Residence: Athens, Georgia
Date of Performance/Collection: 3/15/19
Primary Language: English
Main piece: “The black dog is death.”
Context: The informant is half Irish and half American. Her mother’s side of the family is originally from and still resides in Atlanta, Georgia. Her paternal extended family live in Sligo, Ireland. She grew up culturally Catholic, but she does not consider herself religious. Our conversation took place in February on my couch at home in Atlanta after she began recounting her recent trip to visit family in Ireland. The informant originally heard this saying from her aunt, who recounted a story in which she was attacked by a black dog spirit that jumped on her back in the middle of the night. Her aunt caught a glimpse of the creature over her shoulder, but when she threw the dog off and turned around, it was gone. The phrase “the black dog is death” was already well-known among the informant’s family at the time, but what makes this story even more unsettling is that shortly before the black dog appeared to her aunt, a bog body was found on the family’s property. So, while the informant isn’t a necessarily spiritual or superstitious person, she does somewhat buy into the black dog death spirit, as she describes the impact-fulness of her aunt “trembling” and looking “haunted” whenever she recounted the story. Interestingly, the informant does not believe that the would ever personally encounter the black dog, as she isn’t as in-tune with the spiritual world, but she still maintains: “I’m really glad the black dog didn’t visit me.”
Personal thoughts: The informant’s mindset that part of encountering the stuff of legends is simply buying into them is particularly interesting to me; she simultaneously validates her aunt’s experiences while doubting that she could experience the same, which speaks to the potential placebo effect that folk beliefs have on people. Just because doubt could easily be lent to the details of the story does not mean that the experience itself did not occur. There is no way of knowing what exactly happened to BN’s aunt, but her story and BN’s subsequent reaction to it indicates that belief itself can be more powerful than absolute truth. Additionally, the wording of the proverb “the black dog is death” does not communicate that the appearance of a black dog heralds death, but rather that the black dog is death itself. Perhaps by giving the abstract concept of death a knowable, mortal form, the people of Ireland can feel a little more control over their own mortality. To mold death into a dog opens up the possibility of training death like you would train your own pet, and therefore conquering the unconquerable.