Wednesday 21 August 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: Us 'rednecks' are not just a pack of 'bloodthirsty savages' - greyhound racing has been good for this country

'The National Coursing Meeting in Clonmel, condemned as a barbaric anachronism by those eager to abolish greyhound racing, continues to draw big crowds every year.' Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
'The National Coursing Meeting in Clonmel, condemned as a barbaric anachronism by those eager to abolish greyhound racing, continues to draw big crowds every year.' Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

I'd like to tell you about my Uncle Ned. He was born on a small farm outside Spiddal, left school early and worked hard as a plasterer for decades. He went to work in England as a young man when his Irish was a lot better than his English, he worked in Connemara and when things dried up there spent a couple of decades working in Boston before coming home for good.

I had many a conversation with Ned, almost all about sport, and never heard him say a cross word about anyone. I loved him.

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Ned was a bachelor and the great passion of his life was greyhound racing. He owned and trained a variety of dogs, keeping faith with them through thin and thin at the track in Galway. He took so much care over the feeding and health of those dogs they were like his children.

I wish I cared as much about anything as he cared about the greyhounds who he housed in the ruins of a little house where the father of the famous Hollywood director John Ford, a relation of ours, once lived before, deciding to take his chances in America.

Ned would have been horrified by the abuses documented in a recent RTÉ programme on Irish greyhound racing. He'd have been equally horrified by the campaign since that programme to force the sport into extinction.

I've been going to dog races since I was a kid. When my kids visit their granny in Galway they go to the races along with me. It's one of the highlights of their year.

We're not alone as a family in our attachment to the sport because greyhound racing and coursing have always been an important part of the national sporting tapestry. From Master McGrath, commemorated by song and statue, to Mick The Miller, who appeared on film and drew 70,000 spectators to White City during the Great Depression, to the remarkable string of champions trained by the incomparable Ger McKenna, Irish sporting history has been hugely enriched by our canine prodigies.

This is no mean sport yet in the aftermath of the RTÉ exposé there were suggestions that greyhound racing is nearing the end of the line. That seems an over-reaction to me. Crowds are down here, and have fallen catastrophically in England, yet there are many sports which attract far fewer followers in this country without their imminent extinction being predicted.

The National Coursing Meeting in Clonmel, condemned as a barbaric anachronism by those eager to abolish greyhound racing, continues to draw big crowds every year. Many rural Irish people know someone involved in the sport. There are affinities with the GAA. Anthony Daly has won the Coursing Derby with Murty's Gang, while the great Waterford hurler of the forties and fifties, Johnny O'Connor, went on to train legendary English Derby winner Patricia's Hope in 1974.

Those calls for greyhound racing to be banned, or forced into extinction by organised boycotts of sponsors who'll then withdraw their money from the sport, rankle with me. I'm a Liberal, wimpy though that may sound, and one thing I've always believed is that no group should be judged by the behaviour of its worst members.

That's what right-wingers do when they talk about Travellers or Muslims or Immigrants and it's also what greyhound racing's most vociferous opponents like to do. The abuses described in the RTÉ documentary, the most spectacular of which date back a few years, were perpetrated by a minority element within the sport.

Yet the antis insist that all greyhound racing people should be tarred with the same brush. It's the, 'They're all the same really', argument and, like any good Fox News contributor, the sport's opponents believe a collective punishment for the misdeeds of the few should be visited upon the many. That's neither fair nor balanced.

The current outcry is being led by people who have been campaigning for the abolition of coursing and greyhound racing for a long time. There's a certain opportunism in their use of the RTÉ programme, and the current feverish social media climate where everything that's just happened is the worst thing that's ever happened, to further their agenda. You can't blame them for this. They believe that the moment is ripe and that the outcry will enable them to bring an end to over a hundred years of sporting tradition. But let's be honest, they didn't see the documentary and suddenly decide that, 'Eureka, greyhound racing must go'. This battle is a lot older than that.

The documentary actually did greyhound racing an immense service by pinpointing the unacceptable practices among a minority of people within the sport. The Irish Greyhound Board need to impose harsh penalties on those who behave in this way, they need to clamp down further on doping and they need to invest far more in the care of retired greyhounds.

No genuine friend of the sport can deny the need for urgent action.

But, as far as the sport's opponents are concerned, no amount of reforms can make greyhound racing acceptable. Their only solution is the end of the sport and of coursing along with it. In which case the more militant objectors would move on to target horse-racing, which could also be made to look pretty bad by an appropriately angled documentary. As indeed would many forms of farming.

I got an email last week from a greyhound racing fan who said, "I attended Mullingar dogs last night and the mood was pessimistic among the patrons there. It appears the game is friendless at the moment. It mightn't be the sexiest sport but it is one worth saving."

Picturing the Mullingar patrons, I imagined lads like my Uncle Ned and the many friends he made in the game. Working-class middle-aged rural men, the kind who were the backbone of the country for many years, and who are rarely represented in a media that's obsessed with a shinier, brasher ideal of Irishness.

They're the kind of guys Eamon Ryan scorns when he suggests rural people should be corralled into urban clusters rather than being allowed live where they want or wonders why they need rural broadband when the Government has already condescended to provide them with roads.

They've pretty much given up on being respected by ministers and media. They just want to be left in peace and increasingly find that even this seems too much to ask for.

It's impossible to ignore the degree to which the calls for a ban on greyhound racing are, at some level, founded on a kind of cultural distaste. This manifests itself in media suggestions that the sport doesn't belong, 'in this day and age' and on social media in jibes about 'muck savages' and 'rednecks.' I'll have to disagree with the idea that greyhound racing people are essentially a pack of bloodthirsty savages.

You see, that's my family you're talking about. You're also talking about the hordes of decent people who've kept the sport going for many years. To be in Clonmel and watch teenage girls proudly and lovingly walking their family's greyhounds is to get an entirely different picture of a sport to that portrayed by its enemies.

Greyhound racing has been good for this country and not just in terms of the rural economy and in the enjoyment it has provided for spectators. Think of the number of sports clubs and community organisations who've raised much-needed funds with 'race nights' at the local tracks. It would be nice if some of those clubs and organisations let the greyhound people know they're not entirely without friends at the moment.

The sport has also done more to counter rural isolation over the years than any amount of well-meaning government initiatives ever could. At a time when hammer blows rain down with monotonous regularity on the forgotten heartland of the country, the demise of greyhound racing would be one more insult.

I think the sport will survive. And I hope one day my own kids are bringing their kids to one of the stadiums and explaining why they're there.

"You see, it began with your father's Uncle Ned."

"Did the dogs he bet on lose as well?" "Sometimes. But sometimes he won."

But what do I know? I'm only a redneck. Stuff that up your nostrils, says Master McGrath.

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