Glimpses from the Chase

From Fores’s Sporting Notes and Sketches, A Quarterly Magazine Descriptive of British, Indian, Colonial, and  Foreign Sport with Thirty Two Full Page Illustrations Volume 10 1893, London; Mssrs. Fores Piccadilly W. 1893, All Rights Reserved.

Ireland a Hundred Years Ago.
By ‘Triviator.’

FOX-HUNTING has, like Racing, Shooting, and even Dancing, had its phases and fashions ever since it became a National sport, and we may be pretty sure that though we of the guild and fraternity of fin desiecle fox-hunters make it our boast that as the ‘ heirs of all the ages ‘ we have brought the royal sport to the acme of perfection, every contemporary phase was the best adapted to the manners, customs, and requirements of the period ; and that, grotesque and absurd as some of the practices of our forbears appear to us now, many of our improvements and requirements and sublimations of sport would afford them in turn many a hearty laugh. After all, if sport be the desideratum, whatever makes for that end in the opinion of its votaries, must be deemed successful, and if real war—of which, according to Somerville and his pupil John Jorrocks, Fox-hunting is the image—was a comparatively innocuous affair in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, when contrasted with the deadly issues of modern scientific slaughter, it attained its aim as effectually as the present system, though more slowly and tentatively.

Indeed, in a few points, we have not improved upon an cestral form, as, for instance, in the sociable side of the chase, and the consequent camaraderie produced among fox-hunters. The Pytchley reunions, as we learn from the best statistics, now occasionally muster seven hundred mounted men and women, not to speak of the ‘mixed multitude’ who pursue on wheels, or the regiment of runners. Sociability would be impossible in such a crowd of all sorts and conditions of manhood and womanhood, where the preliminary parade has some features in common with Pall Mall and Piccadilly in the season, and so long as the canons of the chase are faithfully observed, no one is too particular as to ‘ who’s who,’ though all are supposed to have learnt ‘ what’s what.’ Indeed, so far as we can gather from the side lights of literature and the fine arts, sociability was the keynote of Fox-hunting towards the close of the last century and the commencement of the present. Shakespeare limns for us a chivalrous prince declaring on the eve of an international battle that—

‘ The man who this day sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother, be he ne’er so vile
This day shall gentle his condition.’

So in the great internecine struggle between the slavery and anti-slavery States of America, whenever the German soldiers who had espoused the Northern side met together in one of the provincial capitals, their challenge to their comrades on furlough was ever on these lines—’ You fight mit Siegel and you drink mit me,’ varied according to circumstance and commands. Similarly did our sociable sires insist that those who shared together the perils of pursuit and rejoiced in its raptures should hold sporting symposia together, and run their runs over again under the inspiring influences of Sneyd’s claret and potations of poteen that had never seen the gauger’s eye. Indeed, so backward and behindhand in means of inter-communication was the country, that it was absolutely necessary for the maintenance of the chase that hospitality should be as open-handed and universal as we now find it in some of our colonies, and we learn that to these sporting oases men were wont to come from long distances, and take the country as they found it, thinking more of the sociable side of the pastime, perhaps, than of the mere riding element ; otherwise it would be hard to imagine that sportsmen with due regard to their own necks, or their hunters’ knees, should have picked out such happy grounds for themselves as Brayhead, Killiney, and bits of Wicklow, but for the fact that a few sporting squires and noblemen cordially welcomed the devotees of Diana, and that Fox-hunting and good fellowship went hand in hand, a condition of things of which we get pleasant glimpses in the song of the Kilruddery Hunt, dedicated, we presume, to the Lord of Kilruddery, the Earl of Meath, otherwise a good part of the vicinity would seem to the fastidious foxhunter about as tempting as the Rocky Ridges of Cintra, near Lisbon, where the woods probably hold many foxes. Glimpses of this pleasant brotherhood of the chase might, nay, may still be seen at Wentworth-Woodhouse, the Yorkshire home of the Fitzwilliam family, where for a certain number of days absolutely open house is kept for the pilgrims of pursuit; and they might have been seen on even a larger scale at Thomastown, the residence of that hospitably minded squire, Mr. Matthews, who kept open house at his seat in Tipperary, and among the inducements for venatic visitors to come and taste his cheer, actually maintained three packs of hounds, namely, buckhounds, foxhounds, and harehounds, for his guests, mounting them besides if they had not brought their hunters with them. Of course such institutions could only be maintained where society was more or less of a close corporation, and when railways did not inject into all accessible meets hordes of hunting men and women, of whom nobody knew anything save that they affected in their well groomed persons ‘the properties’ of the chase, made up in most orthodox style and pattern.

In another respect we must give the palm to the arrangements of our ancestors, for their fields were very small and homogeneous, made up of sportsmen who were proud of the prowess of their hounds, and did not press the hounds unduly, or ride on top of them in the modern fashion. When Melton became, in the first half of the century, a Mecca for nomadic Nimrods, we hear through Parson Louth, the laureate of the Leicestershire pastures, that a favourite meet would bring out a couple of hundred cavaliers, more or less. Thus at Billesdon Coplow—

‘ Two hundred such sportsmen ne’er were seen at a burst,
Each resolv’d to be there, each resolv’d to be first.’

Happy the huntsman, now-a-days, who has only two hundred men and horses thundering in his wake ! Perhaps a score would have represented a large meet in the days we write of, a number ample for sociability, but comparatively harmless for mischief on days when scent was not supremely serving, as well as being more amenable to the Master’s directions.

It should also be placed to the credit of these sportsmen of the olden time that they were no Sybarites, and went through a great amount of what we might term hardship to compass their ends and aims. Many of us have read of the Cockney who had himself called at an unwontedly early hour, and reaching Euston Station, in his eagerness to be in time to catch the morning mail to Blisworth, where his hunters were located, got into a wrong carriage by mistake, and was so overcome by his exertions that he went fast asleep, and missed his train and his hunt, having been roused from his day dreams by a porter, whose duty it was to examine the carriages prior to their starting. In the days we write of there were no such luxurious and far-reaching covert-hacks as trains, and the distances cantering hacks covered would astonish pursuers of the present day, thirty miles being no unknown journey to a meet, while that meet was always fixed at an early hour, so that foxes might be found on the run before they had returned to their earth, after their noctivagous raids. And here we may refer to a favourite trysting place of the Ormonde and King’s County pack, one of the oldest hunting corporations in Ireland, and closely identified with the Rossmore family, namely, ‘ Nanny Moran’s Rock, at break of day.’

Now, anything more abhorrent to the taste and ideas of a Nimrod of the last decade of the nineteenth century than a long ride in the dark, to a gaunt rock, whose only merit was that it was planted in the heart of a fine, wild grass country, where wild OLD foxes abounded, can hardly be conceived, and we may be quite sure that if a modern M.F.H. encouraged such peep-o’-day pursuit, his subscriptions and his fields of followers would dwindle disastrously. At the commencement of the century, however, many were found not only willing but zealous to keep tryst and time there ; proving that ‘ The labour we delight in physicks pain ;’ and the hunting songs of the day refer to the indebtedness of sportsmen to the lady they called ‘ Luna,’ who favoured their early fox forays with her gracious beams, being, according to the mythology of Greece, none other than the Diana of the day, Patroness of pursuit, though at night she sometimes lent her light to ‘ the minions of the moon.’

In point of fact, these matitudinal musters of our forefathers were not unlike the cub-hunting fixtures of the present day, which are designed for the education of hounds and foxes alike, and which would lose to a great extent their raison d’etre, if they were more popular and fashionable. It is the substantive of the last adjective that is simply ‘ smothering’ sport in some parts of England, and that is compelling masters of hounds to resort to all sorts of strange devices and ruses, in the interests of their hounds and subscribers, such as foregoing the advertising of their fixtures in the public prints, and holding their rendezvous at unpleasantly ante-meridian hours. No difficulty of this kind ever presented itself at the commencement of the century in either England or Ireland, and, indeed, in the latter island it has never or only rarely been felt as yet, and the fields there are infinitely less ‘ mixed ‘ than in England, as every one knows every one, or something about him, or her, and sporting strangers are rarely seen in the field, and often a hundred is a good large field in any part of the Green Isle ; two is redundant, and extra numbers are considered bewildering, and rarely occur save occasionally at the Spring Sessions of the Ward Union Stag hounds, on a few Saturdays in Kildare, and when the Meath hounds make their venue within riding distance of Dublin. And in these cases the inconvenience does not last very long, for in addition to the absence of gates, dear to the dilletanti sportsmen, and the certainty of the proximate presence of a few formidable fences, the master of foxhounds invariably reduces the redundancy of riders by drawing away from towns and cities, and generally in the direction of the kennels, from which at starting he may be separated by an interval of thirty miles, a not infrequent occurrence in royal Meath. The rarity of railways, and the infrequency of trains, seems to point to the absence of any congestion of the chase for many years to come in the ‘ distressful country,’ and up to the present time there has been hardly any ground for a grumble, seeing that all sportsmen who come out to hunt have to contribute at least half-a-crown to the expenses of the pack, and fifteen or sixteen pounds (the take sometimes at a fashionable fixture) is a welcome ‘ rate in aid ‘ to the exchequer of the chase. When Ireland becomes really rich, as well as ‘ great, glorious and free,’ possibly hunting crowds will become a nuisance as in England ; but that Milesian millennium has not been even approached yet ; though the prophetic voice of Curran foretold its ultimate advent, for when a wealthy tobacconist of Dublin asked him for a legend to put under his newly acquired arms on the panel of his carriage, the witty Master of the Rolls suggested ‘ Quid rides ‘ (why do you laugh?), and the double entendre will suggest itself at once. Now ‘Quid’ rode in his chariot or phaeton, but no doubt ‘Quid’s’ son? would all hunt with ‘ the Wards,’ ‘ the Meaths,’ or the Kildares.  And here let me state what I saw last season—a sporting railway contractor going by train to an opening meet of his favourite pack. He would not miss the function, but neither could he waste an early hour, so his secretary sat next him in the carriage and took down in short-hand the dictation of the railway king. How such a proceeding would have amazed old-time fox-hunters ! ‘ A deck of cards ‘ in a post-chaise they could well understand, but a series of letters ! Never! Indeed, if that jade Report speaks truly, some of the greatest of that  fox-hunting fraternity were poor hands at either writing or dictating letters (if that time-saving process obtained then).
For instance, the great Giles Eyre—

                          ‘ Who thought nothing at all
Of a six-foot wall.’

on hearing from a brother sportsman of a genius who could knock off twenty letters at a sitting, exclaimed, ‘Its all very well you’re telling me such a yarn, but show me the man.’ Yet no-doubt—

                                 , The same Giles Eyrej
Would make him stare,
If he had him with the Blazers.’

The mention of that last pack, ‘ the Blazers ‘—so called probably because its members were eminent in the use of the saw-handled family-pistols, at a time when ‘ Did he blaze ? ‘ and ‘Will he blaze?’ were almost the first questions asked about a young man of position ‘debutting’ into society—puts me in mind of another phase of Foxhunting in ‘old Ireland ‘ (so called in contradistinction to modern or new Ireland), and that was its peripatetic nature, for if there was a fair, hostelry, or even a modest ‘ pub.’ in the centre of a hunting district, ‘ the Blazers ‘ would take it for a term, and scour the whole country round. I have seen one or two small cribs, many, many miles from the kennels, which they were said to occupy periodically. Sir Josiah Barrington tells us in his amusing way how a number of Queen’s County sportsmen occupied a small crib of this sort during a frost, having first put down a hogshead of claret, killed a bullock, procured musicians, and got a number of game cocks together. The first night when full—’ Veteris Bacchi pinguisque farina‘—they were laid out on the floor with their martial cloaks around them, but as their heads abutted on a newly plastered wall they became by morning fixtures; imbedded, or inheaded, in the wall, and had to be cut out of it ! ‘

Possibly the style of the chase in Ireland early in the century will be best illustrated by an account of ‘ a desperate foxchase,’ which was accounted worthy of a place in the Irish Racing Calendar of its year, a calendar which also contains records of cockfighting and the rules of cocking :—

‘ On the 4th of December last Colonel Eyre’s foxhounds had one of the most desperate runs ever recorded, of one hour and fifty minutes— desperate from its length, desperate from the pace kept up, and desperate from the dreadful storm that raged for nearly the last hour, and

in the very teeth of which Reynard ran; with the exception of one short check the chase was maintained with unabated fury all through. To choose a leap was to be thrown out. At half-past eight o’clock in the morning they drew over the Old Earth at Coolaghgoran for the spotted fox. Tony, the huntsman, knowing well his abilities from former runs, matched his chasehounds the day before, and fed them early. He calls this pack the light infantry, to distinguish them from the slow, heavy draft that were lately sent from England. I was on the Earth a little after eight ; ’twas rising ground, and as the dawn broke, ’twas cheery to behold the foxhunters, faithful to their hours, approaching from distant directions, and as they all closed to the point of destination, the pack ‘ in all its beauty’s pride ‘ appeared on the brow of the hill—

                                          ” Oh, what a charming scene :
When all around was gay, men, horses, dogs,
And in each cheerful countenance was seen,
Fresh blooming health and never fading joy.”

The taking his drag from the Earth was brilliant beyond common fortune, with a train which runs off in a blaze, they hardly touched it till they were out of sight. Madman, that unerring finder, proclaimed the joyful tidings, each foxhound gave credit to the welcome information, and they went away in a crash ; it was a perfect tumult in Mr. Newstead’s garden, there the villain was found, and we went off at his brush —

                           ” Where are your disappointments, wrongs, vexations, sickness,
cares ?
All, all are fled, and with the panting winds lag far behind.”

‘ In skirting a small covert in the first mile we divided on a fresh fox; it was a moment of importance : nothing but prompt, vigorous, and general exertions could repair the misfortune : it was decisive, and we now faced the Commons of Carney ; broad and deep was the Bound’s drain, but what can stop foxhunters ? The line had been maintained by five couples of hounds; they crossed the road, and finding themselves on the extensive sod of the Common, they began to go ‘ the pace.’ A scene now presented itself which none but a foxhunter could appreciate, for its beauty was not discernible to the common and inexperienced eye. At this period the chase became a complete split ; the hounds, which had changed and had now from different directions gained the Commons, could not venture to run in on the five couple without decidedly losing ground, and to maintain it instinct directed them to run on credit, and flanking the five couple the whole pack formed a chain of upwards of 200 yards abreast across the Commons, but as the chain varied through the hollows and windings of this beautiful surface, the hounds on the wings in turns took up the line and maintained their stations, as the others had done, so well was this pack matched. Here we crossed walls that on common occasions would  have been serious obstacles. The second huntsman on a young one, following Lord Rossmore, called out, ” What is on the other side, my Lord ? ” “I am, thank God,” was the answer. We now disappeared from the Commons of Carney, and at this time the pack was hunting so greedily that you would think every dog was hitting like an arrow. We now passed by Carrigagorm for the woods of Peterfield, in the teeth of the most desperate storm I ever witnessed of rain, hail, and wind. Distress was now evident in the Field, for notwithstanding the violence of the gale, ” the pace ” was maintained ; this was the most desperate part of the chase, and as the foxhounds approached the covert, I thought they had got wings : the rain beat violently, with difficulty we could hold our bridles, the boughs gave way to the storm. The Light Infantry were flying at him, and the crash was dreadful. The earths in Peterfield were open, but Reynard scorned the advantage, and gallantly broke amain. He now made for the River Shannon,

                                        ” Where will the chase lead us bewildered ” ?

Some object afterwards changed his direction, and away with him to Clapior. He crossed the great Drain of the Lough, and here we left young Burton Persse (” who had come all the way from Galloway to enjoy a regular cold bath.”) He went down tail foremost, and “no blame to him.” There was no time for ceremony, but Tony, who knew the depth of the Bath, took his leave of him, roaring out ” I’ll never see your sweet face again ” ” By—— ” says the Colonel, ” you were never more mistaken ; never saw him more regularly at home in my life. He’s used to these things, man ! ” And truth requires me to state that he joined us again, and before and after the Bath he rode in a capital place, and many a mile he ran and away by the old Castle of Arcrony, famous in the annals of hunting, and all over its beautiful grounds, and over the great Bound’s drain of Coolaghgoran again, for poor Reynard had now cast a forlorn look towards home at last. There was now a disposition to give him his life, but what could we do ? Old Driver was at his brush; His Majesty’s Guards could not have saved him. Thus ended a chase during which were traversed about twenty-five Irish miles (making thirty English) of the fairest portion of Lower Ormond. In running in Messrs. Fitzgibbon and Henry Westenra took a neat sporting leap. A gentleman of jockey weight, who rode well thro’ the chase, wishing no doubt to show us the length of his neck, craned at it, swore it was the ugliest place in Europe, and that a flock of sheep might be regularly hid in it. There was a very numerous field at finding. During this most desperate fox-chase, George Jackson rode as usual with the hounds, as did Lord Rossmore, Colonel Eyre, Messrs. Fitzgibbon, Henry Westenra, Richard Faulkener, and Burton Persse all through.’

I have copied the account verbatim, but I cannot help thinking that second huntsman should be second horseman—or whip.

There was no harder man to hounds in Meath than the present Lord Rossmore, grandson of the hero of this tale, till he hurt his leg, and the late Burton Persse, who for some thirty seasons was Master of ‘ the Blazers,’ was a grandson of the ‘ Knight of the Bath ‘ referred to here. So it seems old Horace was a good judge, and that ‘Fortes creantur fortibus et bonis.

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