By WALTER A. DYER
Author of "Pierrot, Dog of Belgium," "The Dogs of Boytown," etc.
|The Irish wolfhound Bally Shannon, hero of war and famous representative of a noble breed|
This is the saga of Bally Shannon and his breed.
In the days of Fionn Mac-Cumhaill, when the fairies still populated Erin, the kings of Ireland and their nobles bred the greatest of all dogs for the hunting of the gray wolf and the gigantic Irish elk - a sport for men of heart and brawn. Kin to the greyhound and as fleet, owning the blood of the wire-haired terrier of the north and as gamey as he, this dog was bred the largest and bravest of his kind. Pliny called him canis graius Hibernicus, and the Romans met him in battle; to the Irish he was known as sagh clium, the wolf-dog.
| An eye of sloe, with ear not low,
With horse's breast, with depth of chest,
With breadth of loin, and curve in groin,
And nape set far behind the head -
Such were the dogs that Fingal bred.
Fingal's famous hounds were Luath of the "surly strength" and Bran -
|With his hind legs like a hook or bent bow,
His breast like that of a garron (hunting pony),
His ear like a leaf.
Of the same breed was the huge dog Samr, which Jarl Gunnar got from the Irish King Myrkiarton in the tenth century and took back with him to Norway. And there was the hound of Aughrim.
An Irish knight or officer had his wolfhound with him at the Battle of Aughrim, and together they slew many of the enemy. But at last the master himself was killed. He was stripped and left on the battlefield to be devoured by wolves. But his faithful dog never left him. He remained at his side day and night, feeding on other dead bodies on the battlefield, but allowing neither man nor beast to come near his master's corpse until nothing was left of it but a pile of whitening bones. Then he was forced to go farther away in search of food, but from July till January he never failed to return to the bones of his master every night. One evening some soldiers came across the battlefield, and one of them approached the wolfhound to see what manner of beast he might be. The dog, thinking his master's remains were about to be disturbed, attacked the soldier, who called loudly for help. The others came running up and shot the faithful dog through the heart.
An even more celebrated story of the breed is that of the "peerless hound", Gelert, the hero of Robert Spencer's ballad. It is a tragic tale. Gelert was an Irish wolfhound of great strength and intelligence that had been presented by King John in 1205 to Llewelyn the Great, who lived near the base of Snowdon Mountain. Gelert became devoted to Llewelyn. By day they hunted together, and by night Gelert "sentinel'd his master's bed."
One day, however, Gelert failed to appear at the chase, and when Llewelyn returned home that night he was angry with the dog for deserting him. He was in that frame of mind when he met Gelert coming out of the chamber of his young child. The dog was covered in blood. Llewelyn rushed into the room and discovered the bed overturned, the coverlet stained with gore, and the child missing. He called to the boy but got no response.
Believing that there was but one interpretation for all this, Llewelyn called Gelert to him and in his wrath thrust his sword through the dog's body. Gelert gave a great cry of anguish that was like to a human shriek, and then, with his eyes fixed reproachfully on his slayer's face, he died. Then another cry was heard - that of the child, who had been awakened from sleep by the shriek of the dying dog. Llewelyn rushed forward and found the child safe and unscratched in a closet where he had fallen asleep. The father hurried back to the bloody bed, and beneath it he found the dead body of a huge gray wolf, which told the whole story. In remorse Llewelyn erected a tomb and chapel to the memory of faithful Gelert, and the place is called Beth-Gelert or Bedd-Gelert to this day.
Of such lineage is Bally Shannon. I visited him in the sheep-fold of Central Park, New York, where he was being kept for the British officers who had brought him over. And this is the story they tell of him:
Bally Shannon had been, like them, a soldier in France. No ordinary ambulance helper was he, but an over-the-top fighter. Ten wounded men he saved by dragging them out of No Man's Land. Then came a bursting shell and Bally Shannon and his master were both wounded. They were sent home on a hospital ship, and in mid-Channel the ship was torpedoed by a German submarine.
The torpedo did its work well, and the ship went down with nearly all on board. Only three men were saved - Bally Shannon's master and two others. They managed to scramble on top of a barely floating piece of wreckage.
Then came the brave dog, swimming strongly in spite of his wounds, and begged to be taken aboard. But the piece of wreckage would not have withstood his additional weight, and his master was forced to order him to keep away.
Without so much as a look of reproach Bally Shannon obeyed. All night he swam about the rude raft, only resting his chin upon it when nearly exhausted. In the morning they were picked up.
When I visited the dog he was nearly well, though his master, alas, had succumbed to his wounds and the exposure. I spoke his name, but not in the tone with which one addresses a spaniel. He came to the edge of the enclosure and raised himself to his full height, resting his forepaws on the top of the fence. His head was level with mine.
I thought I had never seen so magnificent an animal. All sinew and brawn, powerful, built on lines of speed, he stood there and received my homage. I placed my hand reverently on his broad, shaggy head and let it slide down his muzzle. He took it for an instant in his mouth with the utmost gentleness. I was a stranger to Bally Shannon, but he was the friend of man.
And I looked into his eyes - great, honest, intelligent eyes, utterly human. "I know what you did, Bally Shannon," said I. "'You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din.'"
I saw in those eyes the devotion and unquestioning courage that had upheld him that dark night in the Channel water. I saw in them the heritage of his noble race, the spirit of Bran and Luath, of peerless Gelert and the faithful dog of Aughrim. I saw in them, too, the mystery of the dog's wonderful gift for attaching himself to humankind.
There are people who do not like dogs. I wish they might see noble Bally Shannon and might have the courage frankly to approach him. I know not why God gave the dog this spark of divinity that has made him kin to man. I only know this - that when we shall have learned from the dog the beauty of his virtues of honesty, fidelity, and courage, the world will be a better place for us all, and Hun and savage and Turk will be driven off the face of the earth as the wolves were driven out of Ireland.
Originally printed in Country Life, November 1918
To return to the page on the Great War, click here.
To see the front page of Le Miroir 17 June 1917 with a photograph of BallyShannon and his master in hospital in France after being wounded, and a piece from The Mentor of October 1918, click here.