The Fancy Endured

When the devastation of World War II reached British Shores,
breeders and exhibitors found themselves waging their own battle
to save their dogs

England declared war against Germany on September 3, 1939, but the battle didn't reach English shores until early July; on the 10th, air-raid bombers of the Luftwaffe pounded radar stations in the outlying regions of the English countryside.

Miss Sheelah Seale, of Irish descent, lived near the sea in Dartmoor, England, with her large brood of Irish Wolfhounds. Like many fanciers of the time, she was struggling to find ways to feed her dogs. This was a difficult task in war-torn England, even for the wealthy Seale, but the Ballykelly Hounds had the luck of the Irish. Each week, Seale visited local docks, collecting fish heads from the fishermen cleaning their catch. Maybe not a dinner fit for the "King of Hounds" but she knew it was still better than the buckets of slaughterhouse blood that the breeders in London were reduced to feeding their dogs.

On August 12, 1940, Seale was disappointed by the small amount of fish she was able to obtain,so she decided to see what else she could scavenge. With petrol restricted, she tacked her pony and trotted toward town. Riding with her hounds, she had no way of knowing that 150 enemy aircraft had entered the region. Standing out against the rolling green fields, Seale's white pony was a perfect target for a practicing Nazi gunner. The fighter plane dived after its equine mark and began shooting. The hounds scattered and Seale rode for her very life. Her athletic pony dodged this way and that, barely missing the machine-gun fire until the Nazi pilot finally gave up and the Ballykelly troupe made their way back to their estate.


Though she made it home safely, Seale felt anything but safe in England. She had seen the Luftwaffe's handiwork in her surrounding countryside. Burned-out buildings, huge ground craters, and innocent victims - dead cows and horses picked off by the Nazis - blighted the landscape. She knew that to protect her dogs and bloodlines, she would have to leave for the family's rustic farm in Ireland.

That very day, Miss Seale gathered her hounds and rode to the ferry for Ireland.

Following in her footsteps, other English breeders of the giant hounds fled to Ireland, too. The Gardner sisters, Phyllis and Delphis, were also Anglo-Irish, and like Seale, sought refuge in the green rolling hills of Ireland, where their Coolafin Hounds thrived and became famous worldwide.*See Note

 Irish wolfhound breeders
 Four of the great European breeders of Irish Wolfhounds,
photographed in 1938. From left to right: Delphis Gardner,
Sheelagh Seale, Christopher Gardner, and J. Shields. The
dogs, left to right: Patrick, Artara, Silvagh Tim (all of Ballykelly)
Maura of Coolafin and Gratitude of Spean.

Wartime's effect on the breed was devastating, notes Anthony Killykeen Doyle, dog historian and president of the Irish Wolfhound Club of Ireland: "The Second World War almost destroyed the breed. Food shortages and war conditions panicked owners and breeders into putting down valuable stock. The only breeding done at this time was done in Ireland."

Another great Wolfhound kennel of the past, Ouborough, was also English-based, and owned by the flour-mill magnate J.V. Rank. Established in the 1920s, Ouborough flourished and its dogs gained renown. Many were imported to the United States. Unfortunately, during World War II tyhe Royal Air Force moved a production facility onto the great kennel's estate, bringing with them their canine mascot, a dog infected with distemper. In the days before the now-common vaccine, distemper was deadly, and almost all of the Ouborough hounds became sick and died.

Luckily, the senior breeders of the day shared their blood-lines and both Seale and the Gardner sisters had healthy Ouboroughs with them when they fled to Ireland. Says Doyle, "This ensured the type, health, and longevity of their beloved breed, and became a godsend during the travesties of the war."

Although the Wolfhound breeders were safe in Ireland, by the time the war was over a fresh gene pool was desperately needed. Before the war, European breeders had done their best to foster a love and understanding of their breed in America. They provided quality hounds and passionate mentorship to a handful of American fanciers. In a twist of fate, these same Americans, who had so greatly benefited from European generosity in the prewar years, were now able to give back to the Irish and Anglo-Irish breeders. They were women of great means, and their kennel prefixes - Cragwood, Ambleside, Rathrahilly, Killybracken, and Kennel Kihone - were well-known throughout the American dog scene of this era. During the war, these "great ladies", as they are often referred to, became the unsung heroes of the Irish Wolfhound. They sent money and other useful parcels to the exiled Wolfhound fanciers, helping to preserve the breed. After the war, these Americans donated several excellent American dogs to the Irish club. The pedigrees of these American imports had their roots in England and Ireland but were bred from American bloodstock for many generations.

 Margaret Harrison and Rory of Kihone
 Margaret Harrison with Ch.
Sanctuary Rory of Kihone.
Rory is one of the stud dogs
who saved the breed after WWII.

They provided a healthy outcross to the superbly bred European bitches waiting for them in Irish kennels.

AKC Gazette
, September 2002

* Note: Sheelah Seale lived near Eastbourne in East Sussex at the beginning of the war and moved several times to various parts of Sussex before moving to Newton Abbot, South Devon (close to Dartmoor and the coast) around August, 1940. (see Esther Croucher's report on the period of the war.) Her kennel advertisements during the War give her address as Newton Abbot. She did, however, move to Ireland after the war ended. Also, Phyllis Gardner had died in early 1939, so it was only Delphis and Christopher who could have moved to Ireland. However, they did not do so at this time, as all the kennel adverts list them as still being at Recess, Maidstone, and Delphis was taken to Court in Maidstone in 1947 by the RSPCA. She and Christopher did, however, move to Ireland at some time around 1949. The photograph was taken at Recess, Maidstone. Mrs. Shields was not a 'great European breeder' in 1938 - or at any time. She only bred three litters in the time she was in the breed. And there were quite a few litters bred in England during the war - the registrations made were 35 through 1940; only 8 through 1941; 37 through 1942; 27 through 1943; 42 through 1944; and 23 through 1945. Not huge numbers, but some.

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Updated 8/31/2015