Dogs of War (continued) - Frank McNally on the other four-legged “Convict 224″

A pedigree chum

It is well known by now that, at a Dublin dog show in 1920, Michael Collins exhibited a Kerry Blue Terrier named “Convict 224″. But as I mentioned here some weeks back (Diary, June 4th), a pedigree animal of that name also shows up in newspaper archives for 1917.

And it can hardly have been the same one, unless it was unusually fast for a terrier, because it seems to have won the Tipperary Cup at Clonmel then, an event normally confined to greyhounds.

Now, thanks to reader Kevin Hannafin, we can update the intelligence files of these four-legged republican militants. For there were indeed two dogs involved. And the first of them was owned by Kevin’s grandfather, Jim Clarke, a remarkable man whose life story he has just published.

Clarke was born in Meath, at Dowth, in 1874. But not least among his achievements was that he later transitioned successfully into a Kerryman, spending the last 50 years of his life there. Hence the memoir’s title: “Jim Clarke of County Meath & Ballybunion”.

The move to Kerry was an accident of his early career as professional boxer. Around the turn of the century, Clarke won the Irish middleweight title by beating Myler Keogh of Donnybrook.

Keogh’s name is well-known to James Joyce scholars, thanks to a cameo in Ulysses, wherein his promoter Blazes Boylan is said to have had him sequestered “down in the county Carlow” for a month before a fight, keeping him off the drink and “sucking duck eggs by God till further orders.”

Well, when Clarke went down the country to prepare himself for a Keogh rematch, it was to Ballybunion. And during subsequent careers as a boxing promoter, greyhound owner, and bookmaker, he never came back.

But it was also in Kerry he met Austin Stack, imprisoned after the Easter Rising in cell Q224 of an English jail, hence that number’s later prominence in the nomenclature of Munster republican dogs. It was in Kerry too that Clarke himself became actively involved in the independence struggle.

Dog names aside – his racing hounds also included a “Bearna Bhaoil” – he sometimes combined sport and war in more practical ways. Sourcing weapons for Collins once, he brought a greyhound to England in a crate with a false bottom, so that on the return journey the dog was standing (or lying) guard on a consignment of weapons.

An extraordinary aspect of the memoir, meanwhile, was his friendship with Ivor Churchill West, aka Lord Wimborne, who served as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland between 1915 and 1918.

Wimborne had been advised in London that one of the best ways to get to know this country was through the greyhound coursing fraternity, and Clarke and others happily indulged his company, while affording him the protection of honour among doggy men.

They in turn tapped him for political influence – even to the extent once of asking his help to get Stack out of jail, which the Englishman agreed to do provided the prisoner would emigrate to Australia on release. Stack trumped the plan shortly afterwards by escaping over the wall on a rope ladder.

It was Wimborne who presented part of the prize for the four-legged Convict 224 (or Convict Q224, as it appears in some listings) when the greyhound won the Tipperary Cup.

That was a shock result, at least to the bookies – Clarke himself perhaps excepted. In pre-competition betting, he was bottom of the list of 64 contenders, at a no-hoper price of 200-1.

But he made it to the last four on merit, before a stroke of luck landed him the title. On the morning of the scheduled finals, a blizzard dumped six feet of snow on the Tipperary course. Stewards called the event off and it was decided that Clarke’s dog best merited the £125 prize, cup, and Lord Wimborne’s silver Tara brooch.

Clarke appears to have been acquainted with all the leading nationalists of his generation. Along with Michael Cusack, he one co-founded a Gaelic football team “confined to grocers’ assistants”.

He was a friend of James Mullet, convicted for his part in the Phoenix Park murders, and recalled how Mullet and fellow conspirator “Skin-the-Goat” Fitzharris, on release from jail, were badly frightened at Inchicore railway station by the sight of an electric tram hurtling down the street; an innovation introduced while they were incarcerated.

He knew Charlie Burgess (later Cathal Brugha) at a time when Burgess was “champion rope climber of the British Isles”. And among the lesser-celebrated republicans of Irish history, he includes a fascinating detail about a fellow bookmaker from Co Down, one Charlie Scott. Scott, apparently, “was the first man to introduce bananas to Dublin, having first started [in business there] selling them from a handcart in the streets”.