was just after coming back from England and I had a young family at the time. I used to ride horses when I was younger but I thought it was a dangerous game for a fella with a young family so I had a go at the dogs,” he tells me.
It proved to be a good decision. Con has enjoyed plenty of success in the field and even featured on the BBC Television programme ‘One Man and His Dog’.
That wasn’t the only international success Con had tasted.
“Between doubles and singles, so that’s one dog and two dogs, I would have represented Ireland at international level about 23 times,” he says.
He has also run at all but one of the world trials in that time. He was even a judge at the one he didn’t compete at. He’s also preparing to represent Ireland at the world trials in The Netherlands this July with his two dogs, Tara and Cora.
So how does it all work? How does one know which dogs are good enough to compete on the world stage and how can you tell when a dog has had its day?
“They keep revolving. For a top class trial you won’t get much out of a dog after she’s nine. It’s harder on dogs than ordinary flock work. There’s a lot of fast going and there’s twisting and turning,” Con says.
His current dogs are in their prime: Tara’s six and Cora’s four. Con reckons he has the real deal. “Tara would be as good as anything I’ve ever seen. I wouldn’t put any dog ahead of her. Cora’s coming up and has been on the Irish team. I’m expecting great things from her but Tara’s exceptionally good,” he says.
Con’s a firm believer in practice and using hurler Henry Shefflin as an example, he explained to me the importance of “keeping that edge up” ahead of major trials.
Looking ahead to this Sunday’s Roscommon Ploughing Championships, Con detailed the process involved in judging competitors.
“They’ll be judged on a course of out run, lift, fetch, drive, shed and pen. There will be a system of points given for that. The dog will have to run out maybe 300 metres either side and pick up four sheep without giving them any hassle and take them in a straight line through a set of obstacles to the handler’s post. Then he’ll have to turn them around the handler’s post and drive them in a triangular drive for 400 metres, take them back to the handler and divide them two by two and put them in the pen. He will start off with 100 points with deductions for any mistakes,” he explained.
Shortly after, I bid farewell to Con McGarry and wished him luck for the year ahead. I drove away from the McGarry farm and in what I thought was the direction of the N5. Two wrong turns later and I cursed the fact that I didn’t have Tara and Cora to drive me home.