Will Cursham takes a tour of three Irish packs, which provides tales of imposing walls, deep drains, double-banks – and great days.
Hunting in Ireland is not for the faint hearted, with imposing walls, deep drains and double-banks. Will Cursham takes a tour of three Irish packs, and returns with great tales of adventure.
With such fearsome obstacles and fast and furious hunting, falls are inevitable. Read riding caps: making modern safety traditional to learn about the Quorn Hunt’s initiative to bring modern safety into hunting tradition.
HUNTING IN IRELAND
There is something fabulous about hunting in Ireland. Whether it is the wilder, remoter countryside, the fearsome obstacles that you encounter, the “craic” that accompanies it or the fact that hounds can still hunt the fox and the hare legally, every visitor returns from hunting in Ireland full of tales of audacious adventure. So imagine my delight when my wife gave me a trip to go hunting in Ireland for my 40th birthday.
I was to hunt with three different packs on three consecutive days, and I could choose which ones to visit. I felt like a child in a sweetshop. During those three days I wanted to experience a true cross-section of Irish hunting, so I phoned my friend, Dermot Hanniffy, to get some advice on where to go. Hanniffy is a font of Irish hunting knowledge and within a few days he came back to me.
“I’ve booked us in with the Killinick Harriers on the Thursday, where we’ll get double-banks; the Stonehall Harriers on the Friday, where we’ll get walls; and the Meath Foxhounds on the Saturday, where we’ll get big drains,” he told me.
THE KILLINICK HARRIERS
Cleristown, County Wexford
My tour of hunting in Ireland started with a bang. No sooner had Hanniffy and I arrived at the meet at Cleristown than Master and huntsman Johnnie Roche put hounds into Johnny Codd’s plantation. We weren’t late; it was just that this was a “dry” meet, meaning that there were no drinks and so no need to wait around.
Like most harrier packs in Ireland, the Killinick hunts the fox rather than hare and it was just a matter of minutes before hounds found their fox. Their cry filled the plantation like organ music fills a cathedral, and not long afterwards they broke covert, with Roche and his whippers-in tearing after them.
We galloped along the side of the plantation and then into open country, sticking to the sides of the fields to avoid causing too much damage to the sodden ground. After a brief pause, hounds carried on at a good pace onto John Rochford’s farm where we met our first double-bank of the day. These obstacles, which consist of a bank guarded by drains (ditches) on each side, are what Killinick country is famed for.
knew that it must be a big one because fieldmaster Pat Whelan, who was already on the far side, shouted “Kick on, lads”, a command that was quickly followed by a succession of splats and curses as one unlucky follower, followed by another, hit the soggy deck.
It is at times like this that you need a good horse and I was lucky enough to be riding one of the best horses in Killinick country, Jack Lambert’s famous Irish draught stallion Killinick Bouncer. Taking matters into his own hands, he leapt over the drain on the take-off side, alighted on the narrow bank and then flew across the drain on the far side. His agility was feline and all I had to do was sit tight.
Once over, I could see hounds streaming in full cry across the fields in front of us. They took us past Joe Scallan’s farm and onto a lane, where Whelan turned and jumped a socking great bank off the lane. He was quickly followed by former Master and huntsman John Stafford as well as James O’Connor and Ciaran Moran. Confusion followed as the next horses refused but once again Bouncer proved his worth by taking me through the mêlée, hopping onto the bank and then flying across the gaping drain on the far side.
I was now in the position that every visitor dreams of, with the fieldmaster and a handful of followers as we raced to keep up with hounds. We hurtled down tracks, along the sides of fields, over banks and through thick coverts. As we topped the brow of one hill, I could see the green pastures of Wexford stretched out in front of us.
Hounds eventually marked their fox to ground in some thick gorse below Edwardstown, and although they hunted a fresh one back to Rochford’s farm at Croase, they could make no more of it after that.
According to Hanniffy, this run had lasted for over an hour and we had covered at least five miles. It was precisely the sort of fast and furious hunt that I had hoped to see and although the rest of the day was much quieter, I felt that it had set me up well for the rest of my tour.
The Killinick Harriers – three meets to visit
Johnnie Roche MFH recommends:
Killinick: great open country and plenty of double and single banks
Cleristown: some of the best double-bank country around
Kilrane: good, open country by the coast
THE STONEHALL HARRIERS
Kilcornan, County Limerick
“Ah, just leave him be,” shouted an enthusiastic young follower to fieldmaster David Moran. Luckily, the cheeky lad was not talking about me but an unfortunate follower whose horse was steadfastly refusing to jump one of the series of walls that we had just tackled.
Hounds had met at hunt chairman PJ Dore’s farm and up until now the day had been quiet and exceedingly wet. We had jumped several walls and even a hedge but hounds had not really hunted yet. In fact, the highlight of my day so far had been meeting the Stonehall’s Senior Master, 91-year-old Michael O’Shaughnessy, in office since 1953, and Ivan McDonagh, Joint Master since 1990.
As we got on to Michael Enright’s farm, things suddenly perked up. The Stonehall’s Old English foxhounds struck up and their voices rose to a spine-tingling crescendo. Huntsman Liam Murphy cheered them on and his black-and-tan pack was soon racing away from us.
The country I now followed Moran over could not have been more different to the country I was in the previous day. The fields were about the same size but were enclosed by stone walls rather than double-banks. These walls look particularly imposing, as they are constructed from large, primeval looking stones, some the size of small boulders.
Over the next few minutes, Moran led us over a succession of these walls and the ground, which was bog-like in places, meant that they caused a fair bit of trouble. Amidst the ensuing chaos, I took Hanniffy’s wife, Emily, as my pilot.
Immaculately turned out in a sidesaddle habit, she flew over the walls like a swallow. My horse, Mojo, a skewbald cob lent to me by Hanniffy’s friend, Barry Fingleton, followed with relish.
With hounds hunting well on ahead, we galloped down a long farm track, at the end of which Moran stopped, turned at right angles and jumped a wall off two strides into the adjoining field. I could hardly believe a horse could jump such a big obstacle off such a short-run but Mojo popped it with ease.
I could see huntsman and hounds just in front of us but Moran suddenly swung left-handed and jumped a large water-trough with a metal pole fixed about two feet above it. Luckily, I had no time to think about it and with my heart in my mouth I tucked in behind Pat Hanly, whose brother, Stephen, farms the land we were on, and Mojo put in an immaculate jump. After tackling a few more walls, we checked.
“I can’t believe I just did that,” exclaimed fellow English visitor Jason Freeman as the hip flasks began to circulate. Neither could I, as this was only Freeman’s second day hunting and he had fallen off at the very first wall of the day. It had only been a 30-minute “burst” but every one of us was buzzing. Although the rest of the day was quiet, we all felt that we had sampled the kind of crazy, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants action that is the essence of hunting in Ireland.
Stonehall Harriers – three meets to visit
Joint Master Ivan McDonagh recommends:
Ballysteen: lovely stone wall country with views over the Shannon estuary
Askeaton: limestone wall country, which is nearly always dry
Wallace’s Cross: great fences, jumping all day
Clonmahon House, Summerhill, County Meath
The third and final day of my fabulous hunting tour took me to one of the most famous packs in Ireland, the Meath. It is the type of hunt that would not look out of place if you transposed it to Leicestershire. Masters and subscribers are turned out immaculately and there are even two packs of hounds.
The bitch pack is hunted by John Henry, while the doghounds are hunted by his brother, Kenny. Before them, their father, Johnny, hunted hounds for 50 years and the success of this hunt is in no small part down to him.
It was the turn of Kenny Henry and the doghounds today, and we met at Clonmahon House, Summerhill, the home of Michael and Geraldine McNally.
We were in racing country here and so it was fitting that one of the first people I met was Joint-Master Norman Williamson, the former National Hunt jockey. Williamson is part of a very experienced mastership that also includes Pat Dillon, Richard Trimble and Andrew Boyd.
When he is not hunting hounds, John Henry acts as fieldmaster and we were soon following him over the Comer brothers’ farm. “Kenny and I understand each other very well but the real challenge of being a fieldmaster is when hounds are running. You have to make sure you don’t get too close to hounds but, at the same time, keep in touch so the field can see them,” said John Henry.
A BERLIN WALL
His challenge today, however, was keeping us entertained while hounds struggled with poor scent. After leaving the Comer brothers’ land, John Henry almost immediately found an enormous double-bank for us to tackle.
The bank looked as big as the Berlin Wall but there was plenty of room on top and my horse, a very smart bay hireling from David Rooney, leapt onto it easily, took time to look where he was going and then floated over the drain on the far side.
Huge drains, rather than double-banks, are the hallmark of this part of Meath country and after hounds found their fox on Maggie Power’s farm, we followed them over several cavernous examples. The way to tackle these obstacles is to let your horse slide part way down one side and then leap across to the other.
Even the best can come a cropper at these great drains and I saw one follower disappear into the dark depths of one of them, as his horse slipped while trying to slither down the take-off side. A few minutes later I saw him, still in his top-hat, being escorted home on a quad bike.
The hunt from Power’s was short-lived, however, and although hounds hunted in fits and starts after that, they never really got going and we spent the rest of the day crossing the country at a leisurely pace, jumping drains as we went.
The day ended at five o’clock and as I watched hounds waiting patiently for their box to arrive, I contemplated my hunting tour. Although I had not experienced any blistering, long hunts, I had been treated to some superb “bursts”, which had given me a true taste of what hunting in Ireland is like. Better still, they had provided me with my own tales of audacious adventure, with which I could now regale my friends once I was back in England.
The Meath – three meets to visit
Huntsman John Henry recommends:
Newcastle: brilliant and full of foxes; you are jumping walls and banks all day
Skyrne: it just keeps producing great sport and has big, hairy ditches
Kilcloon: it has the biggest ditches anywhere in Ireland