They are not a fashionable pack, the West Waterford Hounds. No dukes hunt with them and no rich Americans underwrite their expenses. Nor do they meet on a pedigreed lawn in front of a stately manor. There are few stately manors in West Waterford's farming country 35 miles northeast of the city of Cork and, besides, the West Waterford's members prefer to meet in a pub.
There are several reasons for that preference—all good ones: Joint Masters Tom and Elsie Morgan share drinks with the farmers nudging the bar at 11:30 a.m. as a sporting gesture. Nick Trigg, hunt secretary, likes meeting in a pub because he is a sociable man with an insatiable appetite for neighborhood news. These are individual preferences; there are also group motives. One group—a small one—likes meeting in a pub because it affords shelter from the rain, although sometimes only just. These pubs are old and drafty, and while the roof is generally sound, the heating is never adequate, and the facilities are marvelously straightforward. When an American woman asked the proprietress of the pub in Millstreet where the Ladies' was, she was told to look outside in the yard where a sow was rooting perfunctorily. "Out there, sweetie," said the pub-woman, "and it stretches the whole 50 miles to Cappoquin." And there is a final contingent—not quite so small and consisting largely of visitors—whose reason for meeting in a pub is more urgent than any of the others: these people need courage.
Courage is usually required in hunting country, but there are different types of courage, and bravery, like horses, must be suited to the kind of country one has to face. Boldness is perhaps paramount in the country north of West Waterford across the Galtee Mountains that is hunted by the famous Scarteen Black and Tans. There banks are broad and protected by yawning ditches up to eight feet deep. A good horse boldly ridden will get across this country because fields are big and fairly free of hidden traps, and once a horse is up on Scarteen bank he can check himself and decide where to jump down. But there are few broad banks and deep ditches in West Waterford. Farmers and regular followers simply do not rebuild worn-down obstacles. When banks erode or ditches fill, farmers put up wire or stack blackthorn and briars against a low place in a wall. The resulting fences are as varied as the imagination of the Irishmen who build them and to try to clear them at a gallop is to insure a horrid and sanguinary end of a day's sport.
The card says the West Waterford Hounds will meet at 11:30 a.m. and when Elsie Morgan takes up her corner position in the pub of the day, they can fairly be said to have met, even though the hounds are still outside, locked up in a trailer, and nothing is going to happen before 12 noon when Elsie will slip out of her green parka and into her pink hunting coat. It is like a judge taking off his topcoat and putting on his robes. Court is now in session.
November 22, 1971
The half hour in the pub is true charity on Elsie's part, because she doesn't need the courage found in the bottom of a shot glass, and she drinks her single glass of port mainly out of courtesy. She doesn't have her husband's facility for chatting with farmers—he mends more fences in half an hour in the pub than in three days with pick and shovel—and she doesn't really seem complete until she is on her horse and clucking instructions to her hounds.
But if Elsie does not need the time to supplement her courage, other people do. The Galtees in the north are steep, and water sluices off the slopes into innumerable gorse-covered canals that complicate the going. In the southern part of the country, near the sea around Youghal, the government is draining the vast bogs, and some of the new ditches that have been cut rival in terror potential anything presented by the country to the north; ditches can swallow up a horse and rider without anybody taking particular notice.
Perhaps the worst rider for the West Waterford country is the competent coward who refuses a drink and knows too much to let the horse have his head. Instead, he will ride cautiously at the rear of the field and when he gets to a big bank it will be partly collapsed under the passage of 20 horses, and the wire that ran low down on the far side will now stretch across the gap at neck level like the ambush in an Autry film. The dry rider is in deep trouble at this point, because unless he gets out of the field quickly he will be abandoned, and anyone who has not experienced it can imagine what it's like to trot about in a pasture surrounded by six-foot banks, hearing only the cawing of crows and the sodden squish of the hooves of a horse you can't hold. West Waterford regulars still frighten newcomers and small children into keeping up front by telling the dreadful story of the death of Major Burke. Burke lagged behind one day while hunting in County Meath. His horse stumbled into a ditch, and by the time anyone noticed that Burke was missing and went back to look for him he was dead—drowned in a few inches of water.
So the wise coward drinks, watching the clock out of the corner of his eye like a fat boy in a tough neighborhood who knows the heavies down the block are talking about him, and when Elsie puts down her glass and begins to pull on her gloves, it's time to pray you won't have to make a scene to get a final double whisky before word is passed to let the hounds out.
The hounds come to the meet in a slatted-wood trailer. Letting down the tailgate is like breeching a cofferdam. A torrent of dogflesh immediately pours out, its enthusiastic constituents purling happily and making for Elsie when they hear their names. Hounds have very little individual personality and they all look alike—one of the characteristics of a good pack. So it isn't easy to put a name to every face as it emerges from the back of the trailer, especially when there are names like Guilty, Manager, Plunder, Rubicon, Pleasant, Garnish, Globule, Gaudy, Dora, Dorcas and Plastic. But Elsie gets them all, and they huddle round the feet of her horse obviously pleased that someone knows them.
These hounds are the achievement of an American, Isaac Bell, whose influence on hound breeding was as great as that of Clausewitz on warfare. Bell was one of the great huntsmen of his time in addition to being a prodigious student of the pedigree and conformation of foxhounds. In 30-odd years of hunting Bell was master of three packs, beginning in 1903 with the Galway Blazers. By the early 1930s he was so badly crippled by arthritis that, after a brief stint riding sidesaddle, he surrendered his mastership of the South and West Wilts. He turned to ocean racing and quickly became a celebrated yachtsman, famed as the builder of Bloodhound, which eventually was purchased by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.
Bell was primarily concerned with the performance of hounds in the field, and years of observation convinced him that very often the best performers were not the best lookers, when judged against the prevailing standards of beauty. Those standards emphasized massiveness and bone at the expense, Bell believed, of pace, drive and concentration. Bell was living in Lismore, the center of the West Waterford country, when Tom and Elsie Morgan arrived in 1949.
The Morgans were fresh from Germany, where Tom Morgan had been stationed as a captain in the British Army. In the middle of the Nazi collapse, a German cavalry unit surrendered to Morgan's artillery battery, and he had put 50 of the most likely troopers on the same number of the best horses and led them nearly 900 miles to a town near Aachen, which was in British hands. Elsie, who had spent the war in Wales, eventually joined him, bringing some hounds with her. For two years the Morgans hunted over most of northern Germany, taking occasional leaves for periods of show jumping and, in Elsie's case, racing. They took over the West Waterford in 1952. When Bell saw Elsie Morgan hunt the pack, he recognized a challenge. "Do what I say," he told her, "and I will breed you a pack of hounds worthy of your talent."
It took Bell two years of breeding and picking and choosing before he presented the Morgans with a foundation pack. Those hounds were an epitome of his thinking. Today's descendants are lighter—both in color and weight—and smaller than their pure English counterparts. They are primarily Fell, or mountain, hounds bred from a stock provided by the College Valley hounds in Northumberland. College Valley is the only other pack that hunts Fell hounds from horseback, the usual practice being to take the pack up a mountain, release them and follow their progress with binoculars. If common sense entered into the fox-hunting equation, it would be a good idea to hunt the West Waterford pack this way, because these hounds are, above all, fast. But Ikey Bell bred his pack for Elsie Morgan to hunt from horseback, and as long as she can keep up, native temerity and strong drink will continue to produce at least a handful who will try and follow her.
It is hard to convey an idea of how fast hounds are because their speed depends so much on the kind of country they are running in. The Scarteen Black and Tans are generally considered to be a fast pack—some say the fastest in Ireland—and on the one occasion, in 1963 at Dirk House, Tipperary, the two packs hunted in a joint meet, the West Waterfords got away from the Tans as soon as the run moved onto a hill. Thaddeus Ryan's family has owned the Black and Tans for more than 200 years, and he hunts the pack today. He loves his hounds as much as any man could, but he is above all a truthful man. "It was astonishing," he recalls. "They went across the fields head to head, my hounds singing the bass and the West Waterfords taking the treble." When the fox ran to earth the West Waterfords were a field ahead of the Tans. The first rider to arrive on the scene was Elsie Morgan.
Elsie Morgan seems to glide across country. She finds an opening on the left if there is none on the right but she never appears to waste time with lateral movement. Elsie wears glasses, and when it rains she can't see, but she still goes through places that appear impenetrable. She has ridden for Ireland in international competitions, and she is known to be willing to ride almost anything. In one continental competition she got a special prize for "the bravest rider of the craziest horse." The horse was named Rooney, and whenever he saw a jump he would race at it, paying no mind to efforts of the rider to stop him. Elsie tried hunting hounds from Rooney for a while, but that activity, in addition to requiring a willingness to go, also demands an ability to stop. Admitting, finally, that she couldn't implant this concept in Rooney's head and hunt the hounds, Elsie gave the horse to Tom, whose responsibilities include managing the field, or followers. As field master, Tom is supposed to be first, and Rooney makes sure he is. If, through inadvertence, another horse gets past Rooney between fences, Rooney leapfrogs him at the next barrier. Tom makes no effort to stop him because he's convinced Rooney can jump anything.
In addition to being a first-rate horsewoman, Elsie Morgan has developed to a rare degree a second talent, one that is indispensable if a horseman wishes to be a huntsman. That is an eye for country. Great generals are supposed to have it, and the British Army still encourages officers to develop their eye by hunting. You don't develop it by following the man in front of you but by going off on your own, spotting shortcuts, taking advantage of gaps, conserving your horse where possible. A well-developed eye for country will tell you, for instance, that the highest part of a bank is often the best place to jump: farmers will rely on the bank to keep livestock in and won't be so likely to string wire across the top. A good eye for country knows that the greenest part of a field is likely to be a bog and he can spot the quickest way across a glen in a second. If you have a good eye, you don't get lost. If you don't have the eye, you had better stick close behind someone who does. But don't choose Elsie Morgan.
Hunting may be divided into three separate phases: the draw, the run and the kill. The proper name for the first phase is "drawing the covert" and it means waiting while the hounds are sent through a wood or copse of trees that foxes are likely to haunt. You continue to draw different coverts until hounds strike the trail of a fox. This is usually the best time to watch hounds work since, even in Ireland, there is only minimal danger of falling off while your horse is standing still.
Once a fox is found, the hunt enters on phase two, the run. In heavy country or if scenting conditions are poor, a run may be little more than a walk. If the ground is too cold or too hot, hounds have trouble with the scent, and it is one of the abiding frustrations of the fox hunter to see a fox bolt from cover without the hounds' knowledge. But if the scent is right, the hounds take off as if shot from a goose gun, running in a tight cluster and singing their song.
When the West Waterfords break from cover and start across the tortuous countryside, it seems about even money that at least one neck will snap before the thing is through. This does not usually happen, but in one meet last season in a field of 23, two riders finished up concussed, six fell from their mounts and, when the fox finally ran into a forestry project, only the Morgans and two others were there to collect the hounds. Even Elsie, herself, had a fall.
The life the Morgans have lived since they took over the West Waterford has not been easy. The entire budget for the hunt is in the neighborhood of ¬£1,000, which means that the Morgans do most everything themselves. Tom keeps the hounds fed by collecting carcasses of dead cows or aged horses from surrounding farms. He brings them back to the kennels and skins them, hitching the hide to a tractor and peeling it off. Elsie finds the time to cook, keep house and help one groom exercise the nine horses each day.
Perhaps the most exhausting aspect of the life of an Irish master of foxhounds is keeping pace with the social round that demands appearances at up to three hunt balls a week in the winter. Hunt balls are given to supplement the subscriptions of regular members, and there is a limited number of people who are willing to fork over $6 to dance to the same orchestra night after night. The only thing that makes people go is the fear that if they don't, nobody will come to their hunt ball. Since you know that everybody will come to your ball out of fear that you won't go to their ball, almost anybody who can lay claim to a few hounds seems to give one. So, all in all, it is better to socialize. One does not have to dance every dance, and the tired tunes are blotted out of mind when the talk, as it always does, turns to horses and hounds.