This Week in...
The Ballad of the Foxhunter by William Butler Yeats
A poem by the Irish master you never learned in high school. (pg. 2)
Hunt Mergers Bring Stability, Benefits by Norman Fine
After 2 mergers, a once tiny farmers pack is now a national influence. (pg. 4)
Chris Howells and His Hounds by Linda Jenkins Armbrust, ex-MFH
Following hounds since the age of 5 in the footsteps of his father. (pg. 6)
Field Master Val O’Connell: A Rum One to Follow by Dickie Power
Prepared for the job by racing in the Grand National at Aintree three times! (pg. 11)
...Picture of the Week
Foxhounds in a Kennel by Christine Merrill
A contemporary artist’s work reminiscent of Emms in composition but non-traditional in style. (pg. 15)
The Ballad of the Foxhunter
By W.B. Yeats
William Butler Yeats (1865 - 1939), charcoal drawing by John Singer Sargent / Wikimedia CommonsSomething happened to William Butler Yeats on his way to becoming a painter...in the footsteps of his father. He decided he liked writing poetry better. Certainly he was a favorite of most of the English teachers I’ve ever had, but I don’t remember any of them assigning his foxhunting poems for study! Yeats was born in Ireland, so the foxhunting came naturally.
“Now lay me in a cushioned chair
And carry me, you four,
With cushions here and cushions there,
To see the world once more.
And some one from the stable bring
My Dermot dear and brown,
And lead him gently in a ring,
And gently up and down.
Now leave the chair upon the grass
Bring hound and huntsman here,
And I on this strange road will pass,
Filled full of ancient cheer.”
His eyelids droop, his head falls low,
His old eyes cloud with dreams;
The sun upon all things that grow
Pours round in sleepy streams.
Brown Dermot treads upon the lawn,
And to the armchair goes,
And now the old man’s dreams are gone,
He smooths the long brown nose.
And now moves many a pleasant tongue
Upon his wasted hands,
For leading aged hounds and young
The huntsman near him stands.
“My huntsman, Rody, blow the horn
And make the hills reply.”
The huntsman loosens on the morn
A gay and wandering cry.
A fire is in the old man’s eyes
His fingers move and sway,
And when the wandering music dies,
They hear him feebly say—
“My huntsman, Rody, blow the horn,
And make the hills reply.”
“I cannot blow upon my horn,
I can but weep and sigh.”
The servants round his cushioned place
Are with new sorrow wrung;
And hounds are gazing on his face,
Both aged hounds and young.
One blind hound only lies apart
On the sun-smitten grass;
He holds deep commune in his heart:
The moments pass and pass.
The blind hound with a mournful din
Lifts slow his wintry head;
The servants bear the body in—
The hounds wail for the dead.
Posted July 14, 2020
Hunt Mergers Bring Stability, Benefits
By Norman Fine
Sean Cully, MFH and huntsman (center), with hounds of the Rose Tree-Blue Mountain Hunt (PA). To the left is Brady Cully, whipper-in; to the right is Dr. Edward Franco, Joint-MFH and whipper-in.
When hunts merge, the resulting whole can often become greater than the sum of its parts. Take the case of a once-small hunt in Pennsylvania—the Blue Mountain Hunt. It was established by Sean Cully, MFH, in 1999 as a farmer’s foot pack. It became a mounted pack in 2009, was Registered with the MFHA in 2011, and became a Recognized pack in 2014.
Through unanticipated but judicious mergers, Cully’s little foot pack has stabilized a historic foxhunting country in Pennsylvania, rejuvenated the oldest subscription pack of foxhounds in the United States, and become a national influence and model for the sport.
Blue Mountain enjoyed friendly relations with their neighboring pack—the venerable Rose Tree Foxhunting Club which was established near Philadelphia in 1859. When the Rose Tree Masters asked Cully if he would take over their historic pack, he agreed. Blue Mountain merged with the Rose Tree Foxhunting Club (PA) in 2015, and Rose Tree members became subscribing members of the newly combined Rose Tree-Blue Mountain Hunt (PA).
Foxhounds of the Rose Tree-Blue Mountain Hunt
Rose Tree, of course, was historically one of the early packs of Penn-Marydel foxhounds and a primary repository of original bloodlines for generations, but Cully’s Blue-Mountain hounds were Crossbreds—Modern English to American bloodlines—and were Cully’s preference. Surely the result, a Crossbred pack, had to be a disappointment to those whose hunting lives and heritage were historically associated with the creation of the Penn-Marydel foxhound in America, but the good news for most is that foxhunting in the area was stabilized and strengthened by the merger. And, thanks in great measure to the former Rose Tree Club and others in the Pennsylvania-Maryland-Delaware region, the Penn-Marydel foxhound is now well and firmly established as the foxhound type of choice for many hunts across North America and a go-to for out-crossing by many other influential breeding kennels.
Now moving from strength to strength, Sean Cully—currently a Director of the MFHA for the Pennsylvania District—is announcing the merger of the Rose Tree-Blue Mountain Hunt with Floyd Wine’s Saxonburg Hunt in Sewickley, PA. With this merger, Rose Tree-Blue Mountain not only again extends its hunting country in Pennsylvania, but also acquires Saxonburg’s southern country along with kennels and stabling near Salley, SC, not far from Aiken. Adjacent to many miles of pine stands and acres of swamps, the terrain is vastly different from that hunted in Pennsylvania, and Cully and his members will likely find gray fox and bobcat along with the red fox and coyote most commonly seen in the home country.
Rose Tree-Blue Mountain will continue to hunt the Pennsylvania country in York, Cumberland, Perry, and Berks Counties from August 1 through the end of March except for those occasional—and welcomed—winter trips to South Carolina.
“We are excited for this opportunity and cannot wait to see what South Carolina hunting has in store for the Rose Tree-Blue Mountain hounds,” said Sean Cully.
Posted July 7, 2020
Chris Howells and His Hounds
By Linda Jenkins Armbrust, ex-MFH
One day some years ago while recuperating from whatever had me grounded at the moment, I decided to follow my home pack, the Blue Ridge foxhounds, by vehicle. Fortunately, Chris Howells had an open seat, so I climbed into his blue pickup truck.
I knew that whatever would be seen of the action that day from any vehicle would be seen from Chris’s truck first. Every road follower wants to ride with Chris. If there’s no room, they do their best to follow him. Chris knows the country and how the foxes run.
Chris hunted the Blue Ridge foxhounds from 1973 to 2001 during the Mastership of Judy Greenhalgh. Since his retirement from the saddle, Chris has been following hounds on the roads for another almost twenty years. He serves as the principal road whip and remains a valued and knowledgeable member of the staff.
The following article was first published in the November 1983 edition of "Horseplay" magazine. –Ed.
The early morning light shows a solitary figure on his way to the kennels, a terrier at his heels and a can of Pepsi in his hand. Christopher P. Howells, huntsman for the Blue Ridge Hunt in Boyce, Virginia, is about to start another busy day. Hounds greet him with an enthusiastic din, but turn quiet as he speaks to them in his soft English accent and sees to the feeding.
Chris was born in Yorkshire, England, but moved to Northumberland at the age of five when his father became huntsman for the North Northumberland Foxhounds. He soon found himself immersed in a life of hunting, hounds, and horses and remains so to this day. Having been raised with the sport, no future other than hunt service was desired or considered, and, after leaving school, he was second horseman for his father for a season. He then moved to the Cottesmore Foxhounds, where he was second whipper-in to Major Robert Hoare for three years. From there, he went to the Middleton Middleton East Foxhounds, where he was first whipper-in to Lord Halifax and Dennis Sturgeon from 1963 to 1965.
“My hunting in England was on a grander scale, and there were five of us to do the kennel work, plus the grooms and terrier men, who helped with the country as well. So we were rather a large family. It was not unusual to have sixty couple of hounds in the kennel and fifteen or more horses in the stable for staff use. Of course, one must remember that we hunted four days a week, rain or shine, and all used two horses a day. We regularly hunted until dark—a five or six hour day—and we worried about having enough sound horses. That was when we hoped for a few days of frost.”
Huntsman Chris Howells with hounds in Virginia / Gamecock photo
The next step was a big one, for Chris answered an advertisement in Horse and Hound and soon found himself in Virginia as first whipper-in to Gordon Erriker, who was then huntsman at Deep Run Hunt near Richmond. Chris became huntsman of the Deep Run in 1968, and hunted hounds for five seasons. Unfortunately, he broke his neck the March of his last year by riding into a guy wire, and spent four long months in a body cast. When asked why he hadn’t seen it, he replied, “The hounds were hunting so well that I just couldn’t take my eyes off them.”
In the late summer of 1973, Chris came as huntsman to the Blue Ridge Hunt (VA), which had the added English flavor brought by Mrs. George P. (Judy) Greenhalgh, MFH, who was born in Warwickshire. She grew up in Ireland, where her father, Captain A.H. Hornby, was Master of the Muskerry Foxhounds until 1940. On her return to England after the outbreak of World War II, she hunted with the Pytchley, the Fernley, and the Atherstone before becoming Master of the Blue Ridge Hunt (VA) in 1971.
When Mrs. Greenhalgh and Chris Howells started working together at Blue Ridge, they had both English and Crossbred hounds in kennels. Since they had both hunted English hounds all their lives and found them to be extremely biddable, it was decided to let the Crossbreds die out and breed a pure English pack. They found them to have the drive necessary for this country, along with the nose and cry. Since then, they have imported six hounds directly from England. The last two are wooly Welsh hounds from the Bicester and Warden Hill.
Chris Howells (center) with staff and hounds in the Blue Ridge country. Flanking Chris are whippers-in Bobby Jo Pillion (left) and Cliff Hunt (right). Circa 1980
The Blue Ridge Line
Not everyone can appreciate the time and effort that go into an effective hound breeding program. It takes generations of hounds to find a combination that endures. One great lines at Blue Ridge is Berkeley Bowsprit ‘63 by the Duke of Beaufort’s Brimstone ‘58, out of Berkeley Dossier ‘61. Bowsprit was bred to Tipperary Grenadier ‘65, and the only bi*ch to survive was Brevity ‘72, who was bred to Blue Ridge Beaver of English parentage. This produced Broker ‘75, who was an outstanding hound in many ways. Not only did he win every Stallion Hound and Three of His Get classes which he entered (he retired the Glanara Challenge Trophy at Oatlands last year), but he had the nose, drive, and speed to make any Master and huntsman proud. You could depend on him to be true on a line, and he was usually in front of the pack.
I have known Broker for many seasons and have had the honor of walking several of his forty-odd get. I remember an outstanding day when a large red fox was “holloaed” away from the Annefield wood. Broker spoke, and the rest of the pack honored him. As they broke from covert, he was running easily in front. Then Charlie made his mistake. He slowed to look over his shoulder, and at that moment broker saw him. He lifted his head and shifted into high gear. With this hound’s magnificent drive and speed, the fox had no chance at all and was brought down.
Obviously, all the hard work has paid off, for the Blue Ridge has an excellent pack of English hounds which show continuous good sport under difficult scenting conditions and have repeated wins at the hound shows.
The Differences in American Hunting
Hunting English hounds in Virginia represented many changes for Chris, the two very obvious being the weather and the fact that we don’t kill many foxes. Instead of wearing a kennel coat with a tie and bowler for hound exercise, he found himself in shirt sleeves trying to keep cool in 85-degree heat at 7:oo A.M. He hunts his hounds the same way he would in England, regardless of the weather, feeling that they must only try harder with the lack of moisture.
Due to the scarcity of foxes, he didn’t want to kill a brace a day, and soon found himself almost on speaking terms with his quarry—which coverts they were in and how they ran. His terriers follow him around the kennels and hunt rats and mice instead of bolting foxes, but seem necessary to complete the picture.
I asked him if he thought the jumping here was easy and was surprised when he answered seriously, “No. For two or more seasons these chicken coops put my heart in my mouth. I was used to jumping hedge and ditch and the odd gate, which would break if you hit it hard enough, but these were solid. Back home I sometimes averaged fifteen falls a season, but the ground was a lot softer, and you didn’t seem to worry so much about landing.”
Other differences: “Foxhunting doesn’t get the exposure here it does in England, and perhaps that accounts for the lack of anti-blood sport people. I should hate to have to contend with a mob interfering with my hounds and messing about in the coverts. Not as many people get involved here, especially your farmers. I’d like to see more people understand foxhunting.”
As a huntsman, Chris has many varied duties, and his days start early, especially during cubbing season. Not only is he responsible for the breeding, exercise, showing, , and care of all the hounds, but he helps the kennelman collect dead stock and with the paneling and clearing of the country.
“I never have time to wonder what I’m going to do next, and during regular hunting season, there never seems to be enough hours in the day. The hours spent on a horse aren’t as numerous as they were when I hunted in England, but hunting days are as long as they were fifteen years ago. I like to hunt a mixed pack, so the day starts in the draw yard with my selection of about sixteen-and-a-half couple of hounds. After hunting they must be fed and cared for, as well as my horse; and hopefully, the kennelman has dealt with the other regular chores. Many a time I then drive around the hunted country with my horn, looking for a hound that has not yet come in. Somehow, though, it all seems worthwhile.”
Chris Howells has spent twenty-four years in hunt service and feels he has had the best of both worlds. He now drinks Pepsi instead of tea, but he still has his pack of English hounds and clings tightly to a way of life and the sport that means so much to him.
Posted July 8, 2020
American-born Linda Jenkins Armbrust has been MFH of packs in both England and America. She served as Master of the Blue Ridge Hunt (VA) from 2000 to 2017.
Field Master Val O’Connell: A Rum One to Follow
By Dickie Power
Meet Val O'Connell, Field Master, Scarteen Black and Tans. / Catherine Power photo
Val O’Connell's is possibly one of the best known faces in organised Irish racing through his role in the Turf Club (now the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board). Val serves as chief inspector of courses and clerk of the course for half a dozen southern meetings. Perhaps what is less well known is that Val is one the keenest hunting men in these islands.
He has been Field Master of the famed Scarteen Hounds in Co Limerick for almost twenty seasons. I am among those who have attempted to follow him across the country on his grey, and know what a formidable horseman he is. As Field Master, Val is following in the footsteps of the legendary PP Hogan who held the role for many years when Thady Ryan carried the horn. Longtime Scarteen whipper-in Tommy O’Dwyer became young Val’s mentor. “Give the hounds a chance, and never jump into a field until hounds have left it,” was Tommy’s advice, and Val follows it to the letter in his role as Field Master.
Growing up in Boher, Co Limerick, the home farm was steeped in horses and hunting. His father always kept a very smart gig and ensured there were plenty of good ponies for his boys to ride. Val recalls his first proper pony, Smokey, “a cracking pony that my father got out of Castleisland. Aged about ten I remember a day when we hunted all the way to Bilboa (near Cappamore). When we finished I hadn’t a clue where we were but luckily I remembered a forge where we used to get Smokey shod, so I could find my way home which was a ten-mile hack to arrive well after dark.”
Leading the field at speed / Catherine Power photo
Horses were always going to be his career. He was apprenticed to National Hunt trainer James Murphy in Midleton, Co Cork, where he rode several winners, his first being Vaguely True in a maiden hurdle in Limerick. Midleton was good to Val in many ways as it was there he met his wife-to-be, Gobnett (Horgan).
He then went to the north of England to Ken Oliver where John Joe O’Neill was first jockey. In due course Gobnett and Val married and returned to racing in Ireland. It was with Andrew McNamara (father of racing commentator Andy) that he formed a connection with Yer Man who took him round Aintree on three occasions, being third in the Grand National in 1983 to winner Corbeire ridden by Ben De Hann.
He retired as a result of a bad fall in Clonmel, and he and Gobnett set up a B&B specialising in riding holidays. It was then he was able to return to the hunting field on a former race horse of Lady Earles called Bob. Thoroughbreds always make the most exciting hunters, and Bob was no exception as he would buck solidly for at least five minutes once mounted. But once these preliminaries were over, Bob was foot perfect.
Racing, however, was always in Val’s blood, and in due course the job of assistant course inspector became vacant. He took up office with Bill McLernon as boss and mentor. He was able to hunt on non-racing day, particularly midweek. On the retirement of Eamonn Gleeson as Field Master at Scarteen, Val and James Riordan took over with Chris Ryan carrying the horn.
Leading over the ditch and oto the bank at Cullen / Catherine Power photo
Val recalls some exciting days, particularly a day from Cullen where hounds found in Riordan’s Bog. Running hard for Ballinacree and closely tracking Chris on the grey Sprite, they crossed some fantastic country at speed. There was a stellar line up of jockeys in the field that day: young Ruby Walsh, Paul Carbery, Enda Bolger, all full of running with the Olympian, and Michael Ryan thrown in for good measure. A day like this would test the mettle of even the best Field Master but Val was not found wanting.
He has been hunting for over fifty seasons and while he has seen plenty of changes he is optimistic about the future if a couple of golden rules are followed: “respect the huntsman and hounds and above all acknowledge the farmer and landowner.”
Reflecting on perhaps his greatest and most memorable days he recalled a trip (with this author) to the Ward Union Stag Hounds when, from a meet at Fairyhouse, hounds finished at Summerhill a distance not much short of twenty miles. But for a sheer adrenalin-fuelled day, he recalls hunting in Leicestershire before the hunting ban, when Scarteen travelled with hounds and forty riders to experience the thrill of jumping hedges at speed. This was organised by Scarteen Joint-Master Roger Dungworth who was contemporaneously Joint-Master of the Cottesmore (UK).
As the day progressed, after second horses, with hounds flying, a small group got away with hounds and for a couple of miles had High Leicestershire to themselves. Away with hounds they saw a closed gate ahead. A sporting famer could be seen sprinting to open it, but before he could reach it three lads had taken it in their stride and were gone. All they could hear as they disappeared towards the horizon was “Mad ####ing Irishmen.” Well, this elite group consisted of Val, Enda Bolger and Shane Breen, possibly the three great cross country riders of their generation.
Leaping off a big bank at Emly / Catherine Power photo
“Chris Ryan on Sprite was certainly the most daring and exciting rider I have seen,” recalled Val. “I saw him take on some spectacular fences with sheep wire and other hazards thrown in.” As for advice for the future of hunting, “Yes, prepare and repair.” Val’s current grey, while less exciting than the ex-racehorses of the past, has loads of quality, can gallop like a Thoroughbred, and has never let him down.
Finally, when asked how he would compare the thrill of hunting compared to steeplechasing, Val said, “While hunting at top level is fantastic, nothing can compare with the Grand National in Aintree. It is the high point of any jockey’s life; there is just nothing to compare it with.”
Posted July 3, 2020
This article previously appeared in The Irish Field and is republished with permission.
Foxhounds in a Kennel
By Christine Merrill
Picture of the Week
Foxhounds in a Kennel, Christine Merrill (American, Contemporary), oil on canvas, 42 x 60 inches, framed: 49 ½ x 67 ½ inches, contact gallery for more information.
This painting of foxhounds in kennel, almost monumental in scale, caught our eye. Offered by William Secord Gallery in New York City, the composition by a contemporary artist is reminiscent of many we’ve seen by traditionalists such as John Emms (1843−1912) in particular, but the execution veers dramatically from the style of the traditional Masters. We are also reminded of Emms’s work in the very scale of the framed painting: 49-1/2 x 67-1/2 inches; Emms often worked in this large format.
The artist, Christine Merrill, is best known for her commissioned pet portraits, but like many animal artists before her, she also enjoys creating paintings for their own sake, in compositions that range from small sketches to large works. Such is this painting of foxhounds resting in their kennel after the hunt.
Christine includes a silver-banded copper hunting horn, a hunt whip, and the huntsman's scarlet coat in her painting, suggesting a broader story, but primarily the artist focuses on the hounds themselves. Each hound is unique and individual, most expressing a certain anticipation, as if they were looking up at us as we entered. Others sleep through it all.
“Christine paints in her own unique style of realism,” says William Secord, “rooted in the academic paintings of the eighteenth century.” Contact gallery for more information.
Posted September 14, 2020