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Two meets in the unique Ballymacad hunting county come on the heels of a surprise event―the sudden unavailability of hunt insurance in Ireland. Without insurance, many hunt clubs will cease to function―indeed, many have already suspended hunting temporarily. And the native Irish breeds―the Iris Draught Horse and the Irish Sport Horse―may well become extinct. The economic and cultural losses to the Ballymacad countryside and to the wider Irish countryside would be devastating.  –Ed.

Ballymacad Foxhounds huntsman Kevin Donohoe riding a home produced pure Irish Draught Horse hunterHuntsman Kevin Donahoe with the Ballymacad foxhounds riding a pure Irish Draught Horse from Donahoe's Sport Horses.  /   Noel Mullins photo

The Irish hunting fraternity has been stunned ever since the leading UK hunt insurance provider withdrew from Ireland last year. As insurance renewal dates came up in mid-season, many hunts were forced to suspend hunting. Only a small number of hunts were able to continue.

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chris ryan.catherine pChris Ryan staying with his Scarteen Black and Tans  /  Catherine Power photo

It is generally recognised that only a very special horse will suffice for a huntsman of a premier pack. Many of these horses acquire fame in their own right and often become even better known than their riders. No horse should ever be considered too good or too valuable for a huntsman on a big day. Capt Harry Freeman-Jackson regularly hunted the Duhallow hounds off St. Finbarr, which he rode when representing Ireland in the Rome Olympics. Many of the greats are a one-of and often unridable unless they are up front.

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billy vanceCaptureMaster and Huntsman Billy Vance (80) watches his Fermanagh Harriers at work.  /  Noel Mullins photo

How many huntsmen are hunting hounds at eighty years of age? Or to add a twist to that question, how many huntsmen having achieved that age have already hunted hounds for the previous fifty seasons?

Billy Vance, Master and huntsman of the Fermanagh Harriers, has achieved this remarkable milestone. To see him hunting hounds is inspiring, humbling, and brings home just how lucky we all are to be able to follow great horsemen like him across the countryside.  

Vance is special—a consummate and stylish horseman across what can only be termed as challenging hunting country with drains, banks, walls, and wire to contend with. And he is usually riding horses he bred himself. He is a genius with a pack of hounds, but don’t get in his way when they are running! If Ireland is in need of role models in these difficult economic circumstances, then Billy Vance fits the bill. He never seeks attention, yet is respected not just in his own hunt but by the hunting fraternity at large. And it is sometimes difficult to get a photograph of him.

“I am not into photos!” he says.

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Huntsman_Kevin_Donaghoe_at_Carrichavee_RockHuntsman Kevin Donohue at Carrichavee RockThe area around the Ballymacad Foxhounds meet at Castlerahan on the outskirts of Oldcastle, County Meath in Ireland is steeped in Irish history. It is part of the old Royal Capital of Ireland. There are many hunting references to be found in the area. The entrance to the town of Oldcastle is over Sliamh na Callaigh which looks out on Loughcrew, the five-thousand-year-old site of the Summer Solstice, where one of the most important High Kings of Ireland, King Ollamh Fodhla was buried in 1277 BC. He officiated at the Feis Teamhrach or The Great Fair held on the Hill of Tara, where in addition to legislative affairs of the ancient Brehon Laws, he introduced horse fairs, horse racing, and hunting.

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The Westmeath Foxhounds based in the midlands of Ireland was founded in 1854 and is one of the most popular

Grafton Staff in Ireland: Tom Jenner on Sir Ritchie, Harry Worcester-Smith on Success, Jackie Brown on The Cad

foxhunting packs in Ireland. They have had a distinguished succession of Joint-Masters over the years, but one of the most flamboyant arrived at the Irish kennels from the USA in 1912 with a retinue that caused quite a stir in the neighbourhood.

The new Master’s entourage included sixteen Thoroughbred horses, a pack of American hounds, five African-American grooms, a yellow open-top sports car, a yellow sulky, and three fighting cocks. His name was Harry Worcester-Smith, MFH of the Grafton Hounds in Massachusetts. He was even better known for the 1905 Great Foxhound Match in the Piedmont Valley with Mr. Alexander Henry Higginson’s English hounds, mainly of Fernie origin.

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