If I thought he'd
eat it," said Michael Brennan sincerely, "I'd buy that bird a bloody
herring." The old sea gull heaved itself off the low-tide mud of Colligan
estuary and flapped ponderously toward the Drum Hills of Ireland's County
Waterford. "Didn't I tell you?" Brennan yelled suddenly. "Watch her
now! Watch the little black bitch go!"
In a splatter of
mud, a young greyhound, which surely had a name in the studbook of the Irish
Coursing Club but would be "the little black bitch" until she raced,
turned and gave wild chase to the gull; it was an instant signal for the half a
dozen other saplings (hounds no longer puppies but not yet mature enough for
the track) to go streaming after her in a daft, pointless, joyful pursuit. The
gull gained height slowly, like a very old DC-3, and after a furious quarter
mile the saplings gave up, wheeled and hurtled back at us. I made a few passes
with the leafy branch Brennan had given me to ward them off, but they were
around me and on me in seconds, lending a snappy Dalmatian effect to my shirt
and trousers. "Fresh on an hour ago," I mourned to Brennan, but he
didn't appear to notice. "Can you imagine," he was exulting, "what
the pull of the mud is doing to those back-leg muscles!"
Yes, I could
imagine that, all right. I had felt the effect on my own legs as I hauled them
through the black, glutinous County Waterford mud, sinking knee-deep at each
step, teetering perilously when my boots stuck. (The slob, the Irish call such
places, leaving no doubt where the word's more familiar meaning comes
In an hour the
Atlantic would come whispering in, transforming the mud into a shimmering
mirror of water fit to match the elegiac beauty of the gray and green hills
around, but meanwhile Brennan still rhapsodized over the seabirds that were
training his dogs for him. "Two herrings, a box of herrings, I feel like
leaving out for them every morning...." One night soon for sure, you could
tell he was thinking, those muscles, toughened in the Colligan mud, would send
the black bitch streaking out of the steel trap under the arc lights of the
track at Youghal or Clonmel or Cork as the electric hare flashed by. Or even in
London or Miami.
This would not be
a particularly out-of-the-way dream. Here on the Colligan we were in the
heartland of greyhound breeding, just a mile away from Dungarvan town, which
must be the only place ever to have erected a marble monument to a racing dog
in order, as the Dungarvan Observer put it, "that all might read the doings
of the greatest dog of all time." In Dungarvan it is not wise to show
ignorance of which animal this might be. Master McGrath, the Mighty Black, the
Immortal Black, the Irish Wonder, as 19th century sporting buffs loved to call
(pronounced "McGraw") won the Waterloo Cup three times and was
presented to Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle with a blue ribbon around his
neck. Besides which, he could talk. Leastways according to the ballad sung by
Paddy Nolan, whom Michael had introduced to me as "a hell of a great old
lover of the greyhounds" in the Dungarvan pub known mysteriously as the
High Chaparral. At the Waterloo Cup of 1869, having been insulted by the
English favorite, Rose, as to the country of his birth, the Immortal Black had
replied via Paddy Nolan's nasal tenor...
" 'I know,'
says McGrath, 'we have wild heather bogs,
But you'll find in old Ireland there's good men and dogs.
So lead on, bold Britannia, give none of your jaw,
And shove that up your nostrils,' says Master McGrath."
The tales they
tell in Dungarvan about his birth and death have already assumed legendary
proportions. In one version, like King Cyrus of Persia, Master McGrath was
condemned at birth to be drowned—in the Colligan as a weakling—but a perceptive
kennel boy refused to obey orders and reared him up secretly. The whereabouts
of his grave, like King Arthur's, are uncertain. Some say he is buried at
Lurgan in Ulster, others that he lies, God help him, in the gardens of Culford
Hall, Bury St. Edmunds, England, where there is also a monument to him, but
only in bronze.
almost a century after his death, you are never very far away from Master
McGrath, and men like Michael Brennan are never far from the dream that they
will produce another like him, though the Master was a coursing dog, released
to live hares in an enclosure, not a track star. Every evening, on any country
road in Ireland, you'll see men exercising greyhounds, part-timers like Michael
with the hope that a great fortune is round the corner. And not too wild a hope
either. Any one of the saplings that Michael was now hammering to the limits of
their endurance on the Colligan mud could turn out to be what he calls in
audible capitals A Classic Winner.
Not that it was
likely that he, Michael Brennan, would ever pose self-consciously himself for
news pictures clasping the trophy for the English Oaks or the Flagler
International, a sleek and beautiful winning greyhound at his side. Like
thousands of other Irishmen, mad about the dogs, he is a primary producer—a
breeder, on a small scale, who trains some of his promising pups in the finest
country in the world for it, selling most of them, but keeping and racing a
few. The pups are sold mostly in England, and the sums involved are not large.
The most money Michael ever had in his hand at once, he says, was 1,350 pounds,
and that was for two dogs. But though the greyhounds he breeds may be sold
twice or three times over, to an agent in Dublin, to an English buyer, to an
eventual owner, in Michael's mind they remain his forever.