One of the most spectacular sights in the Irish countryside is to watch a pack of hounds in full cry followed by a group of riders on horseback.
The unmistakeable sound of the hunting horn as the mounted riders spread out across the countryside, the Masters and the Huntsman in traditional scarlet jackets and others wearing dark green or black hunting jackets with white jodhpurs, etc.
This tradition has been a feature of the Kilkenny country landscape for centuries and is a way of life for many sportsmen and women who ride to hounds. For instance the Kilkenny Hounds were formed as far back as 1797.
Of course it is not confined to mounted riders, the ‘terrier men’ also play an important part when the fox has ‘gone to ground’. Groups of people, often entire families follow the hunt in cars, etc. and enjoy watching the mounted riders skilfully jump natural obstacles as they follow the pack.
Unfortunately, there are many anti-hunting and anti-country pursuits’ people today who do their utmost to cause mischief for those who enjoy hunting. There are also legitimate objectors such as farmers who might see the hunt as doing damage to crops, cutting up pasture land or perhaps frightening sheep. In truth the hunt is responsible for a bit of damage occasionally, but it is also true to say that every possible precaution is taken to keep this to the very minimum.
In the past hunting on horseback with a pack of hounds was mostly confined to ‘the gentry’, those who owned and lived in their country mansions, or a handful of wealthy, well-heeled professional people such as the local squire, or high-ranking army officer. Not so today – most of the people who make up the various hunts are horse-loving farmers, perhaps the local parish priest, medical doctor, or ancestors of the one-time ‘landed gentry’ who now work the land themselves as ordinary hard-working farmers.
Far removed from the ‘landlord’ or local squire image was the late Canon John Kearns, one-time parish priest of Castlecomer, who was a keen enthusiast of the North Kilkenny Hunt. ‘The Canon’ as he was known in the ’Comer area, was a hugely popular man who, as well as riding to hounds, fostered Gaelic games among the young of the area.
When the ‘Canon’ called to a farm in the countryside around Castlecomer there was nothing he liked better than a mug of tea while sitting beside the hob. Canon Kearns is well remembered arriving on house visits in the ‘Comer or Dunnamaggin areas with an old dark green ‘tam’ perched on the side of his head.
On one or two occasions when the hunt arrived at the gates of a farm they found the farmer in a irate mood telling them that he was not allowing the hunt to ride over the land because their horses were ‘cutting up’ pastures. After having a quick confab together the huntspeople would sometimes send the popular Canon to meet the landowner at the front gate and within minutes the farmer’s mood had changed when the Rev. Canon asked with a whimsical smile on his face ‘be gob do we really do all that much damage on ye? God rest your poor father sure he never once stopped us’. Within a couple of minutes the horses were trotting over the land with the owner’s full permission.
The anti-hunting people are getting better organised all the time and are continuously recruiting urban dwellers to join them, people who have little or no knowledge of countryside pursuits. The anti-hunting fraternity often feed these naive people colourful propaganda of alleged terrible suffering endured by the hunted animal. But nature itself is often cruel and if hunted animals are dispatched quickly and mercifully it’s really not nearly as bad as the anti’s try to paint it.
The vast majority of them eat meat regularly, definitely turkey/ham at Christmastime, wear shoes and coats made from leather, without giving a thought as to where the meat and leather has come from.
Despite a few alleged cruel practices committed by some mounted hunts – such as throwing a live ‘drawn’ fox to the pack – it is unlikely that this allegation is true. No true sportsman or sportswoman would condone an action such as this. The proper procedure would be to humanely dispatch the ‘drawn’ animal before throwing the carcase to the hounds.
I don’t dislike the fox, quite the opposite in fact. While doing a bit of hunting with dog and gun I sometimes flush a fox and respond by firing a shot into the air – just to help keep him ‘on his toes’ and not allow it to become trusting of a human.
Of course I know that foxes are classed as vermin, they do catch and eat a few game birds, take an odd still-born lamb etc. but the fox also kills and eats an amount of rats – which is the fox’s main source of food. Reynard’s contribution in helping to keep the rat population down probably outweighs the harm it does. There is a place in the countryside for the fox and the mounted hunt would be anxious to see that this versatile forager survives. Without the ‘madra rua’ the Hunt would not survive as we know it.
What a terrible pity it would be if our children were never to enjoy the picture-postcard scene of the mounted hunt on a frosty morning, in full flight behind a pack of hounds to the thrill of the hunting horn.