Ballyhennessy Sandhills: Portrait of a North Kerry Wonder Dog

It is doubtful if any other dog has received such 
whole-hearted cheers in the history of the track 

– Wimbledon, August 1937

Ballyhennessy Sandhills was born in June 1935 and reared on a farm in County Kerry with ‘a wheelbarrow in a barn for a bed and two goats for company.’[1] He was a greyhound, bred by John Shanahan of Irribeg, Lixnaw and owned by John McCarthy of Ballyhennessy, Lixnaw.


His pedigree was given thus:


Ballyhennessy Sandhills, through his dam, Soraca Deas, goes back to Slipaway, one of the foundation dams of Irish blood-lines.  Full Speed and a double cross of Osprey Hawk also appear in his pedigree.[2]


His sire was White Sandhills, winner of the Irish Derby at Clonmel in 1931:


For the second time at Powerstown Park
We made the valleys ring,
When Sandhills White, by Eagle’s Beak,
Was crowned the Irish king.

– Patrick O’Connor, Mountcoal[3]


Ballyhennessy Sandhills, whose pet name was Ginger, soon started proving himself on the race course.  He showed outstanding pace when schooled on the Tralee and Ballybunion tracks. At about this time, his progress drew attention:


When I saw Ballyhennessy Sandills (sic) run at the Kingdom Cup meeting last Christmas I ticked him off as likely to win a stake before the end of the season, and though the Lixnaw puppy left it a bit late he duly came up to expectations by taking first money in the Ballcourt Stakes.[4]


In December 1936, Ballyhennessy Sandhills won the National Breeders’ Trial Stake (24 dog puppies) against Barrett’s Bindle Beggar.  John McCarthy kept Ballyhennessy Sandhills until January 1937 when he was bought by Hon Brinsley Sheridan Bushe Plunket (1903-1941) of Luttrellstown Castle, Dublin, a noted figure in Irish racing circles.


Left to right: Hon Brinsley Plunket and his wife, Aileen Sibell Mary (nee Guinness) on their wedding day in 1927; the couple at the Curragh Races in 1928 and with their daughter, Neelia, at Phoenix Park in 1934; Mr P Kelly pictured in 1935 with Hon B Plunket’s dogs, Heart Song and Hero Again


In June 1937, Ballyhennessy Sandhills won the April Stakes at Harold’s Cross Park.  However, Hon Brinsley Plunket had been granted a commission in the RAF Volunteer Reserve and Ballyhennessy Sandhills was up for sale.[5]


Co Tipperary trainer, Billy Quinn, invited UK trainer Sidney Orton, one of the leading trainers in the 1930s, to Ireland to see the rising star.  Orton however, who had trained Mick the Miller, was not impressed and turned Ballyhennessy Sandhills down.[6]  ‘Back in England I forgot about him.’[7]


A little later, however, Orton, who worked at Wimbledon Stadium, happened to visit Ireland again and saw Ballyhennessy Sandhills – who raced at about 66 to 67 lbs take part in the first heats of the Irish Derby.[8]  On this occasion Orton realised what a great dog he was.  ‘That same evening I visited Quinn and opened negotiations at once.’[9]


Rumours of the deal soon surfaced: ‘Whilst the price paid for Ballyhennessy Sandhills has not been disclosed, it is known to have been the biggest price ever paid for a greyhound.’[10]


And the price, £2000, was certainly a staggering sum.  Ballyhennessy Sandhills was dubbed ‘the £500 a leg Kerry wonder dog.’[11]  The purchase of the ‘wonder dog’ had been made on behalf of Jessie Florence Cearns, wife of Bill Cearns, Managing Director of the Wimbledon track.


Some Stalwarts of the Greyhound Racing World, 1933.  Bill Cearns is depicted on the lower row, second from left[12]

The deal done, Mrs Cearns welcomed Ballyhennessy Sandhills and Bill Quinn to England in July, their arrival in Euston on the 5.30pm Irish mail likened to the reception accorded great film stars.[13]


Mrs Cearns welcomes Ballyhennessy Sandhills in July 1937.  Centre image shows Mrs Cearns and Ballyhennessy later in November celebrating a win of £2000 first prize in the London White City Race.  On the right is Mrs Cearns, photographed in the same year, receiving the News of the World Challenge Bowl from News of the World managing director, H H Aldridge[14]

First to achieve the double


Soon after, on Friday 20 August 1937, Ballyhennessy Sandhills raced in the final of the Laurels, the Wimbledon classic founded in 1930, a most important greyhound racing event.  No less than 80,000 people saw him win by a neck in 28.25 seconds.[15]


Mrs Cearns, who had also been lucky in the Laurels the previous year with her Irish dog, Top of the Carlow Road, was overjoyed.[16]   Messages of congratulation poured in from all over the country.  They also came in from Ireland, one in particular from Timothy O’Carroll of Ballyhennesy House, Lixnaw.[17]


Mr O’Carroll was delighted to inform Mrs Cearns that the Laurels winner had had his first gallop over a private track in his own spacious grounds of Ballyhennessy when only ten months old.[18]


Mrs Cearns was third time lucky, for her celebrity dog won in the following year at the same event.  ‘He is the first dog to achieve the double.’[19]


Go Greyhound Racing: Notices from the 1930s


His win was accepted as a ray-timed record for 500 yards.[20]  One writer visited the celebrity dog and wrote:


A greyhound on parade or racing may be an entirely different dog in the kennels.  Ballyhennessy Sandhills was very friendly and a pat on his head was returned with an appreciative wriggle that extended through the whole of his body.  Playing and barking almost perpetually, except when enjoying his late afternoon siesta, are among the characteristics of the champion dog.[21]


Ballyhennessy Sandhills’s next race was Brough Park, Newcastle, and the All-England Cup.  However, though he arrived looking fit and fresh, he became unwell and there were doubts about his recovery.[22]


Nonetheless, he rallied, and by the following year, his tally was nine trophies in 22 months on the London tracks.   However, he was suffering from injuries and in 1939, passed out of the ownership of Mrs Cearns.[23]


He was retired to stud.[24]  A few years later, it was reported that trainer Harry O’Neill of Anner House, Clonmel had ‘a few years ago bought the famous Ballyhennessy Sandills without having seen the dog course or race.’[25]


Harry O’Neill pictured (alongside Mr C Flinton) holding Dupont’s Trumpery; on the right with Fiddler’s View


After this, the record falls silent on the ‘£500 a leg Kerry wonder dog’ until April 1948, when a short notice appeared in the press announcing the death of old Ginger in the Wimbledon Kennels.[26]


Irish Champions: Left Ballyhennessy Sandhills (1935-1948) and Mick the Miller (1926-1939).  In the centre, dogs at Wimbledon Stadium in the 1930s.  The stadium closed in 2017 and was demolished for housing


It can only be hoped that his last years were spent in well earned comfort.


[1] Illustrated Police News, 26 August 1937.

[2] The Liberator Tralee, 12 February 1938.

[3] Poem of eight stanzas by ‘P C’ – Patrick O’Connor, formerly of Mountcoal, Listowel, and later of Churchtown, Mallow – published in the Kerryman, 28 March 1931.  The poem concludes: Never in O’Carroll’s breed,/You’ll find a yellow streak,/A brilliant judge of greyhounds he/Who kennels Eagle’s Beak.

[4] ‘He showed more than average pace in his first two courses, leading both Old Bridge Rover and Leprechaun’s Lament a long way.  The withdrawal of Much Pronto owing to an injury gave him a bye to the final, in which he met the Sligo bitch, Romola’s Star.’ See full report, Irish Press, 22 February 1937.

[5] Hon Brinsley Sheridan Bushe Plunket (1903-1941), gained the rank of Flying Officer in 1941, the year in which he was killed, on 24 November, on active service at Port Soudan, Khartoum.

[6] Mick the Miller died at Burhill Kennels, Walton-on-Thames in May 1939.  His body was embalmed for a museum and his heart and other organs sent to the Royal Veterinary College.  His owners, Mr and Mrs Arundel H Kempton, had received over £20,000 in prize money, stud fees and payment for his work in films.  Mick the Milller, bred in Ireland by Father Brophy, was trained by Sidney Orton, who described him as an intelligent dog, ‘Of the many greyhounds which have passed through my hands, not one had half the intelligence of Mick the Miller.  Brains helped him as much as his speed.  Before he was put in the trap he sized up the opposition.  He was a wonderful judge of pace, and knew just when to make his effort.  As soon as he crossed the winning line he would slow up.  He enjoyed the cheers of the crowd.  He would gaze round as if in acknowledgment and wag his tail in delight’ (Irish Press, 6 May 1939).

[7] ‘Ballyhennessy Sandhills entrant for the £500 White City on Saturday was turned down by trainer Sidney Orton in the summer.  Trainer Orton, who cared for Mick the Miller when he won his second Derby, went over to Ireland specially at the invitation of Billy Quinn, Co Tipperary trainer, to see Ballyhennessy Sandhills.  He watched the dog take part in the Summer Cup at Shelbourne Park when he split the webbing of a foot.  I was not impressed with his performance, said Orton.  In fact, I was at a loss to know why Billy Quinn, regarded as the world’s greatest judge of greyhounds, liked the dog so much’ (Irish Press, 4 November 1937). 

[8] In 1938, another trainer working at Wimbledon Stadium was Tralee man Paddy McEllistrum, who trained Irish greyhound Top Speed for Thomas Clegg and Miss F Chapman of Ramsgrange, Co Wexford.  Top Speed died from distemper in a London canine ‘nursing home’ in August 1938.

[9] Irish Press, 4 November 1937. Sidney John Orton (1890-1978) was Clerk of the Scales when oval circuit greyhound racing arrived in the UK in 1926.  He subsequently became a trainer at Wimbledon Stadium.  He was the trainer of the Irish greyhound, Mick the Miller.

[10] Irish Examiner, 21 July 1937.

[11] Kerryman, 13 May 1939.

[12] The Tatler, 25 January 1933.  Caption: Upper row from left to right – Lady Hunloke, Major C E Lucas Phillips, M.C., Colonel R Cockburn (senior Stipendiary Steward), Colonel R Romer Baggallay, DSO MC, Lady Chesham, Sir Vyell Vyvyan KCB, DSO, Colonel Brown, Admiral Sir Sydney Fremantle GCB MVO, Colonel Thornhill, Mr Gordon Padley, Captain Brice (Starter, Wembley Stadium) Lower row from left to right – Mr W J Neilson (West Ham), Mr W J Cearns (Wimbledon), Mr F S Gentle (GRA), Lieut-Colonel A D Cameron DSO MC (Racing Director GRA), Brig-General A C Critchley CMG DSO, Major-General The Lord Loch CB CMG, DSO MVO, Mr H Garland-Wells (Clapton), Lord Askwith KCB KC, Lord Lawrence DL, Mr Henry Sawtell (Senior Steward), Professor F T G Hobday CMG FRCVS, Mr W H McGrath (Chairman, General Purposes Committee), Mr A J Elvin (Wembley). ‘At the moment that this collection of caricatures of the most prominent people in the dog-racing world goes to press we are awaiting confirmation of a report that the Royal Commission on Lotteries and Betting is about to issue an interim report which will end the present anomalous position where Totes on Greyhound Race-courses are concerned. The Act of 1928 legalized Totes on Race-courses.  A High Court ruling of recent dates made Totes on Greyhound Race-courses illegal. This classes v. masses state of affairs is entirely undesirable, quite apart from the ridiculous situation which it sets up.  If a thing is legal in one place and illegal in another place, which to all intents and purposes is the same place, where on earth are we?’ 

[13] Irish Examiner, 29 July 1937.

[14] Images of Mrs Cearns from Daily Herald, 21 July 1937, Liverpool Echo, 9 November 1937 and Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 29 January 1937, respectively. 

‘Which are the finest greyhounds – Irish or English?  At the White City tonight this controversial question is revived with the staging of the £1,000 match race, the most valuable match race ever arranged.  Mrs Cearn’s two Irish champions, Ballyhennessy Sandhills and Top of the Carlow Road meet Mrs Dent’s Wattle Bark and Golden Alexander.  On the race is centred the attention of the most famous breeders of both countries as the four dogs, who between them have won £11,000, are without doubt the best today and the winner will definitely be classed as 1937 champion Ballyhennessy, the £2,000 Irish wonder dog, was bred by J Shanahan, Lixnaw, County Kerry.  Owned by John McCarthy, Ballyhennessy, Lixnaw, until January last, ‘Ginger’ first showed his outstanding paces when schooled on the Tralee and Ballybunion tracks. After successes at Dublin, he broke the Wimbledon Track record on his first English outing three months ago. Ballyhennessy and Wattle Bark, who was this year’s Derby in the world record time of 29.26 seconds, are deadly rivals.  Of five clashes the Englishman has won three, and being in trap 1 tonight is all in his favour. Ballyhennessy won the £2,000 White City a few weeks ago in great style and will probably be installed favourite tonight’ (Irish Examiner, 20 November 1937).

[15] Ballyhennessy Sandhills first (4/5), 1; Bealtaine (5/1), 2; Wise Carey (8/1) 3.

[16] Top of the Carlow Road was bred by Mr J J Doyle, Ballon, Co Carlow.  Like Ballyhennessy Sandhills, he was purchased on behalf of Mrs Cearns by Mr W Quinn, the Dublin trainer.

[17] Timothy O’Carroll, founder of the Lixnaw Coursing Club, died on 20 August 1975.  Obituary Kerryman, 29 August 1975.

Note on Ballyhennessy House

In 1830, Ballyhennessy, containing about 150 plantation acres, was part of the estate of Mrs B Harenc.  Ballyhennessy House, with 40 to 60 acres, was advertised for lease, proposals to Stephen Edward Collis Esq, Listowel.  It had been in possession of Ferdinand Lyne (or Lynne).  

In 1822, Ferdinand Lyne and two of his nephews, Lieut Supple and his brother, beat off a party of Whiteboys who attacked Ballyhennessy House for arms.  The following may assist with Lyne ancestry.  In 1965, Rev Brother Amedy Lyne of the De La Salle Order was being held by Communists in Burma and sought help in seeking details of his Kerry ancestry to enable him to leave the country.  His address there was c/o Arthur Lyne, 10 Myaunggyl Road, Yeggaw, Rangoon, Burma.  He wrote to Kilflynn-born Rev Brother Pius Kelly in Hong Kong for help, who in turn forwarded his letter to his brother Michael Kelly in Kilflynn, with a covering note which stated, ‘You know that all our schools have been taken from us.  We can teach there no more.  Just think of it.  The work of 105 years gone, or so it seems’.  Rev Bro Amedy wrote: ‘This is your old blind friend writing to you from far-off Burma.  I am sure you are keeping fit and fine. I am also keeping fine with the only drawback that my eye is getting dimmer.  The object of my letter is to ask of you a big favour which I think is going to give you a bit of a headache.  I am trying to trace the particulars of grandparents and parents.  My grandfather, Ferdinand Lyne, hailed from Listowel. He enlisted in Cork on July 27 1849.  He was aged 20.  He embarked for Madras in the ship Castle Eden in 1850.  He was a Gunner in the 2nd British Madras Artillery.  He volunteered for General Service in 1861 and made QMS in 1862.  As far as I know he had two sons, Edward and Daniel Lyne, although it is possible that he may have had more children as I am not very sure.  Could you write and find out if there is anybody who could throw some light about my grandfather? … Here are some details of my uncle, Edward Lyne … He was born on October 2 1863.  He was baptised on December 13 1863 by Rev Father P Doyle.  At the time his parents (my grandparents) were living at Cuddapah, Madras … Daniel Lyne, who is my father, settled down here in Burma.  But I do not know where he was born and baptised.’  Rev Brother James Amedy Lyne appears to have died at Myanmar in 1985.

In 1906, the house was in possession of Mary Wilhelmina Eagar when she sold her interest in it.  Timothy O’Carroll appears next in possession when in 1925, he instructed the auction of the house and farm, vested in the Irish Land Commission, as he then intended to reside at his former residence in Pallas.  The property was described as a substantially built residence of two storeys, with sitting room, kitchen, six bedrooms and storeroom.  There was a stall for 25 cows, stable for 3 horses, 3 piggeries, large calf-house, 2 fowl houses, cart house, turf shed, boiler house, etc. 

In 1927, bailiffs seized six greyhounds for rates at Ballyhennessy.

[18] ‘A happy coincidence occurred at Mr O’Carroll’s kennels on the eve of the Laurels final when a litter by Ballyhennessy Sandhills’ sire, White Sandhills, were born almost at the identical time when the elder brother was winning Wimbledon’s classic’(Irish Examiner, 2 September 1937).

The above statement was refuted by John McCarthy, Ballyhennessy, Lixnaw, who informed the editor that the litter by White Sandhills, Ballyhennessy Sandhills’ sire, were born on his premises at Ballyhennessy on the eve of the Laurels final and not at Mr O’Carroll’s kennels.  They were solely his property (see Irish Examiner, 14 September 1937).

[19] Daily Herald, 13 August 1938.  The win was £700 – he beat Wattle Bark – a dog bred in England but purely a produce of Irish Breeding – by 3.5 lengths in 28.50.  The placings were Ballyhennessy Sandhills (11/8), 1; Wattle Bark (7/2), 2; Glen Ranger, 3.

[20] It was his second record, his first being the Shelbourne Park 360 yards (in 20.36 secs).

[21] The Liberator Tralee, 5 March 1938. 

[22] ‘Following his record-breaking win of the laurels, Ballyhennessy Sandhills made the long journey to Brough Park, Newcastle, to take part in the All-England Cup.  He arrived looking fit and fresh, despite his winning effort, and the long journey which followed.  On the Saturday morning, however, he was attacked by acute enteritis, and in a few hours was in the most critical condition, raising considerable doubts as to his recovery, but he took a turn for the better on Sunday evening.  He is expected to return to Burhill Kennels later in the week’ (Irish Examiner, 18 August 1938).

[23] Jessie Florence Cearns, née Crittenden, was married to William John Cearns (1882-1950) on 27 August 1906.  They had seven children. ‘Bill Cearns, the man who couldn’t help getting rich, who made a mint of money out of dogs without really meaning to, is dead.  He had nearly a million out of the two-bobs which poured in at the turnstiles and totes of Wimbledon and Southend Greyhound Stadiums. How did he do it?  Foresight, my boy, just foresight, he used to say.  And then, contradicting himself, I took a chance and it came off.  Judge for yourself from how it happened.  At 14 he became office boy to a meat firm in Smithfield Market at 8s a week.  At 15 he went to West Ham Technical Institute to learn book-keeping. At 17 he became bookkeeper to a firm of builders in Stratford, East London.  At 27 the builders were going bankrupt when he bought them up with his few hundred pounds savings.  The years passed.  Bill Cearns prospered.  He built the double-decker grandstand at West Ham football ground (and became a director of the club).  He built Leicester City’s grandstand.  That started his interest in football.  In 1927, he built Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium for £70,000.  That started his interest in the dogs.  When Wimbledon went into the doldrums during the depression he plunged in with £40,000 building profits and a big faith in the future of the dogs.  He became chairman and managing director of the stadium.  Soon after ‘things were pretty sticky’ and the shilling shares dropped to 3d.  But Bill Cearns pulled through.  Then, in the year after the war he shook the sporting business world when, as chairman and managing director of South London Greyhound Racecourses, owners of Wimbledon Stadium, he declared a total dividend for the year on the company’s 1s deferred shares at 225 per cent.  The shilling shares that dropped to 3d now soared to 27s.  Asked how he did it, Bill Cearns laughed.  ‘It’s very simple,’ he said.  ‘You can’t stop making money with a greyhound track.’  Bill Cearns died, aged 68, at his Wanstead home, a step from the builder’s yard where he started’ (Daily Herald, 20 February 1950).

Mr Cearns, father of seven, died after an operation in London on 19 February 1950.  His widow died on 4 June 1958.  The William John Cearns Memorial Trophy was named in his memory.

[24] Jealous Sister whelped September 1942 by Ballyhennessy Sandhills out of Brave Holiday; Libellous Letter, 1948, son of Ballyhennessy Sandhills.

[25] Irish Press, 2 November 1943. 

[26] ‘Ballyhennessy Sandhills has died in the Wimbledon Kennels, London.  He was over 12 years old.  In 1937 and 1938 he won the Laurels’ (Irish Examiner, 13 April 1948).