Legendary. A word to describe so many parts of my recent weekend hunting in Ireland – my little horse Marlow, the size of the Duhallow banks, the hospitality of every hunt member, the staff at Shannon airport and, above all, Noel Wallace and Aidan O’Connell, hosts extraordinaire.
The whole crew with Noel in the middle
The shenanigans began when I, Rosie Ruck Keene, co-director of Riding Club London, and Irish beauty Sarah Byrne met on the Stansted Express to confuse and (hopefully) entertain our fellow passengers. One flight and a G&T later, and we were whizzing along to the welcoming embrace of Bunratty Manor, Co Clare, and the rest of the group, fellow RCL director Ashley Parasram and Sarah’s vet sister Aoife. Proprietor Noel swept us at once into a night of partying, amply fuelled by Champagne and black-pudding bread (delicious), first at Bunratty and then at the-also legendary-Dirty Nellie’s pub. There it was that, on our first Irish trip three years ago, we learnt Broad Hairy Assie, the words for which are beyond rude and definitely wouldn’t make it past this website’s censors. Music, of a slightly better calibre courtesy of a Bunratty stalwart’s fine tenor, and plenty of laughter, raised the roof until 3am, giving us some four hours to recuperate before facing the Duhallow in Co Cork.
Fortunately, the full Irish settled our nerves and we careered off to the meet. Now, the great problem with travelling with Aidan is the inexorable magnetism linking him and any and every pub. On arrival, we were pleased to see plenty of horses and riders milling around, and were happy to have a drink in the pub. Minutes later, however, we became aware that everyone had left, and we didn’t even know where our horses were! Aidan elected to stay in the pub (something to do with a lack of tack), so we followed a helpful local to the box and mounted up – and thus began a thrilling charge to catch up with everybody else. Hounds had taken off like the clappers from the meet, and we gave the horses an unparalled warm up with 40 minutes gallop, not to mention a few banks. Ah, those banks! Imagine a ditch backed by a sheer wall of earth that you can’t see over, with another ditch on the other side. But our horses showed their quality – Marlow waited his turn, jumped halfway up, scrambled the rest, ignored my squeak of ‘how on Earth do we get down from here?’, and popped off again. Never tell an Irish horse what to do – he knows far better than any rider.
Sarah, Pat and Octavia with the Duhallow
Breathless, we caught up with the hunt when hounds checked in a gorse-strewn valley, and met our hosts – joint-master Matt Nagle and chairman Pat Fleming, whose table we were to be on that evening. We didn’t wait for long before we set off, and from then on it was an orgy of galloping and jumping, with only one pause on a lane, just long enough for us to drain one or two of our flasks. Steep muddy hills, flooded gateways, drops and bogs and banks, and a drain that saw dozens of horses, including Marlow, get stuck. I thought we’d made it, but the mud was so deep that his hind legs wouldn’t come out. I rolled off sideways (even my knickers were muddy afterwards), and he slipped backwards. Alex, his owner, appeared as if by magic to haul him out and heaved me back on board, then turned to help Ashley, whose horse had also got stuck, but had extricated himself only to get out on the wrong side.
Cue a classic moment of horse and rider looking at each other: ‘What are you doing over there?’ Bravely, Ashley plunged unhesitatingly into the thigh-deep water and scrambled out to rejoin his mount for a second go.
Pulling off Ashley’s sopping boots afterwards
Next came a proper double bank, with a flooded ditch before and away. Mannerly queuing – trying to push an Irish horse results in a cocked ear and a near-audible ‘I’ll go when I’m ready’ – then over and up, over and down, and we were off, plunging through black bog that Marlow skipped over as if it were Newmarket turf. A particularly impenetrable bush atop a bank afforded us a brief breather as the leading riders shoved their way through, then we were off again. Marlow didn’t think much of circumnavigating the low branches, which resulted in my lovely hat’s navy-blue velvet being reduced to ribbons (thank you very much to Champion for my beautiful new, unripped, version!), but charged off again flat out, through a gate, over another bank, more low branches, round a corner, over a yawning ditch almost before I saw it, and onto the lane. And there it ended, the most thrilling run I have ever had. I was bloodied from the branches, but couldn’t stop grinning, and neither could anyone else.
We hacked back to the meet via a deep stream to wash off the horses – nothing like getting Nature to do the groom’s job – and reached the pub in time to escape the rain and see the last few minutes of the England v Italy rugby match. 59-13 – perfect result for a perfect day.
Octavia and Tania with Matt, who had been in a bog, and Aidan, who had been in the pub
Several ‘quick drinks’ later, we were luxuriating at Springfort Hall hotel, venue of the Duhallow ball. Adrenaline, dances with the fleet-footed Matt and the impossibly romantic Aidan and plenty of bubbles saw us through to another 3am finish – sleep is not a priority on an Irish hunting weekend.
Sunday saw Ashley, Rosie, Aoife and Sarah take to the saddle again as poor-church-mice Tania Perkins and I stayed on four wheels. Foot following is great fun with good company and plenty of whisky mac, and we got some great photographs of the riders in action, but never again will I turn down a day’s hunting. By the end of the day, I was so desperate to be on a horse that, when a whip changed to the hound van, I leapt into his empty saddle for the final hack down the lane. Twenty minutes ride in the failing light amid the glorious Tipperary countryside put me in a much better mood for the songs and stories in the packed pub.
Aoife emerging from the branches over a ditch
As a final hurrah, we whizzed back to Limerick for dinner with Noel and friends in the ‘best Chinese restaurant in Ireland’ – it was certainly delicious, and much smarter than our muddy boots deserved. The unfailingly friendly waiters didn’t seem at all put out by us bolting the food, either. Noel gave us a blistering lead to Shannon airport and we screeched to a halt outside only to find check-in had closed. No matter, grinned the staff, and hauled Ashley’s mighty suitcase aboard. You didn’t park the hire car? Not to worry, give us the keys! Hip flask still half full of whisky mac? Enjoy! In Stansted, we would have been arrested, in Shannon, we were hailed through every security barrier with cheers until we collapsed into the group of seats that had been kept for us on the aeroplane hardly able to believe we had made it. There was just enough change left in our pockets for G&Ts all round, and we toasted every man, woman, child, horse and hound in Ireland.
Pedalling home from Liverpool Street station at 2am, holloaing a fox on The Mall, I was still on cloud nine. Bring on next year!