Cree (or sometimes spelt Creegh) is a small village in West Clare. Not much normally happens in Cree but this sunny Sunday afternoon in late October the place was abuzz. Every parking spot was taken up with horse floats and four wheel drives. Walsh’s Bar filled up quickly and jodhpurs, jackets and boots were de rigeur. It was the first event of the season for the County Clare Hunt and Cree was the proud host.
Hunting (or Fox Hunting as it is probably more widely known) was banned in Scotland in 2002 and England and Wales in 2005 but remains legal and very popular in Ireland (including Northern Ireland) and many other countries such as Australia, Canada, France and Italy. The fox was in fact introduced into Australia for fox hunting and has become one of the country’s worst pests having quite a preference for native marsupials.
The Clare Hunt is one of close to 50 registered clubs in Ireland, each with their own pack of Foxhounds.
Records of hunting with hounds go back to ancient times and is recorded in myths and legends of Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Fianna. The pursuit was continued by the Norman conquerors and then the Anglo-Irish Protestant gentry. During the Famine in the 19th Century there was bitter resentment and agitation against the landlord elite and the fox hunting became a symbol of British oppression in the eyes of many Irish nationalists. Times change. It is no longer an elite pursuit. Today as many as 300,000 people from all walks of life participate in the activity every year, in some way, in Ireland.
The Hunt at Cree has been the opening event of the season in Clare for the last 20 years. This year 60 horses took part with riders ranging in age from early teens to 70 years. In some recent years as many as 120 have joined. At least half a dozen have participated in every Cree hunt. Many riders are well seasoned in all forms of equestrianism and see the hunt as a social activity, a run for the horses and a break away from the stress and discipline of the more formal events such as dressage or three day events. There is no winner and no competitive aspect to it.
I had been told of the event by Grainne, a musician friend with strong connections to this part of Clare. She thought I might like to chronicle and photograph it. I surely would. And Grainne’s kind invitation set the tone for the day as people could not have been more welcoming.
So from around midday horses and floats began arriving, with their owners and onlookers milling around or grooming their horses in anticipation, until the arrival of the hounds.
The hounds are kennelled, managed and trained by the Hunt Master on behalf of the club. At the appointed time the alert and eager dogs are released from their purpose- built transportation. There is excited pandemonium until the Hunt Master’s horn brings them to heel. Master and hounds now lead the pack away. The riders fall in behind heading off at a trot not to return to Cree until sunset.
That could have been it and the end of my day but the unexpected often happens in Ireland and I was lucky enough to bump into Dympna. She told me that she and husband Paul had a young horse, Masie, running in the event for the first time. As they had passed their riding days she would be ridden by young equestrian enthusiast, Aoife. You could feel the sense of anticipation as to how she would go.
I got talking to Dympna. They had been coming to the Hunt since the beginning and she offered to take me to some vantage points where I could get some photographs. This surprised me as I had the naïve impression that the riders would follow the hounds on some wild chase zigging and zagging across the countryside. How could you ever predict where they would be at any given time? On the contrary, the hunt is run over a predetermined course with markers showing where fences should be jumped or streams crossed. It has been the same course for many years. I asked how the dogs know where to go and how they are controlled. As Dympna explained, the hunt is in the total control of a very experienced Hunt Master, Declan Moran, who has particular charge of the hounds. Indeed he knows each by name. He has a hunting horn and they respond to the different sounds of the horn so in this way he can lead them through the course. If they pick up a scent and run off, he can bring them back. Skill and training.
So Dympna became my companion for the day and sure enough the first place she directed me to was a perfect vantage point to watch the riders traverse the country, sometimes sticking to roads other times riding along fence lines, and then watch them clear a typical Clare stone wall, metres from a crowd of followers. All the time led by the hounds and the green jacketed Hunt Master.
Not being a horsey person, it is nevertheless something to behold to see these elegant animals clear effortlessly and confidently these stone barriers. The Irish horse has a reputation for being sure footed and agile and this was certainly on display.
I wondered whether it was difficult to get approval to gallop across the many farms that are encountered. “Not at all” says Dympna. “Farmers are asked for permission a few weeks in advance. There is no problem getting permission. Actually the farmers seem to have pride in the hunt going through their farm”. Dympna says relations are good and “the Hunt will always thank the farmer when passing through”. The course is walked the following morning with volunteers fixing any fences that need repairs. Given the controversy in some quarters surrounding fox hunting, Dympna says there has never been any opposition since it started.
The next stop was actually Dympna and Paul’s own farm where with a cup of tea and biscuits we were joined by other members of the family to watch the Hunt canter past at close range, clearing another fence, traversing hillsides, riding across open country and crossing streams. Covered in mud now, the soft ground must in places be heavy going for the horses. Indeed I was regretting my decision not to wear Wellingtons.
There was to be a lunch break at Grainne’s family farm, so we drove there to meet up with her and wait for the riders. Food and water was there for the dogs and horses and sandwiches, nibbles and a very welcome hot punch for the participants. All was prepared by members of Grainne’s family; her mum, Marie and Bernie, Claire and Therese were overwhelming with their hospitality.
I was revived by a hot bowl of soup before we headed off for one more stop where the hunt re-joined the road not far from the finish. By now it was getting late and the dogs had been packed up and driven back to Cree (except for one who seemed to be a bit lost) and, as colour came into the night sky, the remaining riders were happy just to ride two or three abreast walking home at a very leisurely pace.
It was then I took my leave, dropping Dympna back to Cree and heading off to play some music at nearby Doonbeg. I later found out that there was more food waiting for them at Cree before the riders washed down their horses, took them home and then headed back to Walsh’s Bar to party the night away.
Many thanks to Dympna, Paul and Grainne and family for their hospitality and for giving me some insight into this perhaps, lesser known part of rural Irish life. And for somehow organising sunshine for the whole day.