The Irish love of the chase pits the fastest, most agile greyhounds against hares and each other for three hard days, but for their bettors it is an around-the-clock teat of wit and capacity
June 06, 1976

On Annie's Bar the man down from Belfast was close to tears. "Could anybody tell me," he asked passionately, "how it's possible to lose a gold Rolls-Royce in a bloody town as small as this? Where's me lovely Rolls gone?"

" 'Tisn't real gold at all," said Patsy Browne out of the corner of his mouth. " 'Tis one of them fancy finishes. His brother went off in it a coupla hours ago with that black-haired girl from the bank. Don't say a word."

Browne, a small wizened man in a cloth cap, 68 years old and very much the senior bookie at the National Coursing Meeting at Clonmel, Ireland, sat back to enjoy the crisis. But the lament of the Rolls owner was cut short by a loud cry from the corner. "Ye're all the best men!" yelled a wild-eyed sportsman, rising to his feet, then slowly keeling over like a shot stag. Willing hands caught him before he hit the floor and laid him out respectfully.

"Too much rum and black currant," Patsy clucked reprovingly. "The man is in bad order. But he's me first cousin, and we can't leave him here. Though nobody'd pick his pocket, not in Annie's." As we lugged Patsy's cousin out into the frosty night, a frightening sobriety overcame a man in the corner of the bar. "I'm goin' to tell you somethin'," he said to the company in general. "I'm terrified of the mornin'."

It was Wednesday night, the final night of the meeting. For three days, on the racetrack at Powerstown Park in Clonmel, we had watched the fastest greyhounds in Ireland course hares, a sport that is a combination of hunting and racing. Each night winners and losers had been honored in the pubs with a fervor that made you think The Irish Times had announced that the solar system was scheduled to become a supernova before the end of the week. And now a vision of passionless, boring, hungover normality had assailed the man in the corner. Acting fast, he ordered another whiskey.

But there was still some time before the cold dawn. Sharply polished stars glittered over the little Tipperary town as our cortege, bearing Patsy's cousin, weaved out into the night to where Patsy's youngest son sat patiently reading in a parked car, awaiting, as he had done all evening, such a contingency as this. On the air hung an aroma typical of small country towns in Ireland, a coming together of beer fumes, cow dung, smoldering turf and the smell of flowing water, in this case the swollen River Suir, now shouldering its way so violently under the town bridge that the old stone buttresses looked as if they would never last the night. The roar of the Suir itself couldn't match the pulsing uproar to which every pub in town was contributing: Annie's, the Clonmel Arms, the Greyhound Inn, the Minella and the close on 100 other establishments that capably cater to the inhabitants of Clonmel in normal times, but which are under deep stress at the National Coursing Meeting.

It is a riotous, bucolic festival of racing, hunting, boozing and betting that has been run at Clonmel since 1925, but which in essence goes back to man's earliest roots. In a cave at Gabillou, France, there is a Paleolithic drawing that was perhaps meant as a magical aid for hunters of the hare, and if any of the hard-betting men who assemble at Clonmel each year knew about it, it would be odds-on that they would charter a flight from Shannon for a quick rub of it before the meet.

In its modern form, coursing is a fierce, sophisticated game that is currently under attack in Ireland by opponents of blood sports (in Britain it is close to being outlawed altogether). Heavy money is involved—a single bet of ¬£20,000 on an individual course between two dogs is not unknown—and there is more than a degree of skulduggery. The scene can be very wild, even hysterical, but somewhere at the bottom of it is the national love of the chase, of the greyhound, even of the hare. It is not an aristocratic sport like horse racing, but a rural one, dating back in Ireland to the time when every small farmer had a hunting dog. Once the heavy work on the land eased in the late fall, he would be over the moorland, hunting the hare. The season still adheres to the farming pattern—from the start of October to St. Patrick's Day.

"It is a gallant sport," wrote George Turberville, an Englishman, in 1575, "to see how the hare will turn and winde to save hyrselfe out of the dogges mouth. So that sometimes even when you thinke that your greyhounde doth gape to take hyr, she saveth hyrselfe by turning, wrenching and winding until she reach some covert and to save hyr life...."

At the national meeting, before the "park," or formal coursing, starts, it is customary to have a day's traditional, "open" coursing in the countryside near the town. And in essentials open coursing has changed little since Turberville's day, except that old George's meets probably didn't include a pipe-opening session at the pub before the start.

"Ye'll want to be there half nine or 10," Patsy said when we had first struck up a conversation Saturday evening. "I won't be there meself because I'll be doing me mathematics and, uh, snooping about a bit." Right enough, the printed race card declared, "First brace in slips at 10 a.m. sharp."

At 11 a.m. the word in the Half-Way House bar, four miles out of town, was that they would be starting "any minute now, in about half an hour." The frosty morning was the trouble. On the hard ground a greyhound could break a toe. And naturally a man could die of thirst through overzealous rushing out into the chilled fields without proper refreshment. Did this long delay indicate a cancellation, a steward was asked. " 'Tis on till 'tis off," he replied mysteriously. But "'twas on," all right.

Suddenly, with no obvious word spoken, dozens of kids waving sticks had come charging from the hedges and were cramming themselves into two antique farm trucks, which proceeded to clatter off along a rutted lane, threatening to shed most of the whooping cargo any second. They were the beaters. "Yer last chance!" yelled a bookie from his stand, but the crowd spilling out of the Half-Way House took no notice. They were racing for their cars in a kind of crazy Celtic Le Mans start, except that at Le Mans the field is not normally held up by a family of tinkers in a donkey cart jamming the way. The Tipperary air turned blue with exhaust fumes and profanity, but one by one, slithering on the muddy verges, the cars got by, then roared up a steep and winding road.

The beaters had headed away to the other side of the hill. We could hear them hallooing as we left the cars and scrambled down a little overgrown lane onto a field that sloped down from woodland. In the old days the dogs themselves raised the hares, but on this occasion the quarry would be flushed by the beaters while the greyhounds were held in readiness, a pair at a time. Stationed around the perimeter of the field were men with white rags on poles to turn the hare back if it was going for a gap in the hedgerows and undergrowth, and, astride a white horse, sat the judge, a heavy man, magnificent in hunting pink and white breeches. For 10 minutes there was no sound but the yelping of the beaters and the whines of the greyhounds, then suddenly, high and hysterical, a boy's voice. "Gerraway! Gerronout! Gerrout there, ya li'l daisy!" and jinking and bobbing out of the wood and into the field came the first russet-brown Irish hare.

A hare, not a rabbit. The distinction is made clearly in Ireland, but not always elsewhere. Brer Rabbit, in fact, was a hare: the original Frost illustrations to Uncle Remus show that. Hares have longer, more muscular hind legs. They are able to run faster and farther than a rabbit. They are also a good deal craftier. "The weariness of my heart on the hares and the young women," the old Irish saying has it. Both being impossible to figure out, both hard to capture.

By the time that this hare came bounding into the open ground, the first pair of greyhounds was howling at the restraint of the leash, half-dragging the slipper, the man who has to time their release perfectly. Then, as the hare crossed in front of them, the dogs were away, making ground, differentiated by the white and red collars they wore, the traditional colors for coursing dogs. They gained rapidly. The hare, at a rough average, travels at around 25 mph, a greyhound close on 40 mph. The equalizing factor lies in the superior maneuverability of the hare. It can make a turn so tight that there are well-attested instances of hounds that have broken their necks attempting to match its acute change of direction.

This was a good hare. The first time it turned, it sent red collar into a wild head-over-heels tumble and white collar skidding in the wrong direction. The hounds recovered fast, though, and the men guarding the hedge turned the hare back into them. There was a flurry of turns, and somebody said, "She has them now, the li'l daisy!" Five turns, it's reckoned, and the hare is as good as away. So it proved this time. Suddenly the hare found an unguarded gap, and was gone. The greyhounds, unable to follow it, ran up and down the hedge, howling until they were leashed again.

That they had failed to kill was not important. Already the judge was cantering up and down the line of spectators with a red handkerchief held high to show that he had awarded the course to red collar. The contest is decided on points. Most go to the dog that is first up to the hare and turns it. Further points are awarded for the second turn, the third and so on, with fewer points being given on successive turns.

As the morning's sport continued not many hares were killed—one in 10 possibly. "If there'd been more bitches running," a man in a cloth cap said, "you'd have seen more kills. The aul' bitches are devils for killing hares. They run closer to the ground, they're more maneuver-able. A dog will make a straightforward grab, but a bitch will get her nose under the hare, throw it up and kill it on the way down."

The day's open coursing, it became swiftly evident, was served up merely as an hors d'oeuvre, a concession to the rural origins of the sport. The big money was not involved and the heavy backers from Northern Ireland not present. They would begin gathering next day, when the meet moved to Powerstown Park, the horse racing track at Clonmel itself, where the park coursing took place. And that was somewhat different.

"All over our island, in all our counties, Cork, Kerry, everywhere, every bloody place, everybody wants to qualify for Clonmel, and they'd kill dogs to win," Patsy Browne had said. " 'Tis just like Ireland. These people would give you their hearts, but they can be vain and difficult. There's this terrible will to have the best dog. Don't worry about that now, though. Come to me tomorrow, and I'll see that you'll win a lot of money, I'll promise you that."

Patsy was from a famous Kerry sporting family. "Do you know something?" one of the other bookies had said, "when they buried his aul' father they stuck a bunch of betting tickets in his left hand, a piece of chalk for writin' up the odds in the other and his aul' money bag by his side, and they poured plenty of whiskey over the coffin. Nearly everybody in Listowel was drunk. That would have been 1950. We couldn't afford it now with the price of drink so high. Yes, and ask him how his daughter got her name."

Patsy was a little indignant about the funeral story. It was much exaggerated, he said. "We only poured a half-bottle over him. We drank the bloody rest. It's synonymous with the Brownes to have a drink at the graveside. We just had a coupla dozen bottles of Power's Irish and a coupla dozen Scotch and what do you call them things? Lemon sodas." The tale of his daughter's christening, though, had followed him for better than 20 years, since a bitch called Amina won the coursing Oaks at Clonmel.

"Well, this Amina won the bloody Oaks, see? So I thought straightaway Amina Browne was a good-sounding name. After the meeting I met this priest, a doctor of divinity he was, a big nice priest, and I was drinking with him down at Quinn's. 'Browne,' he said, 'what are you going to call your daughter?' 'Wouldn't Amina be a great name?' I said. 'Probably, Patsy,' he said, looking a bit funny. 'Let's have a drink, now.'

"Anyhow, some time after that I asked the man that owned the greyhound what the meaning of the name was and, Lord save us, he said it was some class of a Hebrew name. And when it was time for my daughter to go away to school to the convent in Killmallock, the Reverend Mother wouldn't let her be called Amina. She said it wasn't a proper name. And she being a coursing man's daughter herself, name of Gregory!"

Amina was away working in England now as a nurse, but through the meeting Patsy was flanked by his four sons, even Tom who had graduated as an engineer from the National University in Dublin last fall. "I've brought them all up as professional gamblers," Patsy said proudly. "I gave them five bob a night to work for me. Keepin' records. Clockin' dogs. Tom was a class poker player in college, but I had to pay a debt of £140 for him once. After that, though, he laid £850 on a dog in Dublin at 5 to 1, so he was able to pay me back." As he often did, Patsy burst into one of his own poems:

A student is a chancy man,
He bets in tenners when he can.
He enters a party with a bottle of stout
And consults what drink is lying about.
He's not a tapper, he's not a bum,
But he knows the way these things are done.

"Call me a writer of rhymes," Patsy said grandiloquently, "a drinker of whiskey and a lover of life!"

It wasn't a lover of life you needed to be at Clonmel, but a survivor. Even on the Sunday night before the hard men from the North like Tom MacClear, Colin McGrath and Mack Mullen had arrived, the evening pace was grueling enough. At the Clonmel Arms the manager had just taken delivery of two dozen new armchairs. "A bit of an optimist," said the hall porter, who seemed somewhat indifferent, perhaps even hostile, to the prospect of the next three days. "This lot would eat anything that you put in front of them," he said. "We change the menu for the horse race meeting because the horsemen is more particular. I got an order once from Room 152 for breakfast during one national a coupla years back. Cornflakes and bacon and eggs. When I went inside, the man was on the floor and the dog was in the bed, and be damned if he didn't feed the whole of the breakfast to it. That's the kind of people these are."

These were also the kind of people who couldn't wait until morning to get the gambling under way. There was a poker game in every pub, and for the less intellectually inclined, a simpler game called pitch-and-toss that is based on flipping a coin. "It could have been worse," said a philosopher from the North, getting to his feet after losing £600 on a single flip. "I could have lost me leg." Money flowed from the Northern Irish like water down the flooded Suir. "Could you blame them?" a doctor down from Belfast said. "Nobody goes to the track anymore up there. Or the movies even. It's too much of a risk to be driving back home after dark. The poor fellas come down here," he said, against an uproar of shouted odds and snatches of song, "for a bit of peace and quiet."

On Monday morning there was no sign of Patsy at the track, though his Nos. 1 and 2 sons were running the betting stand, and without him to explain it, the betting system looked formidably complex. Up against the grandstand were lined the orthodox bookies, specializing in long odds and combination bets. One hundred and thirty-six greyhounds were entered for the two major events, the Oaks for bitches and the Derby for dogs, and they were going to be fighting it out over three days through the eliminators, with a brace of hounds coursing a hare in each heat. Close to the rails, standing on packing cases in a sea of mud, facing one another in two long files were the short-odds bookies and the serious punters. They were there to bet on single courses, and they sounded as if they wanted to start a revolution.

For a stranger it was impossible to make much of the angry, screaming cacophony which rose to an earsplitting pitch as the dogs were about to be slipped, except to perceive the shortness of the odds, never better than 1 to 3, sometimes as savage as 1 to 10. Nothing was written down. The payoffs were in cash after every course. And it was easy for a stranger's presence to be misinterpreted. A bald aggressive-looking man yelled across to a youth in a fur hat, "Don't let the taxman see yer tank, MacManus!"

MacManus nervously stuffed away his tank, the thick wad of high-denomination notes that the character of the betting made necessary. He looked too young to be the celebrated James Patrick MacManus, but that's who he was, a 24-year-old who started with hardly a cent when he was 17, betting on football matches. Reputedly he is now very wealthy. Certainly he owns much rich farmland in his native county of Limerick. At present, he said, he was buying money. "That's the only way to look at the short odds," he said. "You lay out £1,000 to win £100. I'm no judge of dogs, but I'm a good judge of odds. And there's times, like, when I get a good touch." A roar of laughter, even from the bookies: a successful professional bettor is rare enough, and they could indulge themselves. "I'll tell ya somethin', though," the bald-headed man said. "He's picked up £2,500 already this morning." And then there was no more time for talk, for two fresh dogs were on the slipper's leash, and the yelling out of the odds had begun once again.

The park coursing was as ritualistic as a bullfight. For a month, in a paddock away from the track, 130 hares had been "in training," as Commandant Joe Fitzpatrick, secretary of the Irish Coursing Club, put it delicately. They had been captured with nets in the countryside—a good hare is worth about ¬£7 to a farm worker—and every day since, they'd been driven out to the start of the coursing track and worked along the route they would travel in earnest during the meet. At one time hares would be used over and over again for as long as they survived, being shipped from one coursing meet to the next. Now the Irish Coursing Club pays the track companies a subsidy to release them in the wild after each meeting.

"On average we have around 25% casualties," Fitzpatrick said. "They have to do 500 yards against the best dogs in Ireland. I suppose we could slip dogs so late that no hares would be killed, but the crowds wouldn't come, not because they want the kills, but because there's no way to see greyhounds work otherwise. All the same, if there are too many casualties, I get a black mark from the coursing public."

The other man with a good chance of getting a black mark was the slipper, who has only a few seconds to judge the quality of the released hare as it speeds past him before he lets the hounds go. For 319 yards the track is smooth grass, but after that there are well-defined ridges; if the hare makes it to these undulations it has a good chance of getting away. The slipper times his release of the hounds so that they should be able to turn the hare fractionally short of the ridges. Not an easy task, and a poor slipper often resorts to a mark on the ground and releases the hounds as the hare passes it. But at Clonmel, resplendent in white breeches, Tom Murphy, a policeman from County Kerry, was held to be doing a great job without any such aids. He and Val O'Dwyer, the red-coated judge on the white horse, were the only men in the public eye, but there were other operators, too: the men in the shed where the boxed hares were kept, who made a lightning check on the condition of the quarry before it was released down a long wire-net tunnel, hooshed on by a boy yelling maniacally and, at the far end of the track, a long-haired youth who had the power to grant instant release into the countryside of a hare that proved so weak that the slipper did not release the dogs or was so bold and sporting in escaping the hounds that it got instant honorable discharge. "Ya know," the youth said confidentially, "I let an awful lot of them little fellas go. If I had me own way, I'd let the lot go. It's not me real work. I was in the meat-canning factory, but I was made redundant."

Meantime, as dogs were knocked out in the prelims and the odds on the survivors were shortening still further, there was still no sign of Patsy. "Sure he leaves the ordinary work to his boys these days," said his friend Terry Rogers. "But you're bound to meet him in one of the bars tonight."

That was all very well, but there were factors operating against a thorough comb-out of the Clonmel pubs, such as the continuing drama of the hunt for Reynolds' shoes being played out at the Clonmel Arms. "He only wears them when he leaves the hotel," said a hall porter. "He had to miss the coursing today. He refuses to buy new ones because he lost £3,000 playing pitch-and-toss last night. He's been coming here 15 years, and he says he's a schoolteacher. I don't believe it." Or listening to Des Hanrahan, president of the Irish Greyhound Association, describe how he once met a blue rabbit in a field near Killarney, a story that was repeated each night with more and more corroborative detail. Or watching in awe as a gentleman from Belfast managed the extraordinary feat of falling to the ground while avoiding spilling a drop of the glass of lager he was holding at the time.

Indeed, it was not possible to track Patsy down until late on Tuesday. "Why didn't you come to see me?" he asked aggrievedly. There was no serious answer to be made. "Never mind, though," he went on graciously. "I'm goin' to do you a favor because you remind me of aul' Connolly that managed the bank down at Listowel. He was the best man, the greatest man of all time. He owned all the Cloonagh dogs, and if you didn't raise dogs yourself, he wouldn't lend you any bloody money. He was goin' to be married to one of the Blennerhasset girls from Tralee, but one day he came back on the train and he said, 'The match is off.' She'd told him to cut out the dogs, see? He had a graveyard for dogs, everything for dogs. The bank inspectors came down one day, so he got his shotgun out and started firing at them. They never came back. All the great speed dogs he had. He had this fistfight one day with the high sheriff of Kerry...."

It was a hard task to ease Patsy back to the point, but he got there in the end. "How far will you go?" he said. "Ten quid? All right. Have it with me on Pusher Heather for the Oaks, and I'll give the odds you could have had at the start of the meet—8 to 1." He wouldn't take the stake money. "Settle up later," he said.

It sounded a generous offer. Up to that point in the Oaks, Pusher Heather had won by five or six lengths in each of the three rounds, coming up behind the hare and turning it seconds before its rivals, and the best odds available now were 3 to 1.

On the Wednesday morning, the last morning, the odds were even shorter. In the quarterfinals Pusher Heather took her course easily again, heading Ringroe Handy by four lengths. "Hey, Patsy, you're the best man!" was the only way to greet him that day.

"Aren't ye the lucky fella," he said, "that you had no money on Ustymor?" One of the dog's owners had discovered his heavily backed greyhound out cold in its kennel early that morning, and the breakfast tables throughout Clonmel had been buzzing with theories of a bookies' plot.

"Is that right, somebody got at him, Patsy?"

"Not at all," said Patsy indignantly. "The poor animal must have just got, uh, overvitaminized."

As Pusher Heather lined up with Drumna Fern in the semis of the Oaks, Patsy still looked the best man. The hare came bobbing down the track, there was a perfect slip and the two greyhounds went away very close. Patsy must have known something about Pusher Heather. Brain damage possibly. Halfway up the straight she decided to change sides, and cut behind Drumna Fern. Even then Pusher Heather nearly caught her. There was only half a length between them on the first and only turn, and then the hare went scudding away through a gap.

After that there wasn't the same incentive to watch Cygnet win the Oaks in the final and Quarrymount Riki come up from a length behind to take the Derby.

Patsy accepted the £10 without comment. "Ye're the best man," he said formally. "I'll see ye later in Annie's. Bring your drinkin' money."

And so it was that on the last night of Clonmel we were on the spot to give assistance to Patsy's unfortunate cousin, after which, it seemed, the night might fittingly be said to be over. Not at all.

When we'd stowed away the rum and black currant addict, Patsy said, "Do you like to dance? No? Well, would you ever help me off with me overtrousers?" He had been wearing them since breakfast, and now they were shucked off to reveal rubber knee boots. "There now," he said, "that'll be a lot more comfortable for the discothèque."

Straight anarchic sights are commonplace at Clonmel during the National Coursing Meeting. Few of them compare, though, with that of a 68-year-old bookmaker in rubber boots twisting the night away to the music of the Glitter Band. But then, unmistakably, Patsy was the best man.

TWO PHOTOSLANE STEWART EIGHT PHOTOSLANE STEWARTBy means of his red and white handkerchiefs, the gent at upper left judges the coursing, while the gent in the middle, Patsy Browne, makes book on it. At lower left, Cygnet, winner of the Oaks, the event for bitches, enjoys a hug, while Quarrymount Riki (middle, far right), victor in the Derby, strains at his lead, seemingly anxious to put on the slipper's collar again.