High drama as Kevin takes the stage in Clonmel

It was ten years ago this year, the unforgettable drama of Big Fella Thanks and his hugely popular Derby win for the O’Driscoll clan of Skibbereen; in the big stand that day, on one of my regular tours around Powerstown, I bumped into Kevin O’Shea.

Kevin O’Shea, at a coursing meeting? In fact at the coursing meeting to end all coursing meetings every season, the national finals in Clonmel? ]

To all who know him, Kevin is a man apart; renowned nationwide on the amateur drama circuit, he is an actor of modest enough ability, but he is a director and producer of the highest calibre, has brought his Schoolyard Theatre troupe on 11 different occasions to the All-Ireland finals in Athlone.

Though it’s not his full-time job (he is the manager of the Credit Union in Charleville), and though he also has other distractions (a former minor with Cork, hurling is also a passion), he is immersed in drama, a genuine bohemian.

And so, bearded, be-sandaled, bright and sparkling, scarf flung casually around the neck and back over one shoulder, what was he doing among the raw, ruddy-faced, field-booted citizens who go to make up the majority of coursing supporters in Clonmel? Transpires that Kevin was actually in a comfort zone, back among his own; a decade on, transpires also that Kevin, having made his maiden trip all those years ago, is now going to Clonmel with full honours – he is part-owner of Shandrum Bar, one of those who might, just might, surprise a few people in this season’s Derby.

Rather than bore ye with my poor efforts at story-telling, however, we’ll let this most erudite and most uplifting of men tell his own coursing love-story, in his own inimitable fashion.

“It started a long, long time ago, here in Charleville; I was approached by Mick Culloty — who ended up as my best man — to take part in a protest against the local coursing meeting. From memory, Hugh Leonard, the playwright, also took part in that protest. Mick and I had been friends a long time, but even so, I thought I should first go in and have a look at what was going on, know exactly what it was I was protesting against. I did, stood about a hundred yards away from the slipper – Mick O’Toole (another Charleville man, well known in hurling circles also). I watched what was happening, watched the dogs racing up that field, and I just found it incredibly beautiful, so pure, so natural — a fantastic sight. And I stayed there ‘til the end, watching.

“I met Mick Culloty afterwards — ‘You didn’t join us,’ he said; and I explained to him – I just couldn’t do it. And from then on, I had an interest in coursing.

“I stood on my own that day, and even still, when I go now, I prefer to stay on my own. I don’t bet, ever, I wouldn’t even know how to go about it; all this stuff about winning quarters, halves and so on – I know nothing about that. I just love the notion of two dogs racing up a field, head to head, straining every sinew in pure competition – I find it incredibly beautiful.

“And I began to fully understand a line in one of John B. Keane’s plays, Sive; there’s a great speech in that in which you have the line, ‘Quick, quick, quick; quick is everything, quick is life, quick is death.’ I remember when I did the play, directing Colman McCarthy, and everything we did was influenced by coursing, that idea of ‘quick, quick, quick, quick is life, quick is death’; what I mean is that you’re only here for a very short time, and you’ve got to do everything you can in life in that time – quick is life, quick is death.

“I understood that in even greater depth because of coursing, that relationship is there, because coursing is incredibly quick.

Before 1999, I had been away from coursing for years and years; around that time we were rebuilding the Credit Union here, John Ronan (from nearby Ballyhea, and a doggie-man to his heels) was the main contractor, and one day he said to me – ‘Come on with me to Clonmel for the day.’ That was the year that Big Fella Thanks won the Derby, and it was a sensational few days. On the third day, in the final in the afternoon, Big Fella Thanks came up from nowhere, from a position where it looked like he’d been beaten, and he won. There was a massive roar from all around the course, all the hats went up in the air, and it just reminded me so much of Clare and 1995, when they won the Munster final after so many decades of despair, and my father gave a roar, and threw his straw hat into the air (Kevin’s Dad was a Clareman, built up the hardware business in Charleville that still thrives, still bears his name).”

I think it’s important here that I clarify, I know nothing about dogs, nothing. You see these people, men and women, boy and girls, at meeting after meeting, they really know everything about it, the ins and outs, totally immersed in it – I know nothing.

“I remember once, after I had got back into following the sport, seeing a Dromina dog and I remarked that he looked absolutely gorgeous – John Ronan put me in my place; ‘It’s not a bloody beauty contest!’ he said.

” Turned out he had a point too, that dog wasn’t very good. I follow it for that one simple reason – I just think it’s incredibly beautiful, very natural, very original. I’m aware of the objections, but for me, it’s just the sight of those incredible animals straining with everything they’ve got. It’s a sculpture, I love it, and of course the unpredictability of it all is incredible also.

Mind you, if you want a ridiculous bet, back Shandrum Bar to win in Clonmel, and A Night in November to win in Athlone (the All-Ireland amateur drama finals) this year! It’s a one-person play, which is an extremely difficult play to do. It was written by Marie Jones, set in Belfast around the famous match between Northern Ireland and the Republic in Windsor Park in 1993.

! Denis O’Mahony is the main man with Shandrum Bar, along with Marcus, his son (Denis is from another neighbouring parish, Newtownshandrum, was chairman of that club when they won the All-Ireland senior club hurling title in 2004).

” There are five of us involved in the syndicate, four O’Mahonys — Willie and Gerdie are the other two — and myself; don’t ask, but suffice to say it started in a bar! ” I remember him saying to me years ago, ‘You always said you wanted to be involved in a dog,’ so every year he took the money, and every year we lost; now, finally, we’re going to Clonmel. But he’s the one doing all the work, and he’s so passionate about it.

“When we won our Trial Stake (Clonmel qualifier) in Rathkeale it was almost like Newtown had won the championship, they all came down and celebrated the win; by all accounts the celebrations — which I managed to avoid — were extraordinary! “It ended in Herlihy’s (the village bar that inspired the dog’s name), the video of the course being played and replayed, over and over, less than two minutes of action; finally Denis finished up giving a speech from on top of the counter.

“I was coming in to work a few days later, met Fr. Pakie (Lawton, Newtown P.P.) coming onto main Street in Charleville, he rolled down his window and shouted over to me – ‘SHANDRUM BAR!’ Fantastic.

There was an offer for the dog, a big offer we were told, though nothing solid was ever mentioned. I asked Paul (his brother, former Shannon scrum-half, winner of three Munster senior cup medals in the 70’s) for advice – should I take the money? He told me, ‘I’d give that man the dog, I’d throw in the lead, the collar, and I’d give him a hug!’ Eddie (another brother) gave me the same advice, but I decided no, and I didn’t ponder long over it either; it was substantial money, even divided among five, a multiple of at least 25 – so we were told — over what he had cost us.

” But I knew, if we sold that dog we were selling our dream. I know it’s against all odds, but that dog could win the Derby, it could get to the third day in Clonmel, which would be beyond our wildest imagination. But the possibility is there, and we’d have lost that dream in seconds, the seconds it would have taken to make that sale. You’d have the money, in the Credit Union or in the bank, but that wouldn’t have come near the feeling of going to Clonmel with that hope in your heart, and that’s why we didn’t sell. To be honest, I don’t think any money would have bought that dog, and I know that sounds ridiculous – everything has its price. But I knew if we did it, that dream was dead.

! “You see a lot of upsets in Clonmel, and that gives us a morsel of hope. Our fella is very good over the second part of the course, which is very important in Clonmel, that’s his strength. I don’t know much about dogs, but you’d be holding onto that notion all the time, that hope.

I’m 59 now; when Ballydaheen Flight was beaten by Hack Up Joe Joe in the Derby in 1961 I was only a kid, but after all these years I still remember the names of those two dogs. That meeting from Clonmel was broadcast live, on the radio, the national broadcasting service, early afternoon, and we had the broadcast live inside in the school. Shows you how times have changed.”

“Coursing people really love their sport; you very rarely meet anyone in coursing who has made their money from the dogs. Most are wealthy people, but usually they will have made their money from something else, and the dogs are just for pure pleasure.

“I watched Denis when he was looking after Shandrum Bar for us – the dog was better fed than ourselves, and better looked after! I think this is a way for the ordinary man to dream; we’re not going to own the winner of the Aintree Grand National, or the Cheltenham Gold Cup, or the Epsom Derby, but we can own the winner of the Derby or the Oaks in Clonmel.

“I’m excited this year – finally, I’m really going to Clonmel, I’m really taking part.”

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