YOU’D be hard-pressed to write a dull account of the Carlow Farmers’ Hunt. To misappropriate a Frank Sinatra lyric: anecdotes, it’s had a few.
The club is marking its 200th year of being an affiliated hunting group, having originally joined the Master of Foxhounds Association. The hunt’s origins lie in Ballydarton, where local landlords, the Watson family, founded the Tullow Hunt.
John Watson was the first master of the hunt. The Watsons had serious hunting pedigree. John’s father was credited with killing the last wild Irish wolf at Myshall, while his brother was master of the Cotswolds. The Watsons imported different strains of foxhounds to Ballydarton and prepared their own coverts.
John’s son Robert Watson took over as master in 1869. Robert embodied hunting. His brother emigrated to Australia and became master of the Melbourne Hunt. George Watson hunted dingoes, kangaroos and deer before foxes were brought to the southern continent.
Robert’s son would also become master of the Meath Hounds. The countryside hunted by Robert covered half of Laois, all of Carlow and large portions of Kildare, Wicklow and Wexford. He hunted four days a week. In a fascinating account of the huntsman, writer Turtle Bunbury jokes that Robert probably counted foxes in his sleep.
It would do Robert a great disservice to call him colourful, even by the standards of the time. Robert believed he was going to be reincarnated as a fox. He lived with his family at Larchill, Kildare and he designed a mound like a fox’s earth. He carefully ensured the tunnels would fit a wily fox but a bigger hound could not fit through. When he died, he banned fox hunting at Larchill. Robert probably thought it was better to be safe than sorry when he was reincarnated!
The 19th century was a tumultuous and often tragic time in Irish history and some of the landlords who participated in the hunt had chequered histories. Current Carlow Farmers’ Hunt member John Ryan explained: “The hunt would have come through the Famine period, penal times, people having their own homes taken away, and you would not be a million miles away from the 1798 rebellion where cottages were burnt.”
WE ‘Cornie’ Grogan took over as master of the hunt in 1904 and negotiated a turbulent period. In a letter to the Carlow Sentinel in February 1919, Cornie defended his organisation amid threats from Sinn Féin that they would abolish hunting.
But Cornie believed Sinn Féin could not have any quarrel with the hunt. “Nationalist, Unionist and Sinn Féiners are all equally welcome at the covert side and are expected for the time being to leave their politics at home.” He added: “You might as well try to mix oil and water as politics and fox hunting.”
Olive Hall was the next hunt master and she served between 1920 and 1965. The formidable Mrs Hall hunted all her life and was a skilled rider. She was a close friend of Queen Elizabeth of England and the queen mother and when she died they both sent wreaths.
The hunt became defunct in the 1960s before local sportsmen revived it in 1979 under a new name: the Carlow Farmers’ Hunt. The demographic of hunt members had changed dramatically, with a far more egalitarian spread.
The popularity of point-to-point races and pony clubs has led to the infusion of new blood in the ranks of the hunt in recent years. The hunt currently numbers 50 riders and among them are farmers, teachers, builders, plumbers, delivery men and gardaí.
The members’ backgrounds may have changed, but the hunting remains the same … well, almost!
John said that mobile phones are now used to communicate the position of the fox, while Google maps also prove useful on those long rides.
“Farmers have taken out ditches or coverts, but a lot of the fields are the exact same. Nothing has changed. You’re still using hounds; you’re still hunting foxes,” said John.
Far removed from the country house gatherings, the Carlow Farmers’ Hunt now meets in pubs, GAA clubs and other public places. However, as part of the 200-year celebrations, the Carlow Farmers’ Hunt returned to the old meeting haunts of Hollymount House in December, and recently at Browneshill House, with the kind permission of owners, the Connolly and Tully families.
Punch was served outside Browneshill House for the riders before huntsman Ado Moran led them out on the hunt to continue the tradition in Carlow.