An Irishman's Diary

Wed, Oct 14, 2009, 01:00

OWNING a 6 per cent share in a greyhound, as I do, is not nearly as glamorous as you might think. Most of the time, anyway. But I admit it would have been hard to persuade anyone of this last Saturday night in Mullingar, when the syndicate’s new dog (actually a bitch) made the latest appearance of an already glittering career.

Although still only a pup, she was aiming to complete a hat-trick of victories, after thrilling performances in her first two races at Harold’s Cross. And apparently her fame had gone before her. To say that her arrival in the provinces caused a stir would be an understatement.

Her entourage was met in Mullingar by a marching band, complete with majorettes. A civic reception awaited in the town. Excited locals requested autographs, or asked the connections to pose for photographs. At least one pub had a banner marking the event. A TV crew was on hand to film the whole thing.

It was probably the biggest event there since the unveiling of the Joe Dolan statue, whose bronze features smiled beatifically on the scene. You half expected Joe to burst into song in the bitch’s honour: “Oh me oh my/You make me cry/You’re such a good-looking wo-man.” But truth to tell, the reception had very little to do with the dog. Even sadder to record, it had nothing at all to do with me. It came instead courtesy of another of the shareholders, whose identity the rest of us had almost forgotten because, although nominally the syndicate’s Youth Development Officer, he’s been far too busy to attend meetings in recent years.

When the venture was founded back in the last century, Dara Ó Briain was not widely known outside Bray. Since then he seems to have made a name for himself in show-business, especially in the UK. A star of stand-up comedy and – even more lucratively, I imagine – of sit-down comedy, via several television panel shows, he may well have ousted Terry Wogan as Britain’s favourite Irishman.

Aside from panel shows, his TV vehicles include the popular BBC series, Three Men in a Boat, in which he, alongside Griff Rhys Jones and Rory McGrath, pay homage to Jerome K Jerome’s comic travelogue set on the Thames. And such is the series’ appeal that yet another follow-up is now being filmed, this time in Ireland, with the same trio navigating inland waterways from Dublin to Limerick.

Which is where Mullingar and the greyhound came in. In addition to the eponymous three men, as Jerome fans will know, the original book also featured a dog: a fox terrier. But for the latest series, the producers decided to expand on this theme, literally. And how better to do so that with a subplot involving Ó Briain’s own greyhound? Of course, 6 per cent of a dog would not make for good television, so the agreement of the other 16 shareholders was crucial. This presented a dilemma. While not wishing to hold back the greyhound’s budding TV career, how could we justify exposing a finely-honed athlete to the sort of risks involved in careering down the Grand Canal on a high-speed barge? Eventually, the syndicate’s health and safety committee agreed a compromise. The dog would be made available, but – as with any major star – her involvement in the series would be limited to close-ups, the race itself, the usual promotional appearances (including future supermarket openings), etc.

For anything dangerous, we suggested, they use a stunt double. We also insisted that any nude scenes would have to tasteful and strictly relevant to the plot. Otherwise the dog should wear her race jacket at all times: we didn’t want her getting a cold.

Thus, the excitement caused by the entourage’s arrival in Mullingar on Saturday had more to do with the glamour of television than of greyhound racing. In fact, the aforementioned banner read: “Mullingar welcomes the Three Men”. There was nothing about the dog.

Such quibbles aside, it was a splendid occasion. The TV stars were impressively affable in person (although I tensed up when saying “Pleased to meet you, Griff”, because on its own the name sounds somehow rude). And apart from refusing to come out of her dressing room until she was good and ready, the new acting career had no visible effect on the greyhound.

That said, she did miss her “break”, as doggie people say. I knew fate was being tempted when, in a pre-race press release, it was said that Ó Briain’s greyhound would be taking on “stiff local competition”. You should never insult the opposition like that in advance. And sure enough, when the traps opened, our dog appeared to be at least as stiff as the rest of them.

In fact, she beat only one other runner to the first bend. But it was early days yet. There was still 24 seconds of the race to go: an eternity in this sport. Anything could still happen.

I’d like to tell you what did happen. Unfortunately, after my recent run with DVD fans of The Wire, I’m not giving away any more plot-lines. In any case, I’m bound by the dog’s contract not to reveal the ending. So you’ll just have to watch BBC2 on New Year’s Day to see how it turned out. And for those of you too busy to watch anything on television, as the rest of us do, no doubt there’ll be box-set of the race available in due course.

  • fmcnally@irishtimes.com