Friday, June 10, 2005

Mowing through Mongrel Memories

There are memories in that there grass in my back garden. Especially when it needs to be mowed.

It wasn't even in my dreams that it would be my back garden when, forty-five years ago, I used to keep that piece of grass in impeccable order, mowing it religiously every Wednesday and Saturday afternoon.

At the time it was part of a field. A very important part, because it 'grew' money, on Thursday nights and Sunday afternoons.

Not literally, of course. But at those two times of the week, quite amazing sums of money changed hands in 'Mongrel Park', home of terrier racing in Ireland.

It all began towards the end of the fifties, when the local amateur boxing club needed a premises of its own. For many years the club had trained in an upstairs store at the back of my Dad's pub. It was OK enough, but not really satisfactory because the ring had to be erected each training night, and there were no real facilities. Especially when it came to hosting visiting clubs for tournaments.

Dad was President of the club, and a national amateur boxing referee, as well as chief chauffeur when youngsters needed to be ferried around the country to tournaments. And, despite the minimal facilities, the club performed very well, even producing an Olympics contender, Colm McCoy.

As a by the by, the club trainer was a local Army Captain, Cyril Russell, whom I remember most for him trying to help me get a grasp of Mathematics when I was struggling at school, in the Public Bar of the pub.

Early in the fifties, the club had come to national prominence because of a fundraising venture, held on two successive years, that involved the re-enactment in pageant form of the historical pugilistic encounter between Irish bare-knuckle champion Dan Donnelly and his English counterpart George Cooper. The original and re-enacted events were held at Donnelly's Hollow on The Curragh. This is a story in its own right, and I'll come back to it another time, because Dad was, naturally, one of the key organisers. Suffice to say that it raised decent funds to outfit and provide other help to the Kilcullen Amateur Boxing Club of the time.

But now, with the sixties approaching and the club needing to get a place of its own if it was to properly be able to both train and host young boxers, some very significant funding had to be raised.

Even in the few years since the Donnelly and Cooper pageants had taken place, Ireland had become much more sophisticated, and raising that one from the dead wasn't likely to gain the support that the original events had done.

As it happened, Dad owned a field. And, such did he love the amateur boxing movement and in particular its Kilcullen incarnation, he volunteered to donate the acre-and-a-quarter as a site for a Boxing Hall.

That only left the problem of raising funds to build it.

Problem? No problem.

Probably at some very late time in the night, in the smokey back room of the pub, the idea broke the traps.

Dog racing. No, not greyhound racing — terrier racing. Ordinary Joe mutts. Dogs of the people. To use a modern expression, you could say it was ABG: anything but greyhounds.

A small idea that was to get legs. Literally.

In the initial barking enthusiasm, essentials were devised. The field which was to become the site was, handily, some one hundred and twenty yards long. A perfect doggy sprint distance, with no curves needed.

A set of traps, able to hold and release six dogs, was built by a local carpenter. A 'hare on the wire' was devised, essentially a bit of furry stuff on a wheel that could be pulled ahead of the released mutts by a hand-operated crank. And a fence was built to keep the punters off the track proper.

Track? It was a fairly rough field, one which had been fallow for years since my grandmother had given up rearing pigs and letting them root around in the grass. It needed a bit of work.

So it was cut, and rollered, and cut again. And after some little time it was fairly rut-free and safe enough for little mongrel legs to run fast up along it without tripping. Much, anyway.

And, as an early teenager with sprouting strength, it was given to this writer to do the mowing of the track on a regular basis, albeit with a motor-mower, but not one that was self-propelled. It happened that, from a fairly reluctant start, I came to be proud of how well I did my particular job.

But back to the races. Initially on a Sunday afternoon, with just a few local pooches, not always even belonging to the people who brought them to race, it turned into a national wonder.

There's no advance knowing, in any enterprise, whether it will really work. Or even if it does initially, whether it will have staying power.

'Mongrel Park' — for such it was quickly named — literally ran away with itself.

From a couple of score people on a Sunday afternoon, pretty well all local, to several hundred to a meet, only took one summer season.

Before the actual advent of the decade of flower power, the enterprise had already added an 'evening meet' on Thursdays.

And — because at the time there was no such thing as Sunday horse racing — nationally-known on-course bookmakers had found themselves a handy source of extra punting, in a tiny village called Kilcullen.

Not for the first time, Dad used his inate PR skills to get some national publicity for the operation. For the reporters it had almost every element that made for the best stories: money and, in a sidewise way, religion, because it provided for gambling on a Sunday and that wasn't — in public at least — popular with the clergy.

The third traditional surefire story element is sex, but that wasn't relevant beyond the doggy kind, where after a couple of years even mongrels were being bred locally for their bloodline stamina on the track.

And, of course, eventually there was corruption. Anecdotally at least, dogs were doped, switched — one story reports a sudden shower of rain turning a black unknown into a recognised white champion — and even stolen.

And there were some true champions. Local man Noel Coleman's 'Spotted Wonder' became the pooch equivalent of Arkle over two seasons.

There was even an official form book developed by local saddler Tommy Wallace, who over a four-year period built his list from around forty dogs to nearly five hundred.

Over the same period, the number of stray dogs in the region declined dramatically, as any found local 'madra' with four sound legs was likely to be appropriated for rigorous and very secret evaluation, with a view to making a quick coup on the track.

It became such a 'real' thing that there was even an annual dance for 'owners and trainers of quadrupeds, supporters and bookies' in the Imaal Hall, Dunlavin.

Success, of course, breeds success, and the concept was copied all over the country, and at one stage in the early sixties it was estimated that there were in excess of a dozen such mongrel tracks operating. None of which achieved the same level of publicity or respect as the original. But, because they increased the interest in the sport more widely, it meant that new competition was being produced, and unknown dogs being brought to new tracks made for even more interesting racing.

The press clippings that I have today are from as far away as some of America's most read columnists of the day, fascinated by the idea.

I even recall the banner that was put across Kilcullen during the visit of Princess Grace of Monaco to Ireland — 'Mongrel Park Welcomes the Raniers'.

The Prince and Princess weren't actually visiting the dog races, of course, but they were scheduled to pass under the banner that day on their way from one wealthy stud farm to another. I still wonder what they wondered, if they actually ever saw the banner.

It was still at a height of success when Mongrel Park suddenly closed down. The reason was a typically Irish one, involving personality clashes within the Boxing Hall Committee. At that stage, the hall walls themselves had already been raised almost to eaves level. But suddenly there was a 'split', and the Boxing Club moved itself out of the operation and the hall site.

The reasons are thankfully dim back in the mists of time and we don't need to resurrect them. But there were a couple of long-term results. The Boxing Club eventually built itself a hall at the bottom of the town, in a site that today is potentially worth many millions as the modern Kilcullen develops.

For my part, if the original idea had gone ahead, my house today wouldn't be where I have lived for some thirty-seven years, in a line of five whose connected back gardens were actually the run of the track that started a national craze.

The concrete block walls of the original hall project were eventually torn down to make way for our little avenue.

And, as far as I know, mongrel racing around Ireland didn't survive very long after the demise of the original track. But it had been a lot of fun while it lasted.

There was an unexpected personal epilogue. About a dozen years ago I was having lunch with the head of a national institution with which I had a long-standing professional connection. The conversation came around to where I was from.

My host beamed. "Kilcullen. Ah, I know it well."

"How so?"

"There used to be dog racing there."

"There was. My Dad was the man who got it going."

My host shook his head in wonder at how small a world Ireland was once again proving to be. "My mother had a dog, a terrier. When I was a young student, I used to take it out on Sundays, and I'd bring it down to Kilcullen to race it."

But, of course, his mother didn't know. He said she wouldn't, most definitely wouldn't, have been happy with the notion.

"And she never did know," he smiled ruefully, "until one Sunday the damn dog won the big race of the day. And there was a photographer there from the Irish Independent, and the next morning there was a photograph ..."

Which story, as I look at the grass in the back garden that just now sorely needs mowing, makes the upcoming job still able to generate a smile.

Sometimes, even, as I push the machine along, I can still hear a chorus of yapping as the traps are opened and the very singular metallic whirr of the 'hare on the wire' races up the field ...

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