SI Vault
Clive Gammon
September 06, 1971
Being the story of one Michael Brennan, an Irishman hooked on the dogs—he trains them on sea gulls and sherry and mud—and a Welshman with the luck of the Welsh
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September 06, 1971

Another Fine Madness

Being the story of one Michael Brennan, an Irishman hooked on the dogs—he trains them on sea gulls and sherry and mud—and a Welshman with the luck of the Welsh

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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 from.)

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 him.

Master McGrath (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.

In Dungarvan, 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.

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