by Joan Dillon
Whelped in County Waterford, Ireland, Master McGrath (or M’Grath as it sometimes appears) was sired by Lord Lurgan’s great coursing greyhound, Dervock, out of a bitch of James Galway’s named Lady Sarah. Black with white markings, Master McGrath was small as greyhounds go — only fifty-four pounds when full-grown. Yet, although his career as a great coursing greyhound is well-documented, there are a number of contradicting stories about his early life.
According to one account, an Irish tenant who was suffering the effects of too much imbibing, heard a strange sound on his way home. It was coming from a bag caught on the root of a tree, half in and half out of the water. Opening the bag he discovered a nearly drowned greyhound pup. Somehow, this pup then came under the care of Lord Lurgan and rewarded his benefactor by excelling against all comers on the coursing field.
Another account claims that this undersized pup was going to be put down as he lacked potential. Due to a plea by the orphan boy who exercised him, a young lad by the name of Master McGrath, the dog’s life was spared. Named after the boy, Master McGrath then went on to best the most famous coursing greyhounds of his day both in Ireland and England.
Whatever his early history, Master McGrath became a top coursing greyhound and was entered in England’s prestigious Waterloo Cup in 1868. At just two years of age, he surprised his detractors by bringing the blue riband home to Ireland. The next year, more than 12,000 people gathered at Altcar to see if this Irish interloper could repeat. In his final course, Master McGrath drew in against Bab-at-the-Bowster, a Scottish bitch who was also considered unbeatable. In what many consider to be history’s greatest coursing match, the two ran neck and neck until Master McGrath proved he wasn’t a fluke and pulled ahead to record his second Waterloo Cup win.
In 1870, when trying to win the Waterloo Cup for a third consecutive year, Master McGrath suffered the only defeat of his coursing career. The event was held despite a controversy over course conditions. Many felt that a February freeze had caused the course to be unfit. This was indeed the case as Master McGrath fell through some ice and almost drowned in the River Alt. As he struggled in the icy water, an Irish slipper by the name of Wilson jumped in and saved him. After this mishap, Lord Lurgan vowed never to course Master McGrath again and took him home to Ireland to recover from his ordeal.
The following year, with Master McGrath back in racing condition, Lord Lurgan just could not resist the challenge of trying for a third Waterloo Cup victory. To the utter disbelief of some, this amazing greyhound came through and won the event for a third time. Following this victory, Master McGrath received a summons to appear before Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle. (The queen and her husband Prince Albert had once owned a black and white pet greyhound by the name of Eos.) Just two short years after his presentation to the Queen, Master McGrath died of heart failure.
So great was Master McGrath’s fame in Ireland that, after his death, a monument was erected near his birthplace in County Waterford.
He was later memorialized on the Irish sixpence coin and was the subject of several paintings. A poem commemorating his triumph in his second and most famous Waterloo Cup victory, was later put to music and became a popular Irish ballad.