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