Before the Kerry Blue, the Kerry Beagle

When one thinks of Irish breeds owned by political movers-and-shakers of Ireland,  Michael Collins and his Kerry Blue Terrier usually often come to mind first – and for good reason: The names of Collins, an Irish Revolutionary leader, and his Kerry Blue Terrier, are etched on the ‘Collins Cup’ trophy awarded annually to Best of Breed winners at Kerry Blue Terrier shows. The trophy today is in the hands of the Irish Kennel Club.

But long before Michael Collins’ murder in 1922 was a man many regard as the first great 19th-century Irish nationalist leader, Daniel O’Connell, nicknamed, “the Liberator.”

Born to a wealthy Roman Catholic family near County Kerry, Daniel O’Connell’s family was unusual in that even though they were Catholic, they were considered members of the gentry. Yes, they owned land, but only through Protestant trustees, and the forbearance of their Protestant neighbors. It was probably not surprising, then, that Daniel would eventually grow up to campaign for Catholic emancipation, and the right for Catholics to sit in the Westminster Parliament.

Daniel became a successful lawyer, and some say the finest orator of his day. By the first half of the 19th century, he became the acknowledged political leader of Ireland’s Roman Catholic majority. In 1828, Daniel ran for a seat in the British Parliament as the member from County Clare, Ireland. Needless to say, this was highly controversial because even if he won, he, as a Catholic, would be barred from taking his seat, and to add to the sticky situation, members of Parliament were required to take a Protestant oath.

Daniel’s mobilization of Catholic Ireland, right down to the poorest tenant farmers (who often walked miles to vote for him), saw to his win, and because a Catholic Emancipation bill had recently passed, he was eventually able to take his seat. In fact, he was elected to the seat twice.

In his personal life, Daniel had been a keen sportsman since his youth, and his Uncle Maurice, nicknamed, “Hunting Cap,” doted on the young Daniel and often took him hunting in the rugged hills of Kerry. The land there was too uneven for horses, so they followed the hounds on foot. It was rough sport that could be dangerous, and young Daniel loved it. The hounds were Kerry Beagles, and the best known of the packs belonged to the O’Connells of Derrynane Abbey, and to the Ryan Family of Scarteen (the Scarteen pack still active today). The Ryans and O’Connells, in fact, were cousins, the former having been masters of the Black and Tan Hounds since 1735 when John Ryan kept a pack.

Daniel hunted over Kerry Beagles for over 50 years, and when he retired, one of his four sons, Thaddeus, took on the pack. Thaddeus hunted the pack for over four decades, and when he retired, his son, Chris, became master and huntsman in 1987. Today it is the Scarteen pack that is world famous, but we’ve read that there are still ties between the Ryans and a small number of packs who hunt Kerry Beagles, the latter providing outcrosses for the breeding program of the former.

Returning back to Daniel, he remained a beloved hero to the Irish even after his death in 1847 at the age of 72. Today, a statue of him stands on the main thoroughfare in Dublin.

As famous a historical figure as Daniel is, Irish folk in current times may be better acquainted with his direct descendent, Maurice O’Connell, who produces a single estate whiskey distilled from barley grown next to the house.

Remember uncle “Hunting Cap,” from a few paragraphs ago? Evidently, he had built a fortune by importing wines, spirits and other luxury goods from the continent to Kerry where he was able to avoid paying excise duty taxes for years because of the isolated location. The distilling tradition is continued by  Maurice’s great, great, great, great-grandnephew (though this Maurice is paying the excise duties). Their distillery, Wayward Irish Spirits in Killarney, recently released The Liberator, an Irish whiskeys finished in a 300-year-old stone farmhouse on the estate. The company mentions on their website that British PM Robert Peel once famously described their ancestor, Daniel, as “that wayward Irishman.” They add, “We’ve decided to own that insult with pride.”

Image of a Kerry Beagle in graphite by Rebekah Van Kan is available for purchase here, and more of the artist’s work can be seen here. 

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