Irish Wolfhound History

Seán's Story

A FIRST DOG, a reminiscence of the early life of Seán (Rory of Ballygran), also known as Shaun, mascot of the Irish Guards. By R.L. Lakin.

In 1959-60, my regiment, 11th Hussars (Prince Albert's Own) was stationed in Omagh, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, carrying out internal security duties. I got Seán as a puppy in late August, 1959. I was 21, and he was about ten weeks, and he was the first dog for which I was totally responsible. I called him Seán since I did not care much for his kennel name Rory - but he had to have a proper Irish name since my paternal grandmother was a McCalmont, a family originally from County Antrim.

I believe the Irish Guards decided to call him Shaun because, in the days before word processors, Seán was tricky to type and spelling his name Shaun meant there was no doubt as to how it should be pronounced for publicity purposes.

The regiment of cavalry in which Seán took the Queen's shilling was raised in 1715 to help put down an attempt by the Scottish supporters of James Edward Stuart (son of James II of England) to supplant King George I on the British throne. Our nickname in the British Army was the "Cherry Pickers", for reasons that are interesting but not relevant to this reminiscence. People not familiar with the British regimental system of 50 years ago and before often have difficulty comprehending its intense family atmosphere. Successive generations of the same families - officers and soldiers - served together over the centuries, and regiments had strong territorial connections - in our case with Gloucestershire and Warwickshire, an area where my family has lived since long before the English Civil War.

The spirit of the regimental family may be summed up by what the Colonel said to me when I joined: "You look like a sensible young officer. I just want you to remember three things: dress smartly at all times; listen carefully to the advice of your troop sergeant; and if you have to die, then for God's sake, die bravely". I did not welcome puppy Seán with the same message - he was a little car sick on the journey up from Limerick and I think he was missing his mummy.

He soon found new friends. The Officers' Mess in Lisanelly Camp could be mistaken for a large kennels as most of the time we seemed to have an average of one dog per officer. Seán behaved impeccably in the mess towards his canine comrades, but did not care at all for the German shepherd guard dogs who patrolled inside the camp's perimeter fence. He had a terrifying bellowing growly challenge that he only used with them. He'd get really uptight. Perhaps some primal instinct classified them in his mind as wolves? The German shepherd handlers were naturally concerned about his attitude, and I had to ensure Seán was leashed whenever they were around.

In those days, officers' dogs went everywhere with their masters - except on parade and formal occasions - so he had to learn to behave properly. He was easy to train in the basics. He could heel, sit, stand, drop, and hup (to get into a vehicle) but he found the idea of "stay" difficult to grasp. He got lots of rough and tumble games with my soldiers who spoilt him rotten. There was never any shortage of volunteers wanting to exercise him. Seán spent all his life in the regiment with humans or other dogs and I don't think he was ever alone by himself for any length of time.

As a member of my armoured car Troop, he rode with my assault section in the Saracen armoured personnel carrier when we went out patrolling the highways and byways of Derry, Tyrone and Fermanagh. His thick greasy coat was much better suited to the constant rain than our denim tank suits (we were always soaked to the skin and freezing by the end of the night), and he proved very useful when we did roadblocks. He won lots of hearts, and I like to think that, as a symbol of Ireland, a few minds as well. Anyway, no one ever tried to run from the "Hound of the Baskervilles" and risk death - by a thousand licks!

He slept on an army mattress in my room. Lisanelly Camp was originally a US Army camp in WW2. It had been more or less abandoned after the War, and in 14 years very little maintenance had been done. My tiny wooden room had had its coal stove removed, so I had an imperfectly sealed hole in the roof (the rain dripped through 364 days of the year) beneath which was an open hole in the floor boards where the grass grew up green and tall all year round. With no heating, the nights could get very cold and damp, and Seán was often keen to share my bed. He was always very welcome.

He ate like a dog prince on boiled sheep's heads and assorted cows' lights, lungs and hearts, which I got for free from the Omagh butchers (who otherwise threw these away - offal apparently being unsaleable). Seán crunched up the heads together with the odd ox thigh bone. He was a big eater. These meals were stewed up in a huge iron pot in the officers' mess kitchen. Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble - I was not that popular with our cooks as the smell could get pretty ripe. I learnt the hard way that Seán had to have his beard trimmed regularly. Getting a "juicy" kiss of old cows' intestine is not a turn-on even for the most devoted master.

One weekend I was invited to lunch in "The South" (in the Republic of Ireland as opposed to Northern Ireland). Can I bring my dog, I asked? Of course, my host replied, we have hounds too. The main house was a Georgian palace and we were shown into its massive drawing room with 20 foot high windows. Seán stayed demurely at heel. Good boy! Around the fireplace, which seemed a hundred yards away, assorted long dogs got up, stretched, and gave him the eye. Seán did not hesitate. He went straight to the nearest curtain and gave it a pint of his best pee. I learnt about dogs and "territories" from that.

When Seán was about ten months old, he had the classic gazehound accident. He skidded at speed on wet tarmac crossing a bridge in the camp, and staked himself on the angle iron railings. It must have been a terrifying surprise, but he did not struggle and allowed us to lift him off the stake. It had punched through his upper thigh - luckily missing anything vital - and after a lot of stitches and injections he was just as good as new. It is, I think, a sign of the respect with which Irish Wolfhounds are often regarded in Ireland that the Omagh vet refused to charge me for his services.

Looking back, we did have a portent of Seán's future role. Sir Francis Festing, GCB, KBE, DSO, then CIGS (Chief of the Imperial General Staff - and thus head of the British Army) visited the camp. I had grown up with the Festing boys, and his eldest son was at Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst with me - so I was known to their father. He sought me out and Seán had his first (but not his last) close encounter with a Field Marshal.

Our Field Firing range was a bit of scrubby fell leased to the Army by an enterprising farmer who always left his sheep grazing behind the target butts. It was said he got "the compensation" for any sheep that were accidently shot, and that this was probably more than they would fetch at open market. Seán was left snoozing in the rare sunlight beside the range hut whilst my troop and I started our war games. At our first few bursts of fire, the sheep moved off. Then there was a shout "Seán's away, Sir!" and I saw him galloping at full stretch up the fell side. At first we could not find him - the flock had scattered over the top of the hill. Then we heard a snorting sound from a ditch. Seán had the ram down; he was not killing him, just chewing very vigorously on his horn. Trouble was, he had the ram's nose down under the water. It took three troopers to drag him off. The ram jumped up and trotted away after his ladies, unhurt but his dignity destroyed. Never trust a gazehound when anything runs! Seán had amazing eyesight for a dog, and had spotted these sheep moving from over 500 yards away.

Going home on leave, we both dined on oysters and Guinness in a quayside pub in Larne. The patrons made a great fuss of him, and insisted upon slipping him "just a few more, Sorr, utz gud fer the darg...". I was catching the overnight ferry to Stranraer, and to keep Seán with me, had to book him a sleeper as well. The cabin had three bunks, and when he saw the size of Seán, the only other occupant quickly took the top one. Seán settled onto the bottom bunk. The Irish Sea produced a choppy crossing, and in the middle of the night, Seán was violently and copiously sick. My fault entirely, and perhaps that finally taught me that there is a limit to how much like a human being your canine companion animal should be treated. I remember cleaning up those slippery partially digested oysters and stout off the cabin floor whilst the other passenger looked down from his bunk, probably thinking he was experiencing some kind of awful nightmare.

In the late summer of 1960, the 11th Hussars got a warning order to move to Aden in Southern Arabia (now in the Republic of Yemen). No dogs could go, and anyway the climate is totally unsuitable for IW. I tried to persuade my parents to have Seán at home in the country until I returned, but my father was adamant that he would not have another dog in the house. Quite understandable in retrospect since the house dogs were my mother's fearless but foul tempered Jack Russell and my father's shooting Lab, and we had a lot of cats, who had survived previous near-death experiences with greyhounds. There were also the sheep...

I was at my wits end as to what to do, when one day two officers from the Irish Guards dropped into our mess for lunch, saw Seán, and mentioned that by tradition they had always had an Irish Wolfhound as their mascot. It transpired that they had not got one at that time. A heaven sent opportunity. They offered to talk to their colonel about it, and the rest is history. Letting him go broke my heart. I wept. I never saw him again.

Some time later in Aden I got a nice letter of thanks from Colonel H.L.S.Young, DSO, Irish Guards. Amongst other complimentary things, he said "You will be pleased to know that he (Shaun) is doing extremely well down at Windsor and is already an extremely popular figure in the Regiment. His drill is also getting on quite well and I hope he will make his first ceremonial public appearance when the Battalion mounts Queen's Guard on 20th October (1960)". I remembered my own suffering being drilled by Guards NCOs at Sandhurst, and this "quite well" comment did not sound happy news. "Quite well" in the Brigade of Guards means not good enough. I had visions of Seán, like me, being given morning and evening Extra Drill Parades. With the letter was a photograph of Seán's arrival at Euston from Belfast. I never realised until I saw the picture what a big fella he had become.

 Sean is met at Euston Station

In the book REMEMBER WITH ADVANTAGES: A HISTORY OF THE TENTH, ELEVENTH AND ROYAL HUSSARS, the author, Henry Keown-Boyd, records that Seán was the only "Cherry Picker" ever to be transferred to the Brigade of Guards. I would have liked to have been able to ask Seán how his life in the Irish Guards differed from his relaxed upbringing in a cavalry regiment. Perhaps I'll get the opportunity.

For more on the "Cherry Pickers", click here

By R.L. Lakin

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