Sheepdog trials at Co Antrim estate earn accolades

Officials of the International Sheepdog Society, who were at the Irish National Trials at Shane’s Castle on the edge of Antrim in August 1981 were delighted with the venue and organisation of the event – the first national trials to be held that year.

Border Collie Don at work under the watchful eye of Mr Mr J W McKee from Scarva, Co Down, in August 1981. Picture: Bob Hamilton/News Letter archives
Border Collie Don at work under the watchful eye of Mr Mr J W McKee from Scarva, Co Down, in August 1981. Picture: Bob Hamilton/News Letter archives

They said afterwards it was the best grounds and the best organised national they had been to and thanked Lord O’Neill for lending the land and sheep.

Special congratulations and thanks were expressed to the head shepherd, John Murphy, who selected the 600 sheep used in the trials, choosing “first class, identical animals heavy and very fit”.

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Philip Hendry, secretary of the International Society, speaking to the News Letter after the event said of Mr Murphy: “He was the lynch-pin of the whole organisation and did a marvellous job.”

One man, his dogs and his “shadow”, J W L McKee, his grandson David and Collies Maid and Don at Mr McKee 300-year-old home at Scarva, Co Down in August 1981. Picture: Bob Hamilton/News Letter archives

It was the second occasion Shane’s Castle had been the venue for the trials, which were held alternately in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.


The 1981 honours were almost equally divided between north and south. Dan O’Sullivan from Clogheen, Co Tipperary, took the singles championship and the brace went to William Watt from Mountjoy West, Omagh, Co Tyrone.

Entries, at around 100, were slightly up on 1980. The weather was about as kind as could be expected in Ireland, with brilliant sunshine and only a light breeze on Friday and Saturday morning, before heavy drizzle dampened enjoyment slightly on Saturday afternoon, forcing many spectators to take to their cars and go home.

Sizing up their chances of a win while they wait their turn to compete as the sheepdog trials at Shane’s Castle, Antrim, in August 1981 are, from left, Caldwell Hampbell, Castlederg, Thomas McVeigh, Saintfield, and George Harper, Castlerock. Picture: News Letter archives

But, for the enthusiasts, the rain held no terrors. Well equipped in oilskins and boots, they braved the wet and mud to watch the skill and uncanny understanding between shepherd and dog as they manoeuvred the unwieldy and frequently obstinate sheep through the gates and into pens.

The co-ordination between man and dog, guided only by whistle, is what drew spectators from all over the country to stand for hours discussing the fine points that separate one dog and another.

One slight problem occurred during the two-day trial - “a strictly homegrown Northern Ireland problem”. Sometimes an Army helicopter hovered into view, and the noise from the engines drowned out the whistle signals to the dogs.

The News Letter’s correspondent at the trials remarked: “It is to be hoped the judges took this into account in the markings.”

William McGoldrick, Aghyaran, Co Tyrone, in action with his dog Coll at the trials at Shane’s Castle, Antrim, in August 1981. Picture: News Letter archives

There was an unusual occurrence on the Saturday afternoon when the run of one dog had to be stopped halfway through the test.

The judges ruled there was a fault in that particular “packet of sheep”. The animals were unhappy with one of the sheep and would not work with it.

The dog had to start over again with different sheep. Of this, the News Letter’s correspondent noted: “Such an event is extremely rare and was probably due to the sheep concerned being ill.”


The youngest competitor taking part in the trials at Shane’s Castle, Antrim, in August 1981, was 17-year-old Gordon Watt of Mountjoy, Omagh, with his dog Rose. Picture: News Letter archives

The correspondent wrote: “Anyone who has watched sheep in a field is amazed by the way they always move together, following each other from one section of the field to another. But try deliberately to get five of them to follow each through a gate and the stubborn animals immediately split up in different directions.

“It is this characteristic which calls out the best in man and dog, and the mutual respect between the two is never more obvious than when competing in trials such as these.

“Anyone who think its is an old man’s hobby could not be more wrong. The dogs are working dogs, not animals trained specially for taking part in trials, and the training of sheepdogs is something that runs in families. Children learn the tricks of the trade at the heels of their fathers and grandfathers.”

Keeping cool as they watch their father James compete in the Irish National Sheepdog Trials at Shane’s Castle, Antrim, in August 1981, are Seamus McLoughlin of Ringsend, Coleraine, with his sisters Kathleen and Anne-Marie. Picture: News Letter archives