WE were reared with greyhounds. They were always around the place: young pups, racing dogs, retired brood bitches. You couldn’t get away from them.
It’s not as if we were living in the country with acres of fields about the house. We were in the middle of Ballinlough, a built-up suburb of the city, in a semi-detached with a small garden and neighbours front, back, left and right.
How they put up with it, I don’t know. Maybe, being first generation country people themselves, they understood my father’s fascination with greyhounds.
And, of course, the big drawback with greyhounds, as far as us young bucks in the house were concerned, was they had to be walked, every day, twice a day, morning and evening!
Before school in the morning, hail rain or snow you were out and in the evenings, tired and sore after a hard session in the school hurling field, you were out again before my father got home from Dunlops. Fitness was never a problem in our household!
They say your sense of smell is the most evocative of the senses and, looking back now almost 60 years, I can still get the pungent smell of sheep’s heads, with their long pointy snouts, bobbing around in a big steaming pot in the kitchen and my misfortunate mother standing over them.
It was a scene that often came back to me years later and I trying to introduce the witches of King Lear to the kids in school.
The ritual on Sundays was set in stone. 9am Mass in Ballinlough, followed by a quick breakfast, Then the dogs were collared-up and you set off on foot to the coursing meeting in Lakelands, right where the MahonPoint Shopping Centre now stands. You fell in with the local coursing enthusiasts on your way down: Michael Hennerty and Simon Warren from the Ballinlough Road; Billy Hogan from Boreenmanna Road; Willie Cremen from Dunedin and a handful more along with their dogs, and the seed, breed and generation of each dog was discussed and analysed as you loped along the Skehard Road, past the Bull Field — a great field to gallop a dog — and on to the meeting place near Dunalocha.
Tadhg Delaney was chairman of the club and he‘d decide the location of the meet and the order of running.
It’s hard to imagine Lakelands as a wide, empty expanse of fields and marshland now and we had the choice of any number of large meadows bordering Lough Mahon estuary.
My father often acted as slipper for the meeting, which meant he released — or ‘slipped’ — the two dogs that were competing in a particular trial — or ‘course’ — and we usually stayed close to him for the morning.
He used a peculiar type of collar and lead to slip the competing dogs. It had a double collar so that two dogs could be held at the one time and a length of twine running up the lead to his wrist allowed him release both collars simultaneously and ‘slip’ the dogs. The particular pair of slips my father used was given to him as a 16-year-old in his native Carrigtwohill by the famous “Slipper” Lawton, a renowned greyhound man in East Cork, who was impressed by my father’s skill with the dogs as a youngster.
Incidentally, those slips, now well over 100 years old, were still used up to quite recently by our good friend, Seán Lucey, with the White’s Cross Open Coursing Club above Glanmire.
We’d occasionally have a dog good enough to venture up the Western Road and try our luck on the track there. I loved it ‘up the track’ and the buzz I got on slipping sideways through the turnstile alongside my father still lives with me.
I was fascinated by the bookies with their big bags and their small clerks hunched over ledgers where they scribbled furiously as race-time approached.
“Four minutes left to bet,” Noel Holland would call out over the tannoy and there’d be a surge of bodies from the lower steps of the stand as the punters dived in with their hard earned cash to lay it on the line.
And then the surge backwards as the traps crashed open and the six dogs flashed past in a blur of colour while the punters and bookies alike scrambled for a view of the action.
Many a bet was lost at the first bend as a likely contender was unceremoniously shunted into oblivion leaving the backer with the shocking realisation that the betting slip clutched in his sweaty hand was now simply waste paper!
We had a likely contender ourselves once: a black bitch, Brendan’s Choice. She won a handful of races while still a pup and I was convinced we had a Derby winner on our hands.
Fast out of traps, she was a very game and gutsy bitch with just one slight flaw in her makeup — she was inclined to run a bit wide at the last bend.
She was fast enough as a pup to be well clear at the last bend but as she prepared to play senior hurling with the big boys my father was a little concerned.
He entered her for a competition and, sure enough, she won her two heats comfortably and we were all excitement as we travelled up the Western Road for the final. Fair dues, she led the whole way round until the last bend where she ran wide allowing two other dogs to cut inside her and take the honours on the line.
I was inconsolable and still couldn’t talk as we collected her from the kennels after racing.
As we made for the exit my father bumped into an old hurling colleague from his Carrigtwohill and Imokilly days, the legendary Liam Dowling from Killeagh.
“Nice bitch you have there, Willie,” Liam said consolingly, “She was very unlucky.”
“Don’t talk to me,” said my father, “you saw how she ran wide at the end.”
“You can cure that you know,” said Liam, with the air of a man who knew what he was talking about. “Just a little bit of lead in the left ear.”
“Go way!”, said my father, himself all ears now as he knew he had a really fast dog but for the one fault. “But, how…..how would you get it in?” he asked, slightly puzzled.
“With a f***ing gun, Willie!” said Liam.
There wasn’t much said in the van on the way home!