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Irish Hunting Extravaganza by Boyce Deverell
Last November I received an unexpected invitation to return to Ireland for a fifty year reunion of my school senior rugby team. All that was missing was the ticket. Having not met any member for the fifty years, would the trip be a waste of time? As it turned out, I went and had a wonderful time catching up. Once memory kicked in, it was as if only a few years had passed.
Hunting was in full swing, and an invite from the master of the Laois Hounds, David Lalor, was all I needed to stay with him. The last time I hunted there was 1972, and as my family are still landowners, I was both a visitor and local. David is a personal friend, which paid dividends as he also provided Hudson, a 17hh 6yo horse to ride. The cost – help groom some of the eight horses out for the day, and introduce No-Nots and Proplaits to his groom! Interesting how the Irish prepare for a day’s hunting. Early feeds and at 9am groom, wash legs and plait. No washing the evening before, just too cold at zero degrees celsius. Once groomed, it’s back in stables till 11am, when all are loaded on the truck for the fifteen to thirty minute drive to the hunt.
Riders are all dressed to hunt, so on arrival at the meet in the village of Clough, it was off to the pub for riding instructions. Oh, nearly forgot, and for a few John Jameson’s to get warm and help the nerves. Not all riders partake of the refreshments and some locals just hack to the meet. Many spectators turn out to see the ‘off’ and at least ten cars follow. Just to show how popular meets are – at Christmas about one thousand spectators turn up for the Boxing Day meet. Noon is the ‘off’, so horses are unloaded and it’s into the saddle. With a field of seventy, David was hoping for fewer riders as it had been raining in Ireland for almost twelve months and the ground was very, very wet.
First draw was almost in the town… and gradually we worked our way away from the village because the fields (paddocks) can be anywhere from five to ten acres and most have electric fences and hedges. Hunting is all about knowing the lie of the land. With such a large field, keeping up is essential for a visitor, and as soon as the first Irish Ditch (bank) appears, so does the fun! Banks are a drain, maybe four feet deep, a bank of say six feet high and on the other side, another drain. One has to spring off the ground, land on the bank and jump over the drain into the next field. Only one problem… many horses don’t make the bank and slide back into the drain. At my first, I chickened out as the rider in front slid into the drain with the horse. Coughing and spluttering, he informed us, as only the Irish seem to be able to do, that the water was ”kinda cold”. Back on his horse, he was over the second time, but seeing about ten falls, I followed a few locals who know the gate’s whereabouts. The next banks were less daunting and with a horse like Hudson, we got over the rest. Two kills, some jumping mud in every direction, but if I am allowed to say so, I missed our big paddocks and sound panels. We hunted till three thirty, and by the time we were back in Clough, it was dark. Light rugs on horses, loaded up, and back to the pub for soup and sandwiches. Never can I remember being so cold. Yet all the riders seemed so happy with their day, and as the Irish say, the craic was mighty!
Second day out was over similar country, and being a Wednesday hunt, a small field of fifty. We seeded to take over the centre of town, and were welcomed by the locals. Another good day out, the rain stayed away, I survived, and Hudson gave me a great ride again. The Laois hunt is well known for its social side, and I was welcomed by the riders, including a jockey who has ridden in several Melbourne Cups.
A few observations: To the Irish, horses are not pampered to the extent they are here, and they are judged very much on how they perform in the field. One could pick up a good hunter for $6000, where five years ago the same horse would have sold for twice the amount. Membership costs are similar to ours and all members cap $33 at every hunt. Pony Club is very much part of hunting and at least twenty kids hunt regularly, with the Laois Club. They are never afraid to tackle Irish Banks, and falling off is part of the fun. There seems to be followers at every bank, and lots of encouragement to keep riding!
Most hunt clubs employ a follower to repair fences, connect wires and generally keep farmers happy. Masters and the huntsman are very conscious of landowners needs and often phone ahead to warn farmers that the hunt is on the way. Thankfully, many farmers still hunt, so they know their neighbours and make sure stock are not unsettled. However, a growing number of landowners don’t want the hunt on their land, especially when it is wet.
The days of charging after the fox, no matter what, are long gone. David seemed to be on the phone all morning checking with landowners and making sure stock were safe for the day’s hunt. There is a lot of stop and go at most hunts due to small paddocks and lots of cover. We are privileged having such great properties to hunt and experience our many long runs. Overseas visitors are no novelty in Ireland and I was surprised how many locals had been to Australia, yet none had hunted here to date. As an aside, our NRG products, although accepted in Ireland, won’t sell for the simple reason….our cost structures are too high. If shipping was reasonable, Hudson would be here in Seville now. Most hunters in Ireland are bred with great temperaments, a natural jumping ability (a great leaper) and are continually in demand in the US and England.
To sum up, I must thank Master David for his generosity and hospitality and the loan of Hudson and all the gear. Also local Vet Grainne for being my minder and bank jumping encourager! I have invited David to hunt with us, especially as the Masters of Foxhounds are holding their International meeting in New Zealand this coming August. It was great to be back in the saddle in Ireland, ride over familiar countryside and experience hunting that many here in Aussie have only seen on videos.
It goes without saying that catching up with my family, school friends and neighbours is always wonderful and as they say in Ireland, “You can take the man out of the bog but you can’t take the bog out of the man!” All in all, Seville is home and Findon my local Hunt Club.