To Tano Neville, an advertising man and part-time farmer of Chester County, Pa., fox hunting has been a ruling passion for more than a quarter century, and when he saw a chance last winter to indulge in his favorite sport in Ireland, he seized it. By a happy coincidence, Photographer Toni Frissell had also recently finished riding to hounds in the same area. Though she was near Dublin, he farther south at Clonmel, their stories met in New York, and on the following pages they are combined to give a vivid picture of the eternally fascinating Irish hunting scene. Nowhere is its tradition and allure better exemplified than in this picture of the Meath Hunt (whose joint master, Charles S. Bird III, incidentally, is another impassioned American, from Boston) riding forth past the ruins of an ancient abbey to the first covert of the day.
'IT WAS FUN ALL THE WAY'
While Photographer Toni Frissell shows in pictures the course of a day's run with the Meath Hunt, Tano Neville describes his adventures with the Tipperary, Scarteen and other Irish hunts during his two weeks' stay.
Three things stand out in my memories of our fox-hunting trip to Ireland: the ruggedness of the hunting there, the mad pace of the activity and the boundless excitement of it. I have never known rougher riding. Brambles, thorns, branches tearing at our clothes, crazy changes in elevation with the horse alternately taking straight off like an ICBM or nose-diving off a bank and landing with a back-splintering thud.
Never a letup, something doing every minute, foxes galore and one run after another. And all this on a higher level of excitement than anything we do—the riders, old or young, male or female, charging impossible places, pushing their way through impenetrable thickets, taking desperate odds on a certain fall to keep up with the hounds. It was fun to be with them; it was fun all the way.
January 12, 1959
Of the four of us who took the trip, two were over 50, the other two over 60. In alphabetical order, there is first Ted Baldwin, dairy farmer, ex-professional ballplayer and one of the best men with a horse in America; then Jack Bausman, gentleman farmer and sportsman; next, Albert Nesbitt, industrialist, company director and civic leader; and, finally, myself. All of us ride with the Brandywine and Mr. Stewart's Cheshire Hounds in Chester County, Pa.
We stayed at Oaklands, near Clonmel, a lovely place run as a guest house by the Misses Cleeve, its owners. Vera Cleeve supervised the house with consummate artistry, saw to it that we ate royally, slept comfortably and had clean, dry clothes to wear every morning. This last was no mean feat. Ireland was wet and muddy, and we came in every evening covered with mud from head to foot, and usually soaked through with rich Irish mud as well.
Edith Cleeve supervised our hunting. She decided which packs we should go out with each day, and it was she who procured horses for us—one horse for each man for 12 successive days. Considering that there were hardly any livery stables left in that part of Ireland and that in consequence she usually had to hire from private owners, the arrival of four horses at each meet was a daily miracle. But we got good horses.
For our first day's hunting Edith Cleeve sent us out with the Tipperary hounds. A lawn meet—a meet at which we were invited into the house and offered a drink. Our host was Irish and his charming wife from, of all places, Oklahoma.
There were about 30 riders and probably as many on foot. Nesbitt met Brown Robin, a horse from which no hazard of bank or ditch could part him. Bausman met Seal, a grand old horse who took care of several of us during our stay, was never down, rarely made a mistake and stayed sound throughout a series of tough days which injured at one time or another almost every other horse we had. Baldwin met his "little horse"—I don't know whether he even had a name—who carried him wonderfully this day but went less well on subsequent days, either because he tired or because his basic greenness eventually showed through. I had Ned-dins, an enormous gray with large "gray-horse tumors" behind his ears. Despite his size, Neddins could jump like a cat, but he was too big and fat to gallop for long.
The first covert was drawn blank, a rare happening, but the next held a fox, and our Irish fox hunting began. A minute or two on a hard road, then onto a dirt road, then up a driveway and out into the fields—little, three-to five-acre Irish fields, 90% of them grass and all of them running water. The fields had an inch or two of slop, but underneath that there was hard ground. So the horses were sliding around but not sinking in enough to exhaust themselves—actually, it was grand galloping country. And it was that way every day—we squelched our way across Ireland, every step, a noise I will always remember.
My first obstacle was a small post and rail, such as we get in Chester County. My gray lurched over it with great enthusiasm, and that was the last American jump we had during our stay. We had a few of what the Irish call "timber" fences—planks placed across gaps in banks with a ball of brambles thrown under them—but first and foremost, during the rest of our stay, we "jumped" banks or stone walls.
I use the quotation marks advisedly; you don't jump banks as we understand jumping in America. You scramble to the top and jump down. And there are two main kinds of banks: those with a broad top on which a horse can pause or even walk around, and the razorbacks which come to a peak and have no top to stand on at all.
Negotiating banks is made even more complicated by the fact that there are always ditches, dry or wet, on one or both sides of every bank. The horse, therefore, usually has to jump over a ditch first. Banks ranged in height from four to 10 feet; ditches ranged in width from three to around eight feet, and the combination was impressive.
It was amazing how clever those big horses were. Most of the ones we rode could jump 50 of those hairy razorbacks during the course of a day with hardly a stumble. Yet there often wasn't a reasonable place for their feet. After five or 10 horses had jumped, however, a sort of foothold would appear near the top of the bank, like a step cut into the ice by a mountain climber.
And what is the rider doing while the horse is going through his contortions! He's as busy as a paper-hanger with one arm and an itch.
1) He hangs on grimly with arms and legs while the horse shoots out from under him up the bank. 2) He tries to see where he's going. 3) He ducks around the inevitable, hairy, thorny corruption on the top of the bank. 4) He gets ready for the horse to shoot out from under him again when he kicks off from the bank. 5) He does his best to land looking like an old English hunting print—lying back, feet out front. This posture is very un-American because we land with body forward. But, believe me, in Tipperary you land with a crash into the stirrups, your body more or less in a straight line with your legs, the whole unit tilted back or you roll right off over the horse's head.
We had three good runs on three separate foxes that day. It was gallop and scramble, scramble and gallop all the way. Little grass fields alternated with hairy razorbacks. There were many gaps and gates in the corners of the fields, so we didn't jump all the time. But we jumped enough. And boy! did the horses fall! We counted 10 falls this first day, and there must have been several that we didn't see. Yet we rarely saw anybody hurt or even shaken up. Soft ground, slow falls, mostly caused by the horse making a misstep while coming off a bank—it was remarkable how seldom it amounted to more than a muddy spot on the back of one's coat. Jack Bausman's horse, for instance, came down backward off a bank and sat on Jack's leg. On frozen ground in America a fall like that would have been disastrous. In Ireland, Jack's leg was merely pushed into the mud. No harm done except that his breeches were soaked and Jack sat in a pool of water for the rest of the day.
There are many more differences between Chester County and County Tipperary. The attitude of the hunt staff, for instance. In Ireland they see their job as one of providing sport for the field. They fear, it seems to me, that the field will get bored or impatient unless there's something doing every minute, so they leave the meet at a fast trot and hurry over to the first covert. If the hounds draw blank they are lifted quickly and roaded quickly to the next covert. At a check the huntsman waits a minimum of time for hounds to make their own cast. Then he casts them himself at a trot or even at a canter.
When a hound first speaks on a line and goes away on it, it galvanizes the whipper-in into almost hysterical activity. He's onto the rest of the pack like lightning, hustling them out of covert and putting them on. It's hurry, hurry, hurry every second. If these had been large fields continually crowding the hounds, I could have understood this driven attitude on the part of the hunt staff. But they were not. We had as few as 20 in the field and never more than 50.
And the traffic jams! In Chester County everybody gets very polite in front of a jump. We wait our turn. In fact, we are likely to let a woman go ahead as though we were going into dinner in a private home. But not in Ireland. None of that "after you, Alphonse" courtesy there. It's each for himself and devil take the hindmost. You charge in, pushing the weaker members, such as women and children, aside, and hustle over to the next fence. At first we were courteous, but we got to be just as ruthless as the rest of them. If we hung back for a split second, six people would slip in ahead of us and we found ourselves badly left. It's the English convention, I think. Fox hunting is a steeplechase. One tries to beat the other fellow instead of waiting for him.
The worst hazard was the youngsters. It was vacation time and there were swarms of them out with us. They would slip in front of us, cut us off and in general behave as though we didn't exist. We were scared of hurting them. Some of those big elephants of ours would have annihilated their ponies if there had been the slightest misstep at an unlucky moment.
Holes, or "earths," in Ireland are invariably in the banks. There are no holes of any kind in the fields. No ground hogs—and all the rabbits have been killed by myxomatosis. We got out of the habit of watching where we were going. We let the horse gallop as he liked and kept our eyes off the ground and on everything going on around us. Almost all our runs ended at a hole. If it wasn't too far from a hard road, Mickey, the whipper-in, would be sent galloping off to get the terrier. Off he would go lickety-split, standing up in his stirrups—that boy never sat down all day and he had only one gait, a full" gallop—to reappear shortly, still galloping, with a bushy-coated little terrier under one arm, its head bobbing in time with the horse's gait. The terrier would be dropped on the ground and without a moment's hesitation would disappear into the hole. Shortly after, a continuous high-pitched yapping would convey to the onlookers that the terrier had found its prey' and was marking it for us. A few judicious passes with a shovel, an iron stake or two thrust into the ground to steer him toward an exit and the fox would decide it was time to make a break for it. Out he would come, and off we would go, hell-for-leather and determined that this time he would not elude us. But he always did. We never killed a fox that once went under, even when we bolted him two or three times. If they were foxes that wanted to go to earth, they did it again and again. We killed some foxes, not many, considering that we hunted as many as five on some days and never fewer than two, but they were always foxes that stayed above ground.
It is worth mentioning that hounds do not draw (try to pick up a fox's scent) across country in Ireland. They are taken to a covert—which may be a small thicket of scrubby trees or a patch of gorse or even some man's ornamental shrubbery at his entrance gates—and leu'd in (encouraged to go in and find him). If the fox is not at home, hounds are picked up (called out of covert and made to pack up behind the huntsman's horse) and taken at a fast trot to the next covert. This may be a few hundred yards away or two or three miles. The intervening country is totally ignored—to the extent that between coverts some of the women would dismount, give their horses to a groom and drive to the next covert by car!
There is usually a field master, and while drawing coverts we followed him or her quite faithfully. But when hounds run, it's a free-for-all. I rarely took my own line because I didn't know the country at all and knew so little about banks that I liked to give someone else the privilege of proving to me that any particular spot was jumpable. On the few occasions that I did take my own line I was always lucky and did myself a lot of good. I avoided the recurrent traffic jams and would find myself out front in that heady atmosphere where the hunt staff reigned. I also treated myself to a few thrills. Once I climbed to the top of an innocent-looking bank about six feet high only to find that the other side was perpendicular, at least 10 feet high, and had a yawning eight-foot ditch at its base. The horse seemed willing, so down we went with a jarring crash and somehow survived. After that particular landing a wonderful old Englishman came up to me and said, "Jolly good show, old boy." Little did he know—or perhaps he did—about the swarm of butterflies flapping around in my stomach.
Thus it went, day after day, for two solid weeks, except on Sundays. We hunted with the Tipperary hounds, the Kilkenny, United, Duhallow and Limerick packs. On the 13th day we hunted with the Scar-teen or Black and Tans, and on this day fate finally caught up with Albert Nesbitt, who so far had survived every ditch and bank in County Tipperary. When it came, Albert's fall made history.
The Scarteens have been owned and bred by the Ryan family for 200 years or so. They stem from the St. Hubert hounds of France and during their long history have hunted hare and stag, as well as fox. Thaddeus (Taddy) Ryan, the present master, is a relentless huntsman with a wonderful touch on the horn and also happens to be an extraordinarily handsome man. An Apollo type in more ways than one, he could charm his hounds with his music into doing anything. It was a real privilege to go out with him.
We met at a small village with two or three pubs and the lovely Irish name of Caherconlish. Pat Hogan, a local horseman of considerable fame for his feats on horseback, was master and lent a touch of wildness to the day with his noisy enthusiasm and his unhesitating foolhardiness in charging at "impossible" places. I was on Black Velvet, the best horse I rode in Ireland. Albert was on a horse he had ridden before and liked.
We found in the first covert and holed after a hot 10 minutes. Two foxes had been seen leaving the covert, so we promptly went back and picked up the line of the other one. After a very fast 15 minutes, during which Black Velvet and I negotiated some razorbacked banks with unerring skill, we killed. The fox actually reached an earth and went in, but he didn't go far enough. One of the hounds went in after him, pulled him out and the rest of the pack made short work of him.
We roaded a little way over to a swamp, got a fox out in full view of the field, and then we really started to run and jump. Pat Hogan set the style by going straight across country no matter what loomed up in front of him. My Black Velvet was a great horse to follow him with. I found myself jumping things without breaking stride, a thing I usually reserve for post and rail in America, not for those ghastly obstacles we had in Ireland. We came to a watering trough. To my amazement, Pat Hogan cleared it, so Black Velvet did, too. We had "doubles" in this part of the country, banks with wide ditches on each side.
After a series of these awkward doubles, we came to a "single" with a lot of growth on top. Albert went ahead, his horse bobbled and Albert finished up on the horse's ears with most of his body over on the "off" side. Ted and I did not fail to make a couple of wisecracks, but Albert managed to struggle back into the saddle.
Then came two or three more jumps, all tough, and then two ditches with a narrow strip of ground between. Ted went over it, I went next, and Albert followed me. After clearing it, I fortunately decided I really ought to look back. I did so, just in time to see a horse heave itself up out of the water and start climbing slowly out of the second ditch. When I first looked there was nothing, absolutely nothing to see. After the horse emerged there was again nothing, nothing at all for about 20 seconds, although, of course, it felt like 20 minutes. Then, finally, what looked like a piece of the muddy bank detached itself from the rest of the scenery. It might have been anything, a log, a seal or a man.
It turned out to be a man, slowly struggling out of the mud in the second ditch, the same ditch the horse had come from. He staggered out, water cascading off him, and started squelching his way over to me. Only then did I recognize him. It was Albert, in the worst mess I ever expect to see, but unhurt. His horse had evidently put in a bad one and slipped into the second ditch instead of clearing it. Both horse and rider had completely submerged. As the luck of the fall had it, Albert had gone in on his back, stretched out horizontally. All of him had gone under and all of him was covered with mud. His blue master's cap, face, white stock and black coat were all the same color, mud color, a rich brown. Albert was giggling from nervous shock—and I don't blame him.
I caught his horse, dismounted, knotted the reins, which had broken, steered the horse into a low place so that Albert could reach the stirrup in spite of his soaked and clinging breeches, and we started to look for a road. We jumped one more ditch, found a road and hadn't gone more than a few hundred yards when that human bloodhound, our driver, Tom Taylor, appeared. Albert dismounted, got Tom to pull off his boots, emptied a quart of rich Irish mud out of each, took off most of his outer clothing, wrapped himself in several coats and told Tom to take him back to Oaklands. He drove 56 miles home, dashed into the house and peeled the rest of his clothes off, took a hot bath, dressed in somewhat drier clothes, drove the whole long 56 miles back to Caherconlish and came charging into the pub, where we were talking over the day's excitement, to find out exactly what he had missed! You can't keep a good man down. Not for long anyway.
Four days later, on a Friday night after our last hunt, we caught a plane at Shannon and flew back to America. We arrived in New York early Saturday morning, hopped a plane for Philadelphia, were whisked out to the country and went fox hunting with our usual American packs by 11 o'clock. It was, I admit, a gesture more out of bravado than pleasure—we were really tired—but it was worth it just to be able to say to our friends, in an offhand way: "Now yesterday, when I was out with the Limerick in Ireland...."