John A. K. Donovan closes his eyes reverently as he recites the poem, quoting from the Irish Lord Dunsany. And beneath the steady baritone you can sense the mists forming, as they did the night Segresia died. Back from his haloed head, A flaming tail streamed far. This way and that it sped And waved from star to star. And, as I saw, it shot Like searchlights through the sky, And I knew my hound had got To Heaven as well as I.
"When she died," says Donovan, 73, "I couldn't stop crying for more than an hour, more than I ever cried even at the funerals of very dear friends."
And, like Dunsany, Donovan is certain his Segresia -- his very favorite Irish wolfhound -- made it, tail wagging, through the pearly gates.
"I believe dogs have souls."
Donovan, a Falls Church attorney, claims to be the nuttiest trial lawyer in Virginia. And there is abundant reason to believe that the former state senator, dog lover and prankster nonpareil is without equal in local legal circles.
"I even have the judges laughing on the bench," he asserts, his ample belly shaking in agreement. "It's an Irish disease."
Recently Donovan was honored by the literati of the canine world in New York, where he was named winner of a Dog Writers Association of America contest for his book, "The Dogs in Shakespeare."
No matter that Donovan had never heard of the association, headed by his Fairfax County publisher, William W. Denlinger. It was an accolade he accepted with pleasure, a just reward after his other literary achievements: "You and Your Irish Wolfhound" and Gaelic Names for Celtic Dogs."
A fourth book "Dogs in Philosophy," is scheduled for publication next year.
"They're coffee-table books," Donovan says of the slim volumes. "They're very humorous and very readable," and, he says, much in demand. "People can't get enough of them."
The inspiration for his prose is outside, four grinning examples of a breed that begs the definition of huge. On 51 ounces daily of canned meat and dry food each, they grow to 7 feet tall standing on their hind legs.
Donovan and his wife Mary decided on wolfhounds in 1968 when they realized that raising draft horses on their one-acre plot in Fairfax County was out of the question. Since then they have made champions of the beasts, limiting production to one litter every two years because, "We're just plain jealous. We don't want everybody to have one."
In 1951, Donovan beat the odds and won a Northern Virginia seat in the state Senate. "My opponent," he recalls, "dropped leaflets from an airplane reflecting on my [Irish Catholic] ancestry."
While he was there (his tenure lasted through 1964), he pushed through the bill he remembers most fondly, the one whose full impact is yet to be felt: allowing railroads to run along highway median strips.
"What a wonderful bill," Donovan says.
His wife -- and she admits it -- made him quit the Senate when the political intrigue became oppressive. Still beguiling juries with his tireless wit, he now putters around the house in baggy slacks, blue canvas deck shoes and a wide, green tie bearing the profile of a smiling hound.
The couch is draped with tattered blankets in deference to the creature comforts of his brood, all blessed by the local Catholic bishop. The bookcases are stacked high with Irish volumes; the mantelpiece is a parade of porcelain models of his longed-for draft horses. t
Donovan sits with delight, and not a little difficulty, on the couch with his tumbler of Dewar's scotch. The 10-year-old Barnaboy rumbles into the living room on arthritic hindquarters -- his legs like ancient redwoods, his head the size of Maine, his beautiful eyes brimming with loving solicitude.
When Barnaboy chooses to sit, he simply backs up and parks his Lower 48 on the nearest cushion. "That's his favorite chair," explains Mary Donovan, as Barnaboy attempts to share a seat with a visitor.
On the subject of his books, Donovan's eyes glaze and he falls curiously silent. It is almost as if the depths of his passion for the hound were too much for the aged artificer to articulate. Mostly he writes at night, he says, because he can't sleep while under the influence of the muses. He slips downstairs to fill legal pads longhand with his doggy prose.
"The Dogs in Shakespeare" purports to contain every quote pertaining to pooches in 37 of the bard's plays and four of his poems. Donovan's favorite is from "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," when Launce assumes responsibility for a deed his dog has done on a tavern table leg.
"How many masters would do this for their servant?" Launce declares.
But "Dogs in Philosophy" is his favorite, says Donovan, "and I think it will be the most popular."
In it, he attempts to prove that there's a little person in even the biggest dog. "You know, the dog is much more susceptible to hypnotism," he explains, "and has far greater powers of extrasensory perception. You can hypnotize a dog by hitting it on the back."
Both his brother and his father died in the house, he says. "Each time the soul left the body, the dog howled. That really gets ya, doesn't it?"
In the basement where the pups are whelped, one wall is loosely papered with New Yorker magazine covers dating to 1951. Dozens of ribbons from past victories in the dog show ring fade slowly on their perches. And in a corner bookcase, beside the bound volumes of National Geographic from 1925, old 78 records succumb to a glorious mold.
"When I was younger, I sang amateur Italian opera," says Donovan, suddenly breaking into the prologue from "I Pagliacci." "Isn't that beautiful?"