Tony O’Shea, Kingdom of Hounds

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by RRB (here). Softcover, 124 pages, with 92 black-and-white reproductions. Includes an essay by Paul O’Sullivan. The images included were made between 1991 and 2014. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Tony O’Shea’s documentary photographs of the annual Kerry Beagle drag hunt forcefully pull us into a local Irish subculture that we likely didn’t realize we needed to experience or understand. For more than thirty years, O’Shea, a native of County Kerry, has been capturing the men and dogs of his community, placing their rituals and passions in the context of the misty, windswept landscape. His rich black-and-white pictures provide a subtly sophisticated insider’s view of a unique cultural tradition, blending elements of sport, competition, human behavior, and weather into a memorably engaging study.

For those not entirely fluent in the differences between dog breeds, the Kerry Beagle is larger, heavier, and more muscular than the beagle you may know from your local neighborhood. It’s a scent hound bred for speed and stamina, developed over generations by local hunters. The drag hunt replaces the horse-mounted hunt for a live fox (or some other animal) with a scented bag dragged through the rugged countryside, which the hounds track and follow from start to finish.

While O’Shea’s photographs of the Kerry Beagles were made over many hunts and many years, Kingdom of Hounds collapses that thickness of time into the loose trajectory of one aggregate or representative hunt, generally moving forward from the arrival and preparations of dogs and men, through the running of the hunt itself, and on to the crowning of a victor and the accompanying celebrations (and the packing up and going home for those not so lucky). The cover photograph introduces many of the elements O’Shea will mix and mingle over the coming pages – an older man in an Irish flat cap relaxing on the ground, with his two dogs on leashes, surrounded by grassy knolls and bogs, with larger mountains just visible in the hazy distance. Man, hound, land, and weather come together in momentary harmony, and virtually every image inside the photobook fills out or amplifies that story in one way or another.

The action of the hunt forms the logical core of Kingdom of Hounds, beginning with the lineup of dogs held at the start. O’Shea captures the tense anticipation of this moment in a range of images from various hunts; each dog is held by a man, the dogs bursting with pent up energy and the men’s faces all turned toward an unseen starter. A moment later and the dogs are released, and O’Shea sees them off like rockets, the men’s hands left empty and the dogs bolting across the grassy meadows watched by the crowds nearby. Of course, the dogs then disappear into the underbrush, and we don’t really see them again until we catch glimpses of them rounding a corner (like cars on a racetrack), bounding over ditches (blurred by their speed), or swimming across small creeks. What we do see is men watching from various key lookouts, standing peering out over the land or hustling to move into a better position to take in the action. As the dogs near the end line, the crowds thicken again, and fans cheer from the sidelines with increasing enthusiasm, shouting and blowing whistles with crazed energy. The owners wait at the flag with their leashes and leads as the first dogs race in, at which point the jubilation and dejection appear in seemingly equal measure.

While the beagles are the central drivers of the action in this story, it’s the people that really interest O’Shea. Kingdom of Hounds features a number of sensitively seen man and dog images, documenting the close connections to be found between the two. Pairs sit together and look out over the hills, scanning the terrain; dogs jump up to play with their owners, yelping and howling for attention; men stand proudly (and sometimes protectively) with their dogs on hillsides, near car trunks, along the road, and in the quiet forest; and when the start is near, men stand ready with their dogs, tickling heads, yanking collars, and whispering words of encouragement. When the hunt is over, these moments of intimacy and tenderness are repeated – dogs are fed from plastic buckets, given a bath in the river, carried with a grin or a grimace, and loaded back up into customized vans and hatchback cars for the ride home.

Many of the strongest images in this photobook capture groups and gatherings of men, many of whom we assume are O’Shea’s friends and neighbors. They settle down on tufts of grass to sit and wait, lean against hedgerows, or stand with arms crossed in clipped conversation, their eyes scanning the horizon. When the rain and fog comes (and they always do), out come rain coats, rain pants, and hoodies, and soaked groups of men huddle together under the cover of low bushes to try to stay dry. It’s a multi-generational bunch, with older men in rumpled blazers, rubber boots, and windblown hair and younger men in sweatshirts and running shoes, the bonds between them crafted by their history and their shared love of the dogs and the hunt. One memorable spread matches a bounding dog seen from below with a group of men standing on a hillock watching, all of the men seemingly looking at the flying hound. Other pictures are almost portraits of groups of men, pointing, looking, holding leashes, and comparing theories and predictions on what might happen next. Kingdom of Hounds is a photobook filled with men looking: crouched down in the grass, shielding their eyes from the sun, arranged in a line along a roadside, eyeing each other (as both friends and rivals), and nearly always turned in the same direction.

Along the way, O’Shea offers the landscape and the weather as constant forces to be reckoned with. Almost the only actual tree to be found is on the cover; otherwise, O’Shea’s muted landscapes are filled with sweeps of grass, low hills, prickly hedges, heaths, barbed wire, and all kinds of boggy wetness, with dirt roads and telephone poles only partially interrupting the views. Wind, rain, and mist fill the air most of the time, with patches of sunlight appearing now and again to blind the watchers. After the hunt is over, O’Shea briefly moves indoors for a few pints and a drink from the silver trophy itself for the winner, before returning back to the carpark and the muddy roadside, where the less fortunate are heading home. The last image in the photobook peers into a car with an older man behind the wheel, his two Kerry Beagles posing for the picture through the open widows, all three looking a bit weary from the day’s fun.

Building on a 2020 career-spanning photobook The Light of Day (also published by RRB, here) and a 2022 retrospective museum exhibit at the Photo Museum Ireland (here), this photobook dives deeper into O’Shea’s archive, offering evidence of the depth and complexity he has applied to many of his long running projects. Kingdom of Hounds could have easily drifted into bland cliché, but it instead teems with life, particularly in the ways it authentically and compassionately delves into the community of men who are following this hunt tradition. The fact that I can readily imagine the endless masculine banter, the competitive shouting, the soggy wetness, and the incessant barking heard across the hillsides says these photographs have indeed charmed me with their unexpected magnetism.

Collector’s POV: Tony O’Shea does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his Instagram page.

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