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January 10, 2006

Jorocs goes hunting - Five Days, Five Packs, Two Countries

Posted by Jorocs

My youngest daughter asked:

Are you sure you're up to it?
Up until now, I had failed to comprehend that two plus three equals five. It had all started with Sean, the Kilkenny huntsman, inviting us for a Friday in Ireland to hunt his pack. It then transpired that while we were there, Pat wanted us to have Saturday with the Duhallow. Then Dee said:
While you're here you might as well have Sunday with the Clare's, to be sure.
In the flurry of organisation I had forgotten that I would be hunting the two days previously in England. I suddenly questioned myself, was I up to it?

Ah well, I'd treat it like a marathon and aim to get to the end rather than enjoy the scenery, but it was going to be a challenge, both on the fitness level and my ability to stay on over the famous Irish banks.

The first day of the five was with the local pack in England. This was delayed by an hour due to the frost. It started at the home of a retired foxhunter, who still insisted on giving a marvellous lawn meet with the entire village turning out. There followed a lively day but it was extremely difficult for hounds to own the line of the duster. This is the piece of rag on the end of the whip which is soaked in each hunts' particular concoction for hounds to follow.

Our own bottle of this foul smelling stuff had been verified to do the job by the local police force when they attended to oversee a day's hunting. Unfortunately for them, the terrier man accidentally spilt some of the noxious smelling liquid on their uniform as he applied it to the duster. This disgusting smell unfortunately lasts for days. They also happened to drive into a field and someone inadvertently locked the gate while they were still in there. Such are the trials of some local police men, but they had to admit hounds screamed on the line of the scented duster.

The next day, we hunted with the neighbouring ducal pack, which met at the farm of a friend. On leaving the meet, we preceded to draw the fields behind in search of the scent laid by the duster. It is possible in such situations that we occasionally disturb foxes; in fact, before we ever leave the meet, outriders are sent off to survey the countryside to watch out for any foxes moving and to warn the huntsman of their presence and so reduce the possibility of him accidentally hunting a fox. This can create confusion with the general public who imagine a holloa is to draw the hounds to the fox, rather than the reverse. Because of these observers it is fast becoming obvious that in at least thirty percent of the country we hunt, foxes have been completely eradicated. Presumably the lampers now feel that they have free reign, with no need to respect the vulpine breeding season, with the result that there are no breeding foxes left.

But suddenly, hounds are away – screaming on the line of the duster, crossing a busy main road to access a good piece of country and provide a spectacle to the motorist of things carrying on very much the same. Down across the grass vale, under the main line railway bridge, over the brook and out onto the parkland beyond. This was surely a furious pace with several empty saddles and loose horses:

Nearly as good as the real thing - I hope it isn't!
Hounds checked in a farmyard, but the huntsman cleverly lifted them, crossing the road onto the old showground and picked up the line of the duster again beside the old railway line. There followed a very touch and go, stop-start hunt, the complete opposite of the previous twenty minutes, with the duster eventually found stuffed up a drainpipe beneath a gateway. There followed a quiet afternoon, with hounds working hard to own the line of the duster.

Back home, a hurried change, and a quick hour to Bristol airport, the wife and I, middle daughter and her boyfriend, the non-riding, Guinness-drinking camp follower. A rush through customs, onto the plane and an hour later we land at Shannon. Leaving the women to reclaim baggage, the camp follower and I retire to the bar and two pints of Guinness. Not bad, having left home three hours earlier. Suddenly, Dee is striding through the bar; looking very stylish like some elegant model in her leather boots, corduroy jumpers, yellow waistcoat and white stock:

Ah to be sure, I've just had a day hunting with the County Clare's.
With a pint of Guinness in my hand, I'm thinking:
If this is Heaven, I've found it.
She whisks us from the airport to the home of John and Helen, our hosts for the night. John is an old friend – in appearance very like a jovial Irish leprechaun.

After a wholesome meal, our hosts fill us with whiskey and terror by showing us a video of the thrills and spills of hunting in Ireland. After this, we are ready for bed.

Five o'clock the next morning finds us struggling into our hunting clothes and out into the pitch blackness where the horses are being loaded into the lorry. The wife and I climb into the Luton above the cab, and fitfully sleep for two hours during the drive to Thomastown, and onto the Kilkenny Hunt kennels.

Upon arrival, we peer out of the lorry windows at the dripping landscape with the misty mountains rising in the background. This is the beautiful Mount Juliet, where the kennels are situated. Sean greets us with his usual cheery smile, surrounded by his hounds, having just bought them back from exercise. After an enormous Irish breakfast, including the wonderful white pudding, we leave, having been assured all the horses were loaded, for another hour's drive to the meet. With the usual Irish chaotic organisation, middle daughter's horse is discovered by a late leaver still tied up in the stable yard. But a trailer is attached to a Jeep, and the animal is despatched to join us.

We unbox three miles from the meet and I find I have been given a let down granny stirrup, which is quite useful since the animal is pirouetting and plunging like a circus horse at my attempt to mount. But once I'm aboard, everyone sets off at a flat out canter for the meet before I have time to get my stirrup back up, and the animal is unstoppable.

I therefore arrive at the meet in one piece but in a very lopsided position. We move off from the meet and draw a wooded hillside blank, but remember this is proper hunting. Moving on to some walled Irish pasture, this now involves jumping the famous Irish banks and drains. This will really test my courage and ability. Imagine a four foot high wall, eighteen inches wide, with a ten foot brook on both sides. The horse has to leap over the first brook, onto the top of the wall, and they tell you he then pauses to change legs. I can only tell you he pauses momentarily to scrabble with his feet, to maintain his balance and fire off the top of the wall across the brook the other side. I feel I accomplish this - under scrutiny from the indigenous population, who seem to be taking a great interest in the visiting hunting correspondent and his stickability - with some credibility.

Middle daughter also equipped herself very well, but we were both very lucky in having good mounts. Hers was an exceptional 14"2, and when I showed interest in him, I was told there was a waiting list of over seventy people who wanted to buy him. But he proved capable of jumping anything that came his way, enormous hedges, and a five bar gate were meat and drink to him yet he would still stand like a rock and not fret.

Hacking back to the box, beside the huntsman with his hounds amiably trotting around his heels, we discussed the day, loaded the hounds, and stood on the roadside emptying a bottle of scotch between the half dozen honoured few to make it to the end of the day. Then to the village pub, with a peat fire, and compulsory Guinness consumption before getting into the car and being driven two hours to the Duhallow country by Pat who had hunted with us all day. Pat is John's best friend but is the complete opposite being a six feet six beanstick who varies his voice from bass to tenor in the space of every sentence, with an Irish brogue so thick it's difficult to follow.

As soon as we arrived at his lovely farmhouse, a chorus of children surrounded us, dragging off our hunting coats and boots, and were soon busy scrubbing them clean for the following day. After luxuriating in hot baths, we came down to a meal of homemade soup, home made bread and home grown Irish beef, reminiscing on how well the day went and how we had managed to acquit ourselves satisfactorily, over another bottle of Scotch.

The following morning, we were up and away after another wonderful Irish breakfast, and driven for an hour to the meet. On arrival in the middle of the village, since we arrived early for once, I went to inspect what I took to be the War memorial in the middle of the village square. This monument had been raised to the:

glorious heroes of this village, who were brutally murdered by the English in 1920.
I'll never understand Irish politics.

Once again, Irish organisation was to the fore, and the lorry delivering the horses had broken down, so they had been transferred to a trailer. They arrived at last but one of the horses had apparently had never been in a trailer before and was now refusing to back out. After this delay, we hurriedly cantered down the main street after the disappearing field (everything seems to be done at a canter here).

Hounds seemed to find a fox straight away and we set off at a gallop across the field with a large brook running across the middle which was so big a fallen horse was trotting up and down in it with just his ears showing above ground level. By now a seasoned Irish foxhunter, I instructed the wife to grab the neck strap and let the horse do the rest. She refused, informing me that a tight neck strap would stop the horse jumping. This resounding statement was followed by a resounding splash. As I galloped after her disappearing loose horse, I was pursued by an apoplectic red-faced Irish man shouting:

Stop! Stop! Stop! I'm in charge, and when there's a loose horse and I shout "Stop!" You stop.
I politely explained that I knew there was a loose horse and I had been about to retrieve it but it had now gone about five miles down the road.

Having reunited wife with horse (displaying less gratitude and enthusiasm to remount the horse than might be expected) and ourselves with the field, the next exciting obstacle was a one of those famous Irish doubles, brook, wall, brook. I offered to jump my horse over and walk back and jump hers over as by now her confidence and courage were completely depleted, but on close inspection we both reasoned that all three obstacles were impossible to traverse on foot. So I went, she followed, holding onto the neck strap and harmony was restored in the household.

Once again, we had been lent brilliant horses. As yesterday hounds hunted strongly in the woodland but found it difficult in the open. We negotiated some awesome obstacles, had some stunning views hunting across hillside and it was pointed out that the smoke and steam was rising from the about to be closed sugar beet factory which would be the end of the sugar beet industry in Ireland, due to recent CAP reforms.

The day ended again with the compulsory pub, peat fire and Guinness before being driven back to Limerick to spend that night with Dee. Fortunately the Clare's don't meet till twelve so we managed to get a long lie-in, followed by a desultory time getting ready, until it suddenly occurred to everyone that we had more horses then trailers so we would have to rush in order to hack to the meet. The horse I was given was cold backed i.e. having a strong tendency to buck when first mounted. I could see - from the manner in which the whole family stood around the yard in a muted tense anticipation - that they anticipated some entertainment. The secret to riding a cold backed horse is to keep it in a straight line, and feeling rather pleased with myself at providing absolutely no home entertainment I set off with John's seven-year-old son on his pony as my guide. Unfortunately after half a mile he exclaimed:

Oh Shute the dog!
At least I think this was what he said. This was the same large Labrador dog that had mated with the family's miniature Jack Russell who had given birth to two puppies in the night. The appearance of this hound involved returning to the yard three times, before giving up and letting it accompany us to the meet.

Not only were we short of boxes. It transpired that John's horses shared a saddle and bridle, as he reasoned he couldn't ride them both at once. As hounds moved off, his mare was still in a headcollar while Helen scoured neighbouring stables for some tack. My daughter was put on the grey pony that John had borrowed for himself:
To be sure, they'll only let me on it, as it's completely unstoppable.
As I wondered why my daughter had decided to overtake the field, hounds and huntsman, John was galloping down the road with a mobile phone clamped to his ear trying to relocate us. My daughter was extremely pleased to see him return and reclaim the grey pony. There followed once again some very hard paced hunting and jumping although they are a drag pack in all but name and were slightly miffed when I accidentally discovered a fox which they felt, since I was a visitor, they should try to hunt. This took place with limited success. The spectators waited patiently until the expected line was resumed. There followed some fast and furious galloping and jumping over walls, ditches and the biggest hedge I've ever jumped in my life – only six achieved it, the unstoppable grey pony landing in the middle. Afterwards back to the pub which sounded like a supermarket since it was called Setprices - more Guinness, steaks and a trip back to Shannon Airport.

Three people hunted over three days on six fabulous horses, one fall and one step off in a bog (my daughter). Words cannot convey my gratitude to my Irish friends but now we’'e on the plane home the only problem is that I'll have to go back and do it all over again. I'm hooked!

Jorocs writes about hunting life for the Social Affairs Unit. To read more by Jorocs, see Hunting.

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